The four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah join together in a single point that local folks call the four corners. There is a cheesy monument on the spot; we didn’t go to it. Instead, we experienced the four corners region as part camping trip, part homeschool field trip.
Recently, our history lessons have been centered around pre-columbian Native Americans. That is, the thriving cultures and civilizations that existed here prior to European invasion. They are numerous and varied, but since we currently live in the southwest we have the chance to learn about the southwestern peoples and their ancestors in a lot more detail.
With a week to enjoy, we hit the road north into Navajo Nation first. Navajo Nation is a territory within the United States; it maintains its own internal government and set of rules. Our first stop was the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic site. Not really ancient peoples, but we couldn’t pass up a tangentially related national park stamp. Yes, we do the little passport. It was a fun spot for the kids to dress up and pretend to barter, and one of the rangers took us inside the old Hubbell house to see some amazing artwork and gifts from guests who would come stay a long time.
Our first night stay was at the quite pleasant, and quite empty Cottonwood campground. In the morning, we packed up and drove along the southern rim drive as the canyon rose up beside us. we stopped at a few overlooks for glimpses, but stopped at the White House overlook for a hike down into the canyon to see the white house ruins – a mud brick dwelling built by the puebloan peoples. It sits in a cove near the base of a massive cliff. The setting is beautiful with the bright red canyon walls and the green cottonwoods and even bits of fields along the river at the bottom. The hike down was easy and super fun with a couple carved tunnels and cairns to follow along slickrock. Up wasn’t so bad either, and made for a nice 2.5 miles.
We went to Navajo nation mostly to visit the ancient sites around Canyon de Chelly National Park, but found ourselves wrapped up in our Code Talker audiobook by Joseph Bruchac. So much so, that after visiting the ancients, we diverted to Window Rock, the capital city, and visited their code talker monument. The kids were enthralled reading the names, some we recognized from the book, of the Navajo men who used their native language to transmit coded messages during WWII. We also visited the government offices and the small wonderful Navajo zoo.
We barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things to see and do in Navajo nation, but after getting a bit sidetracked once, I felt the need to get back on the path. Recall, this is a field trip with the goal of learning about ANCIENT cultures. So, it was time to head north and find an even older group of people!
Into Utah the scenery turns more and more arid with beautiful red rock contrasting with the low green river canyons. Our goal was the south fork of Mule canyon! Originally we planned to backpack in, but instead went light with day packs for the mile long hike into the sunny canyon and our first glimpse at some wild and accessible ancient ruins. The hike was easy and fun. Both kids kept imagining themselves as ancient Anasazi looking for a good place to place a granary. Perhaps we live in the mesa top villages of Hovenweep and travel through this canyon to hunt – it would be nice to have a food stash during our hunting trips. We found a cool small granary up a bit of slickrock on the right side of the canyon and thought it was so neat. Then, Avi followed some carved-in steps around the corner and squealed with delight. We had found the House on Fire area!
To imagine ancient peoples using this space was magical. Then, Zoe explored further along the wall and found a neat alcove, and the perfect place for our packed dinner. The sun lowered and truly made the ruins look like a house on fire. Our hike took us further up the canyon, where we enjoyed some sketchy hiking along the high sandstone benches before time was up and we needed to turn back. Luckily, in midsummer, there is plenty of evening light, in fact there was still so much daylight left we drove all the way to the Reservoir in Blanding to camp for the night.
Next morning we headed to Hovenweep National Park. At the front, there was a park ranger showing us how to make cords and rope out of fibres. It was a fun start to a nice hike around the ruins – these being different than others in that they are built atop the mesa on the edge of the canyon. It seems to very desolate and dry, but there is a spring down in the canyon which turned this area into a downright village during the 11-1200s. The hike around all the ruins by the visitor center is only 2 miles long and super enjoyable. We were able to get quite close to the ruins, but not explore inside. The trail guide is well worth using to fully understand the people and the buildings. We just loved it. Both kids also loved the free-to-borrow hiking sticks that were donated by a gentleman who had visited the park but got sunstroke and needed emergency care – the park rangers helped and he was fine, later returning to donate the carved sticks as a thank you.
In the afternoon, we took a long drive northeast to the Anasazi Heritage Center – a very well done museum explaining the history of the local peoples from ancient times to current era. It is incredible to me that my American history school lessons didn’t include information about how far ranging and massive the cultures of the southwest (and really, the entirety of North America) truly were prior to Columbus. My kids are being presented with a fuller picture.
In the evening, we drove to Mesa Verde National Park to find a campsite. So, after seeing a very wild granary down Mule canyon and a village at Hovenweep, we finally arrived at the big city. These are cliff dwellings! The National Park also creates the big feels here, as well. Its a super developed park with little in the way of do-it-yourself. All the major house clusters must be visited via tour, and the mesa-top sites are along a driving route with mostly paved access. We appreciated it after being out in the dust for a few nights, and took advantage of the nice warm showers and night program at the campground.
Next day we took the “adventurous cliff dwelling tour” of Balcony house. Well worth the mere $5 per person, so much so I almost wished we would’ve also done on of the other tours. The ranger was trying to be funny, which was cute, but it didn’t really matter as the dwelling itself was simply stunning. During the tour, we walked down the hill along a path and then climbed into the dwelling via a large wooden rustic-looking ladder. We got to climb some original cut-in stairs, see inside living spaces, and view a few extensive kivas. The ‘adventurous’ portion is really at the end when we exited the dwelling via the original entrance – a small crawl-through tunnel, and then along some super precarious (or would’ve been back in time without the railing) cut-in stairs and a final ladder. Loved it.
Zoe chose to get a Jr. Ranger badge at Mesa Verde, so we returned to the main museum so she could finish it up and then drove along the Mesa Top loop to see the older sites that sit on the top, and view other cliff dwellings from the viewpoints.
The next stop on our trip was another massive ancient city: Chaco Canyon, though our route down to Chaco proved a bit of an adventure. Instead of approaching via the east side, we came along a remote west side route so we could stop and see the Bisti Badlands. The kids both thought this was way cooler than I expected them to, and we spent a nice long, hot as balls, couple hours wandering around the odd formations and playing a game of finding shade and fossils (which we left in place per law). Again, we imagined ancient peoples travelling between Chaco and Mesa Verde to trade, or the Spaniards attempting to cross this desolation unprepared.
From Bisti to Chaco is a dirt road of about 20 or so miles – we are back in Navajo nation for most of this – and along that space somewhere my rear passenger-side tire decided to get a nice hole. It went flat quickly and super sucked. I’m quite a lucky kiddo, though, as my parents taught me well how to change a tire. Of course, they couldn’t teach me well enough how to be strong to crack the lugnuts, and I was starting to panic a bit when I couldn’t loose them. Eventually, though, the first cracked, and nearly cracked my back in doing, but it was fine. The others came along, then Avi helped me by taking the care of the nuts. I jacked it, switched to the donut (yay a donut on a dirt road in nowhere New Mexico), and asked the little man for the lugnuts to which he replied, “we have to follow the path to them!” and he pointed off the road into the desert sand and some little ditch he had made.
“What the F***?!!!”
I’m sorry. I lost my cool.
“I was keeping them safe,” he said.
“NO!. In your pocket is safe. Buried in the sand is not safe.”
But, really, they were safe. He followed his trail and found them, and I put them on and all was fine. I drove a lot slower and more careful into Chaco that evening; much later than I expected, but we still made the night program and got to see some amazing things through their telescope. The favorite: Jupiter’s moons!
Chaco Canyon has a lot to see, and I absolutely love that it can be done on your own. There are a few fortified villages all along the canyon floor, plus some really nice rock art and some ancient roadways. It’s well worth a couple nights’ stay.
We spent most of our time visiting the pueblo’s in the center of the valley; both Pueblo Bonito and then Chetro Ketl. Pueblo Bonito is the largest of the villages (or pueblo’s) and the most restored/intact. There is a lovely trail that leads around the village, with a guide available at the visitor center to explain highlights. It was built first around the mid 800s, but constantly added onto and modified as we do our current cities. At it’s peak, it was a massive fortification of at least 4 floors high. We loved that we could wander the ancient rooms, and Avi liked looking for the unique corner windows that may be particularly faced to date the solstices.
A really nice trail leads along the base of the canyon cliff from Peublo Bonito to Chetro Ketl, and it has lots of petroglyphs along the way. In Chetro Ketl there is a simply massive kiva – a round, usually underground room with niches and benches likely used for ceremony or meetings. Again, wandering among the ruins of this culture made us all think about other things happening during this time period: in Europe it’s the dark ages full of Viking raids and Christian ceremonies – religion was also important to the Chacoan people; in the middle east, the Islamic empire is expanding scientific knowledge and mapping the same stars these Chacoans seemed to have charted; in Asia the Tang dynasty of China is inventing printing, gunpowder, and pottery – different only from the southwestern pottery in that it’s glazed; in Africa fortified cities not unlike the ones at Chaco rule the rich gold cities of Zimbabwe and Mali. So many similarities!
So, our four corners trip had a bonus exciting ending: we drove slow on a donut nearly 100 miles from Chaco Canyon to Gallup, NM before finding a shop open to fix the tire. There were about 22 miles of graded dirt road, and then a segment of about 10 miles where the I-40 freeway was the only choice…trust me, it’s NOT COOL to drive under 55 with your flashers on that road as semi-trucks barrel down on you. But, we made it!