Published January/February 2014

Following in Their Footsteps

Retrace the migration of the Ancestral Pueblo people on a drive from Mesa Verde to Santa Fe

BYStacey Wittig
Evidence of the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabiting the Mesa Verde region dates back as far as the year 600, but by 1300, this civilization had mysteriously disappeared.
Today archaeologists still debate the details of this mysterious migration, but suggest changing climate, conflict, disease, religious migrations, or a combination of these factors as possible reasons the members of this ancient civilization left their Colorado home.
Begin your road trip at the Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colo. Stop by the visitor center, located just off U.S. Highway 160 near the park entrance, for information on the park’s 4,700 archeological sites. Ancestral Pueblo people lived on the mesa tops for more than 500 years before they began building cliff dwellings in the 1190s. If you’re up for an Indiana Jones-style adventure, purchase tickets for guided tours of Cliff Palace or Balcony House to scramble up pole ladders or scuttle along a 12-foot-long tunnel.
From the visitor center, drive about 16 miles southwest to the Far View Reservoir. Here you can take the self-guided tour of prehistoric water catchment features and postulate your own theories of why the cliff dwellers began departing around 1270. Additionally, the park’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, located 4.5 miles farther south, provides a glimpse of the Ancestral Puebloan culture through exhibits and artifacts.
A Mysterious Migration
Stay the night at the Far View Lodge (April – October) or Morefield Campground (May – October) and, in the morning, depart the park headed east on U.S. 160. As you pass through Durango, Colo., imagine walking over these mountain passes and following rivers to a new homeland.
After about 77 miles you’ll pass the turn for Chimney Rock National Monument, which was abandoned more than 100 years before the Mesa Verde region was deserted.
About 95 miles east of Mesa Verde National Park, and just beyond Pagosa Springs, turn right onto U.S. 84 and drive southeast through tall pines and picturesque meadows for 46 miles. Turn onto N.M. 17 and continue north 1.5 miles to Chama, N.M., for a selection of dining options.
After stretching your legs and grabbing a bite to eat, backtrack to U.S. 84 and continue south 57 miles to Abiquiú, N.M. Many travelers know that this area’s color-streaked cliffs inspired painter Georgia O’Keeffe (the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is a must-see), yet aren’t familiar with the building boom of small settlements that this area experienced between 1175 and 1325. Some archaeologists believe the growth was due to immigration from the Mesa Verde area. Later, populations consolidated into larger, but fewer, villages.
Your next stop is one such village — Posi-Ouinge, a Bureau of Land Management site. From Abiquiú, drive 15 miles south and turn left onto U.S. 285. Continue north for just over 16 miles, turn left onto N.M. 414, and in half a mile you’ll reach Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. The resort offers RV and tent camping, among other accommodations.
A Historic Hike
Instead of settling into your room or campsite, get a map from the resort and head out for the trailhead that leads west up the drainage and hike the trail leading to Posi-Ouinge. The river terrace is steep, but well worth the effort, as it leads to one of the Southwest’s largest pueblos, a community from the 1300s until the early 1500s, and views of the valley beyond. The hike is only one mile round-trip, leaving plenty of time to soak in the hot springs.
In the morning, return to U.S. 84 and continue south. In about eight miles, take a slight right onto N.M. 30, drive 3.8 miles south to Puye Road, and turn right. Continue seven miles west to Puye Cliff Dwellings, which were inhabited from 1250 to 1577. Descendants of the ancient cliff dwellers, the Tewa-speaking Santa Clara people, guide you on your choice of tours.
On the Puye Adventure Tour, visitors climb down a ladder into a large kiva (a room for religious rituals), sit on earthen benches, and visualize subterranean ceremonies. While some archaeologists believe inhabitants of these cliff dwellings originated at Mesa Verde, others maintain that Tewa-speakers are indigenous to the Upper Rio Grande.
From the Puye Cliff Dwellings, backtrack to N.M. 30 and continue south for 4.7 miles, then go west on N.M. 502 for 10 miles. Continue through Los Alamos on N.M. 501 (for five miles), onto N.M. 4 east (for six miles), and then Entrance Road (three miles) and you’ll arrive at Bandelier National Monument. Take a self-guided walk through the ruins after watching The Bandelier Story video in the visitor center.
Return to U.S. 285, and then drive south about 16 miles to Santa Fe, N.M., the final stop on your trip. Visit the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture where the Here, Now and Always exhibit will connect the dots of what you’ve seen along this thought-provoking road trip. 
STACEY WITTIG is a freelance writer and blogger based in Flagstaff, Ariz.
For More Information
Call your local AAA Travel professional at 1-888-870-9392 or visit
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
If You Go 
Park and monument entrance fees (as well as seasonal operating hours) vary from one site to the next, so check before departing.
10 miles east of Cortez, Colo., on U.S. 160
50 Los Banos Drive
Ojo Caliente, N.M.
Santa Clara Canyon Road (or Puye Road), seven miles west of N.M. 30
Espanola, N.M.
15 Entrance Road
Los Alamos, N.M.
710 Camino Lejo
Santa Fe, N.M.
217 Johnson St.
Santa Fe, N.M.
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