TOWAOC, Colo. – The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, located on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, offers visitors a unique opportunity to view the tribe’s ancestral homelands and the ancient cliff dwellings constructed by the Ancestral Pueblo people, the Anasazi, about 900 years ago. The park originated in 1981 and is relatively unknown even now, which gives it a special appeal because only about 2,000 visitors come to it annually. All visitors must be accompanied by a guide from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribal park occupies 125,000 acres of the nearly 6,000-acre reservation, which covers three of the four states in the Four Corners region. Visitors can choose from half or full-day tours which originate from the Tribal Visitor Center, located 20 miles south of Cortez and about nine miles south of Towaoc.
Rick Hayes, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member, is one of the park’s guides. Hayes is the grandson of the last traditional chief of the Weeminuche Band of Utes, which inhabited the area where the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation now sits.
Twenty-four tribes in the Southwest have an ancestral affiliation with the early Pueblo people – the earliest of whom arrived about 400 A.D. – who lived at Mesa Verde and other sites throughout the region, and Hayes lived for several years at one of the pueblos on the Rio Grande. Hayes’ knowledge of the region’s Ute history, as well as that of the Ancestral Pueblo, is extensive.
“The Utes were mountain people and one of the last to be put on the reservation,” he said. “This was about the last place the Utes were able to live peacefully.”
On a recent tour, Hayes explained that “most of the areas we’re going to are essentially wilderness areas. We put some dirt roads in, and you’ll see some old corrals and cabins.” The route included stops at the sites of several early pueblos. The ground is littered with pottery shards and broken metates and manos. The sites are not excavated and are largely covered with sand. The guides explained that all the pottery was at least 900 years old. Stops at cliffs along the road reveal spiral designs carved in the rock used in determining winter and summer solstice and date to about 900 – 1000 A.D.
Another stop was at a winter site used by Utes in the 1930s and ’40s. The site contained paintings on the cliffs showing horses and people in red ochre applied by the Utes and intermixed with Anasazi designs of a much earlier period. The tour then left the valley floor of 5,500 feet elevation and moved upward onto the mesas, a 1,400-foot elevation gain. Deer, turkeys, eagles and wild horses are frequently seen.
Pole ladders lead off the mesa onto an old Anasazi trail likely constructed in the 1100s. Tree House was the first cliff dwelling on the tour. The trail led to Lion House, the first of three cliff dwellings on that route and the largest in that area: it contained at least 47 rooms and perhaps as many as 87, with five kivas. Constructed in 1140, it was only occupied initially for 20 years, abandoned for a number of years and then reoccupied for nearly 100 years before being abandoned forever about 1285. Pottery shards and corn cobs were in evidence.
Further on the route was the somewhat smaller Morris 33 cliff dwelling, with between 15 and 25 rooms and two kivas. A drywall above was constructed without using mortar, perhaps for storage. The trail led on high above the creek to Eagle Nest dwelling which also contained 15 – 25 rooms and a kiva. There, a much higher ladder takes visitors to a stone ledge and overhang where Eagle Nest sits. Then it’s a return hike of about a mile along the Anasazi trail, followed by a 40-minute drive back to the Visitor Center.
Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park offers a rare opportunity to visit a special place and a place largely undisturbed by modern societies. It’s a place, like other Ancestral Pueblo sites, that holds special meaning in the lives and history of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest.