Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado contains a huge number of archaeological sites (more than 6000 recorded, up to 100 per square mile in some places) representing the Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures, as well as important historic and environmental resources. Elevations within the monument range from about 4,900 feet to about 7,500 feet above sea level. The outer boundaries of the area encompass approximately 183,000 acres of land, approximately 164,000 acres of which are in federal ownership and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Containing the highest known density of archaeological sites in the Nation, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument holds evidence of cultures and traditions spanning thousands of years. This area, with its intertwined natural and cultural resources, is a rugged landscape, a quality that greatly contributes to the protection of its scientific and historic objects. The monument offers an unparalleled opportunity to observe, study and experience how cultures lived and adapted over time in the American Southwest.


Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (the Monument) encompasses 164,000 acres of federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Monument is located in the Four Corners region of southwest Colorado, about 45 miles west of Durango, 3 miles west of Cortez and 12 miles west of Mesa Verde National Park. The Monument was designated on June 9, 2000 by Presidential Proclamation to protect cultural and natural resources on a landscape scale. The Monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with rich, well-preserved remnants of native cultures. The archeological record etched into this landscape is much more than isolated islands of architecture. The more than 6,000 recorded sites reflect all the physical components of past human life: villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. Some areas have more than 100 sites per square mile. The number of sites is estimated to be 20,000 to 30,000 total.

The Monument has been used or inhabited by humans, including the Northern Ancestral Puebloan culture (or Anasazi), for 10,000 years and continues to be a landscape used by humans today. Historic uses of the Monument include recreation, hunting, livestock grazing and energy development.

History & Culture

The complex landscape and remarkable cultural resources of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument have been a focal point for archaeological interest for over 125 years. Archaeological and historic objects such as cliff dwellings, villages, great kivas, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, check dams, reservoirs, rock art sites and sweat lodges are spread across the landscape. More than five thousand of these archaeologically important sites have been recorded and thousands more await documentation and study. The Mockingbird Mesa area has over forty sites per square mile and several canyons in that area hold more than three hundred sites per square mile. People have lived and labored to survive among these canyons and mesas for thousands of years, from the earliest known hunters crossing the area 10,000 years ago or more, through Ancestral Puebloan farmers, to the Ute, Navajo and European settlers whose descendants still call this area home. There is scattered evidence that Paleo-Indians used the region on a sporadic basis for hunting and gathering until around 7500 B. C. During the Archaic period, generally covering the next six thousand years, occupation of the Four Corners area was dominated by hunters and gatherers.

By about 1500 B. C., the more sedentary Basketmakers spread over the landscape. As Ancestral Northern Puebloan people occupied the area around 750 A. D., farming began to blossom and continued through about 1300 A. D., as the area became part of a much larger prehistoric cultural region that included Mesa Verde to the southeast. Year-round villages were established, originally consisting of pit house dwellings and later evolving to well-recognized cliff-dwellings. Many archaeologists now believe that throughout this time span, the Ancestral Northern Puebloan people periodically aggregated into larger communities and dispersed into smaller community units. Specifically, during Pueblo I (about 700-900 A. D.) the occupation and site density in the monument area increased. Dwellings tended to be small, with three or four rooms.

Then during Pueblo II (about 900-1150 A. D.), settlements were diminished and highly dispersed. Late in Pueblo II and in early Pueblo III, around 1150 A. D., the size and number of settlements again increased and residential clustering began. Later pueblos were larger multi-storied masonry dwellings with forty to fifty rooms. For the remainder of Pueblo III (1150-1300 A. D.), major aggregation occurred in the monument, typically at large sites at the heads of canyons. One of these sites includes remains of about 420 rooms, 90 kivas, a great kiva and a plaza, covering more than ten acres in all. These villages were wrapped around the upper reaches of canyons and spread down onto talus slopes, enclosed year-round springs and reservoirs and included low, defensive walls. The changes in architecture and site planning reflected a shift from independent households to a more communal lifestyle.

Farming during the Puebloan period was affected by population growth and changing climate and precipitation patterns. As the population grew, the Ancestral Puebloans expanded into increasingly marginal areas. Natural resources were compromised and poor soil and growing conditions made survival increasingly difficult. When dry conditions persisted, Pueblo communities moved to the south, southwest and southeast, where descendants of these Ancestral Puebloan peoples live today.

Soon after the Ancestral Puebloans left the monument area, the nomadic Ute and Navajo took advantage of the natural diversity found in the variable topography by moving to lower areas, including the monument’s mesas and canyons, during the cooler seasons. A small number of forked stick hogans, brush shelters and wickiups are the most obvious remnants of this period of occupation.

Nature & Science

The natural resources and spectacular land forms of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument help explain why past and present cultures have chosen to live in the area. The geology of the monument evokes the very essence of the American Southwest. Structurally part of the Paradox Basin, from a distance the landscape looks deceptively benign. From the McElmo Dome in the southern part of the monument, the land slopes gently to the north, giving no indication of its true character. Once inside the area, however, the geology becomes more rugged and dissected. Rising sharply to the north of McElmo Creek, the McElmo Dome itself is buttressed by sheer sandstone cliffs, with mesa tops rimmed by caprock and deeply incised canyons.

The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is home to a wide variety of wildlife species, including unique herpetological resources. Crucial habitat for the Mesa Verde nightsnake, long-nosed leopard lizard and twin-spotted spiny lizard can be found within the monument in the area north of Yellow Jacket Canyon. Peregrine falcons have been observed in the area, as have golden eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers. Game birds like Gambel’s quail and mourning dove are found throughout the monument both in dry, upland habitats and in lush riparian habitat along the canyon bottoms.

Traveler Facts

Contact Information
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
27501 Highway 184
Dolores, Colorado 81323
Phone: 970-882-4811
Fax: 970-882-7035

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