Ancestral Puebloan Cultures in the Southern Rockies, Colorado and New Mexico

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13255A, Lodge


  • Visit remote Ancestral Puebloan communities
  • Hike with a renowned archaeologist and other regional experts
  • Enjoy Southwestern scenery and wondrous photograph opportunities 


  • Most meals
  • Motel lodging
  • Van transportation


DatesOct 13–20, 2013
StaffJulie Koivula

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Trip Overview

The Trip

About a thousand years ago, Native Americans developed complex villages, spiritual centers, and a vast network for trading in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Then they disappeared.

For many years the disappearance of the Ancestral Puebloans from the area was a mystery. Early theories were based on invading warriors who forced them into defensive settlements nestled into the overhanging cliffs of their mesa homes, and then finally into abandoning even these solid refuges. However, it’s now suggested they left their amazing villages due to overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, competition with other communities, and prolonged drought.

Join us in a fascinating journey to some of the best-known sites in the area: Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, and little-known, less-frequented areas, such as the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Canyons of the Ancients, and the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Noted archaeologist Dr. Martha Yates will accompany us for the entire trip to help us unravel the mysteries of the Ancestral Puebloans and to better understand their sophisticated cultures. We will also hear from local guides about the complex interplay of resources and population in the evolution of these cultures. These themes are still important today.

This is not a camping trip. We will stay at comfortable motels in Durango and Cortez, Colorado, and Farmington, New Mexico, traveling between sites in two vans driven by the trip leaders. We’ll ride and hike through wondrous country characterized by desert, deep canyons, flat-top mesas and clear rivers. It is a rare opportunity to explore haunting, historic cultures in beautiful settings with experts.


Day 1: The trip begins at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 13 in Durango, Colorado, with an introductory orientation. We will get acquainted, review the trip itinerary for the week, and meet our archaeologist, Martha Yates, who will begin our week-long conversation about the ancient cultures of southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Dinner follows at a local restaurant.

Day 2: After traveling to our next lodge near Farmington, New Mexico, we visit our first ancient site, Chimney Rock Cultural Park, between Durango and Pagosa Springs, Colorado. This is one of the Northern Chacoan Great Houses and is known for its astronomical alignments. We also will explore Aztec Ruins National Monument, near Aztec, New Mexico.

Day 3: From Farmington, we need an early start to explore Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. This was the center of the impressive Chaco culture that flourished from around 900-1150 CE. Roads connected outlying great houses to the Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chimney Rock to the north, and Crown Point and Peach Springs to the south.

Day 4: After the drive to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, we will meet our Ute guide and proceed to the Ancestral Puebloan Cliff Dwellings on the Ute reservation. These ruins are as extensive as those at Mesa Verde, but little known outside of this area. By evening, we’ll be in a new motel near Cortez, Colorado.

Day 5: Today we visit famous Mesa Verde National Park. The ruins here are widespread, well developed, and heavily visited. Park rangers will provide orientation and a guide for Cliff Palace and Balcony House on the Chapin Mesa. This stop includes Spruce Tree House and the park museum.

Day 6: The focus today is Hovenweep National Monument, once home to 2,500 residents. We’ll marvel at the construction of Square Tower, and, depending on the weather conditions, will also visit Sand Canyon and Goodman Point Pueblos.

Day 7: We will begin early in the morning with a day hike in beautiful Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, home to more than 6,000 archaeological sites. This will be our most active day of hiking. We will then return to Durango, and gather in the evening for a farewell dinner.

Day 8: Departure will be anytime Sunday after breakfast at our motel.

Note: This is a tentative itinerary. We may change visits to some of the more obscure sites, or rearrange the order we visit sites, depending on group interests, weather, and availability of permits. 



Getting There

Our trip begins in Durango, Colorado, in the southwest corner of the state, and ends in Cortez, Colorado, 60 miles to the west. Durango has regular air service from Phoenix and Denver. The closest major cities are Denver, seven hours by car to the northeast; Albuquerque, four hours to the southeast; and Phoenix, eight hours to the southwest. If you drive a vehicle to Durango you will need to arrange and pay for parking for the week.  All on-trip transportation will be via two leader-driven vans. Trip leaders will meet flights in Durango, as long as they arrive prior to the trip orientation on the first afternoon. We recommend that you arrive at least the day before, since any flight disruption could prevent you from joining us on the first day.

For those with extra time, Durango is the home of the Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The route follows the beautiful Animas River Valley on the western edge of the Weminuche Wilderness area (the largest wilderness area in Colorado at almost 500,000 acres) to Silverton. There are many hiking trails, bike rentals, and rafting companies in the area.

Accommodations and Food

All breakfasts and lunches are included in the trip fee. Dinner on the first and last nights is included, but dinner is on your own for the remainder of the trip. Participants are encouraged to dine as a group, and there are several restaurants to choose from in each overnight location. Our lodging will be in comfortable motels or inns, such as Comfort Inns, Best Western, or Super 8. The price of the trip is based on double occupancy, so same-gender roommates will be provided for those traveling alone. Single rooms may be available at additional cost. Contact the leader for more information.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is suitable for anyone who is comfortable with modest hikes and long rides over bumpy roads. The shortest hike is a few hundred yards, and the longest is about eight miles on a trail that descends gently and is well-marked, yet is rocky and uneven (a typical hiking trail).  Climbing a three-story ladder at one stop is an option. There will be limited scrambling. You should be in reasonably good condition and comfortable walking on uneven ground at altitudes between 4,000 to 7,000 feet.

Equipment and Clothing

An equipment list will be sent to registered trip members. In general you will need a day pack, water bottle, comfortable hiking boots or shoes, sunscreen, hat, and a long-sleeved shirt. You may wish to bring along hiking poles and a camera.



  • Frazier, Kendrick, People of Chaco, A Canyon and Its Culture.
  • Lister, Florence C., In the Shadow of the Rocks.
  • Noble, David Grant, Ancient Ruins of the Southwest.
  • Stuart, David E., Anasazi America.


  • Creamer, Winifred and Jonathan Haas, Pueblos: Search for the Ancient Ones, National Geographic, October 1991, pp. 84-99.
  • Roberts, David, The Old Ones of the Southwest, National Geographic, April 1996, pp. 86-109.


National Park Service sites:

Bureau of Land Management site:


The preservation of our national heritage at archaeological sites is a critical issue everywhere in the country. Often, when people discover a new site, interest in artifacts and ancient cultures distracts them from preservation. Collection of artifacts eliminates any chance for archaeologists to discover the site's secrets, and, as a result, knowledge of the culture is lost forever.

Water is another major environmental issue for the Southwest.  When New Mexico's Water Code was enacted in 1907, the state was sparsely populated, and people relied mainly on surface water supplies. Conditions have changed. The state's population has increased nearly seven times to nearly two million, surface waters have become over-appropriated, and water users have become increasingly dependent on ground water and water from projects such as dams. New supplies from water projects have become either too costly or non-feasible, and interstate stream compacts and Indian water rights impose additional constraints. To put it simply, New Mexico is running out of water.

We will review the National Sierra Club Conservation Goals and can also discuss other conservation issues. Please feel free to bring materials you want to share with the group on issues you feel are important.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Bureau of Land Management, Dolores Field Office.



Julie Koivula has been a Sierra Club member for more than 25 years. She retired from teaching and coaching at the high school level. She also taught swimming and is a first aid/CPR instructor for the American Red Cross. She has her wilderness first aid certificate, and she loves to hike, bike, canoe, kayak, ski and play many other sports. She now leads and assists on a variety of Sierra Club outings, including backpacking, canoeing, service, biking, and archaeological survey trips. Julie is the Co-Chair for the Midwest Outings Subcommittee.

Assistant Leader:

John Everett has been a Sierra Club member since 2003. He is retired after an executive career in the information systems industry, and lives in Aurora, Illinois. John is a graduate of the Sierra Club's national leadership training program and is certified in Wilderness First Aid and Adult CPR. While John's passion is cycling, he has participated in and served as a staff member on a number of Sierra Club national outings, including bicycling, hiking, camping, canoeing, and service trips. Among his other interests are pre-Columbian cultures of the Southwest, and the journey of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.


Vivian Wolfe

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