Four Corners (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona)

 

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We spent spring break 2019 in the Four Corners Area (aka the area between the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona). The Four Corners area is known to have many dwelling ruins of America's past, ranging from pithouses from 1500 years ago to cliff dwellings of 800 years ago.

This trip cost us less than $1000 total (includes 5 roundtrip flights, car rental for 7 days, accommodations for 6 days, food, gas and entrance fees). If you don't already have it, it is a good idea to get an Annual National Parks Pass ($80) which will grant you free one-year entry (for one private vehicle load) into all American National Parks, Monuments and most BLM Lands. Passes can be purchased at the entrance stations of most National Parks. If you have a current grade 4 student in your midst, they can get a pass that will grant their entire private vehicle's passenger load free entry (see Every Kid in a Park details) during the entire duration that they are in 4th grade. We are huge fans of National Parks Pass - we get them every year for our travels.

Cliff Palace - a cliff village high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Cliff Palace - a cliff village high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO

We started our journey by flying into Albuquerque Sunport (ABQ) and renting a high-clearance car for the week. Unfortunately it was a 2WD, but that did not dampen our trip too much. Our first stop was to be Chaco Historical Park, about 3 - 3.5 hours drive north of ABQ. Unfortunately rain was in the forecast that day. I had read that the unpaved roads to Chaco was IMpassable when wet, even for a 4WD. When dry, a 2WD could make the trip. Hesitantly, we passed on this opportunity and spent the afternoon in old Town Albuquerque, which is quite charming in itself.


New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historic Park was an important ceremonial, economic and administrative gathering place for Native Americans of the San Juan Basin from 850-1250 AD. It has ruins of many great houses and stone buildings of multiple storeys containing hundreds of rooms. Starting in the 1100s, Chaco started to lose prominence as a center, as people started moving north to places like Aztec and Mesa Verde. Chaco is definitely on my list next time we go to that area.

Website: Chaco Cultural National Historic Park


Aztec Ruins National monument, New Mexico

Overlooking the ruins of a Mesa-top community in Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, NM
Overlooking the ruins of a Mesa-top community in Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, NM

On our way back to the airport, we stopped by Aztec Ruins National Monument. These ruins are not actually Aztec but ancestral Puebloans. The original discoverers of these ruins initially thought it to be Aztec, hence the misnomer. It consisted of a great kiva (reconstructed) and ruins of a mesa top 400-room dwelling. Aztec started to gain prominence in the 1100s, overlapping 100 years with the decline of Chaco. The half mile self-guided trail led us into and through the small rooms of the great building. In its day, about 900 years ago, this great building was at least 2 floors high. The great kiva, though reconstructed, was a sight to see.

Walking through the small rooms of Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, NM
Walking through the small rooms of Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, NM

Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: Wander through a 900-year-old Native American community

Fee: Free, free parking

Hike: Pick up trail guide at Visitor Center, free for loaner copy

Directions: 725 Ruins Road, Aztec, NM 87410

Hours: varies according to season, check website

Website: Aztec Ruins National Monument


Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Having seen so many pictures of Bisti Badlands in northwest New Mexico, I felt a great desire to see it with my own two eyes. Before we go further, I will disclose that there were no actual trails in these Badlands, nor does GPS provide easy to follow instructions to get there. In my experience, those are usually the most fulfilling trips. Perhaps I appreciate it more after putting work into it. If you're ok with somewhat vague instructions and navigating from multiple paper maps, then this is the place for you.

Hoodoos in Bisti Badlands, NM
Hoodoos in Bisti Badlands, NM

Bisti is known for white hoodoos with a flat “hat” on top, fossilized dinosaur bones and petrified logs. The hoodoos were fairly easy to find. They were to the right and left. We tended to end in dead ends when we followed a narrow canyon between hoodoos, and had to make our way back to the wash to continue further.

Petrified logs were a nice find. From the south parking lot, we followed the fence line until it took a sharp turn to the left. Then we followed the wash, probably about 2 miles one-way from the parking lot, past the red mounds. The petrified logs were to the right of of the wash, just past the “dinosaur egg” rocks. (I guess I didn't explain to my boys beforehand that they weren't actually dinosaur eggs, so there was a lot of disappointment when the truth came out. Now I'm on the hook to find some real fossilized dinosaur eggs for the boys to see. Luckily, there are some in Alberta, Canada - stay tuned.) We first came upon the petrified logs in pieces. It looked like someone had smashed one into a thousand pieces. It is truly sad that anyone would do that.

With our hearts broken, we walked on and eventually found a long, mostly-intact petrified log resting on its side on a shortened hoodoo. Keep your eyes peeled, because all around that area were petrified logs, mostly in smaller 2-3 foot portions. Some had petrified orange moss and petrified webbing within the log that looked like home to an ancient bug. The appearance was of a tree log, but touching it revealed a very hard texture, most similar to a rock. Even the moss was incredibly hard to the touch. Petrified orange moss, I suppose.

Petrified log in Bisti Badlands, NM
Petrified log in Bisti Badlands, NM

The fossilized bones were hardest to find. This area is known to have hidden dinosaur bones from many ages ago. After guessing at many many different rocks to be bone, we finally came across one large bone, which we were pretty sure was actual bone (in our untrained opinion.) I read somewhere (I know, great reference) that rocks tend to be smooth. But bone has texture, line-like matrix or foam-like texture to indicate fossilized bone marrow. Oh how I wish I had a degree in geology/paleontology. Anyway this find made it clear to us that all other fossilized “bone” we were guessing at, were just rocks. I think this is our first unguided find of fossilized bone, assuming that it is what we think it is . We found this alleged fossilized bone to the left of the fence line, after wandering a little bit near the “Rock Garden”, probably about 2 miles from the south parking lot. There is a faded map at the trailhead, it's always a good idea to take a picture of it. You never know when you might need it.

Alleged fossilized bone in Bisti Badlands, NM
Alleged fossilized bone in Bisti Badlands, NM

Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: Wander about a barren landscape to find beautiful hoodoos formed by erosion, petrified logs and more

Our hike: We wandered around the Badlands for 6 hours (including ½ hour lunch) covering about 9 miles rt though a more efficient hiker could probably get the job done in 6 miles, assuming you never veer from your intended path.

Fee: free

Directions: UNpaved packed gravel road which was very passable with our high-clearance 2WD when dry, but probably impassable when wet. From Farmington, about 45 mins drive south of Farmington on NM 371 till you get to road 7297 (near mile marker 71) signed for the Bisti Badlands. Make a left (East) turn on this gravel road. Proceed to the junction (about two miles) and make a left, then go about two more miles to the parking area on the right side of the road. There is no water or facilities at the parking area. (Want south trailhead parking)

Website: Bisti Badlands


We had planned to go to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness but the rain the night before had turned the last part of the road filled with soft sand which we weren't comfortable driving on in our 2WD vehicle. Unfortunately, we had driven about an hour before our turn-around occurred. Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah was farther off the main highway than Bisti. We did see many wild horses roaming freely in the fields adjacent to the road.


Arizona

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Monuments in the distance, Monument Valley, Arizona
Monuments in the distance, Monument Valley, Arizona

Our only stop in Arizona was at Monument Valley. It took about 45 minutes for us to drive the 17 mile unpaved road. It was a dry day so we did not have too much trouble with our high-clearance 2WD vehicle. We did witness a car in front of us have some trouble going up a steep hill which had some potholes in it. I imagine, on a wet day, this road would be pretty impassable.</p>The monuments were interesting to look at, but not necessarily a unique experience for us. We had seen something similar to this before at Canyonlands National Park on the road to the Needles’ Chesler Park/Joint Trail hike and also on the road coming into Monument Valley from Kayenta, AZ. The “monuments” in this area resembled palms, some with all five fingers raised, others with some fingers folded down at different positions. The kids and I had fun imitating the monuments with our hands. (The ones at Needles in Canyonlands resembled large buildings - cathedrals, Roman Colosseum, Athens’ Parthenon.)

There is one trail at Monument Valley where hikes are allowed. It is called the Wildcat Trail, a 4 mile loop. There is a permit cost of $12/person. We skipped the hike.


Practical Information (as of April 2019)

Fee: $20 per vehicle (up to 4 person) + $6 per additional person

Website: Monument Valley


Four Corners Monument, NM / AZ/ UT / CO

Four Corners is the site where the four states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet at a single point. This point is commemorated with a plaque in the ground and inscriptions showing the four different states. Our approach was from New Mexico. This was a quick stop for pictures with the plaque. There is also a short rough trail going up a hill, called Dancing Horse Trail. From here one could see the surrounding colorful cliffs. There was also a food truck advertising Navajo tacos, though it was closed when we were there. If you are not familiar, Navajo taco is a fry bread that one can add different toppings to, from simple cinnamon/honey to meat taco toppings. Fry bread has a hold on me that I just can't explain.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Fee: $5/person >6 years old

Website: Four Corners Monument


Utah

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods is a 17-mile unpaved road, similar to Monument Valley, that passes by many pinnacle-like rock formations. There was even one that looks like a woman soaking in a bathtub.

The road itself has many crossings across many low points, so it is definitely problematic if there is rain or if there was rain in the last few days. When we were there, some of the streams were flowing with maybe an inch of water. Hubby got out of the car each time to make sure that it was passable. I suspect that, if there was more water, we would have had to turn around. Even if dry, a high-clearance vehicle would be needed for get through the bumpy low points of the road. The road was fairly narrow in most parts, probably the width of 1.5 cars, but for two directions of traffic. So there were some nervous moments when visibility was low due to an incline in the road or a sharp curve.

Rocky monuments in Valley of the Gods, Utah
Rocky monuments in Valley of the Gods, Utah

There was no hiking trail per se, but one can stop and hike anywhere one's heart desires. We saw many campers along the way. We had wanted to stay for the sunset, but the kids were not so inclined. One day, we will stay for all the sunsets our hearts desire. Though, we might miss the noise in the backseat then. Maybe. We spent almost 2 hours here, including a short 1 mile “hike” to a local butte.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: Drive by many pinnacle-like rock formations on a 17-mile UNpaved road

Fee: Free

Website: Valley of the Gods


Goosenecks State Park, Utah

Just 30 minutes north of Monument Valley is a state park called Goosenecks State Park. There were no hikes that we saw. The state park ended just a short jaunt away from the entrance station. The highlight here is of the “gooseneck” formation formed by the flowing San Juan below. It reminded me of pictures of Horseshoe Bend.

The San Juan River forming the goosenecks formation in Goosenecks State Park, Utah
The San Juan River forming the goosenecks formation in Goosenecks State Park, Utah

Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Fee: $5/car/day

Website: Goosenecks State Park


House on Fire Ruins, Cedar Mesa, Utah

House on Fire Ruins got its name from the way the “roof” rock of the “house” looks like it is on fire during the late morning hour. It is located in Mule Canyon in the Cedar Mesa plateau in the southeastern corner of Utah. It used to be part of Bears Ears National Monument.

The 'flaming' roof of House on Fire Ruins, Cedar Mesa, Utah
The 'flaming' roof of House on Fire Ruins, Cedar Mesa, Utah

The hike in was very pleasant along a creek and many trees with budding green leaves. It was a smallish canyon, so we had two walls of rock on either side of us. There were many stream crossings which we easily made across without getting our feet wet. We sometimes lost our trail to the wash, but easily found it again not too far downstream I kept my eyes peeled for more ruins along the way, but none came into sight.

Our hike was about 1.5 miles each way. We arrived around 10:15 a.m., stayed about 15 minutes and left as the next group arrived. As we left, we noticed a handful of groups arriving for the fire hour.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Our hike: 3 miles rt from parking lot into canyon, many stream crossings with no wet feet

Directions: From Blanding, head south on Hwy 191, then west on UT 95 for a little over 19 miles. Immediately after you pass mile post 102, there will be a dirt on your right. Take it. (If you pass a brown sign that says “Mule Canyon Indian Ruins” you’ve gone too far. Turn around and take the first dirt road you come to on your left.) Once on the dirt road, look for a board on your left (with permit fee information) and an unpaved parking area on your right immediately after the board. After parking, walk a short way down the unpaved road to the first canyon. There is an information board visible from this road on the left, to mark the start of the trail. Sign in at the guest register.

Fees: $2/person/day or $5/person/7days, National parks pass NOT accepted. Leave your permit on your dash. Permit valid for the duration paid at any Cedar Mesa trailhead (including Kane Gulch)


Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah:

Natural Bridges National Monument is about an hour from Blanding, UT and consists of 2 bridges and 1 arch. I learned during this trip that the differentiating factor between a bridge and an arch is whether the stream that carved the bridge/arch still flows under it.

Descending one of three ladders to the base of Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Descending one of three ladders to the base of Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Our hike consisted of about 8.5 miles rt, starting at the rim, hiking down to Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Bridge and back to Sipapu Bridge and back up to the rim. There were 3 ladders to climb down to Sipapu Bridge, the tallest being about 14ft. For me, going down is harder than up. Having to turn around at the top makes me nervous but we all made it down, then up, without incident. A longer hike is available, at about 12 miles rt (per NPS signs, probably more like 14.5 miles rt) which covers the two bridges (Sipapu and Kachina) and Owachomo Bridge (really an arch since the stream flowing underneath it has dried up).

Sipapu Bridge hiding in plain sight, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Sipapu Bridge hiding in plain sight, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Walking between the canyon walls from Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Walking between the canyon walls from Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The natural bridges were majestic! Looking over the rim, it became obvious how big the natural bridges were, even if the they were somewhat camouflaged by color. Going underneath the bridges gave us an idea of small we really were! The hike led us on sandy washes between gigantic walls of rock of varying colors and over the streams several times. I was glad it hadn't rained since flash flooding might be a concern. We only hiked between 2 bridges this time since we were running out of time but did stop at the third natural bridge, Owachomo Bridge, to view it from the overlook.

Approaching Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Approaching Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The view from under Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
The view from under Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

All bridges had overlooks from the Loop Drive, if that is all you are looking for. All bridges had a quick hike down to go to the base of the bridge and back up. Sipapu Bridge has 3 ladders, the main reason I chose to hike it - keeping my boys entertained during hikes is a major consideration. I get less resistance from the boys in challenging hikes than easy, flat hikes. As someone who is fearful of heights, the ladders were pretty manageable.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: Walk down 3 ladders to the base of a majestic natural bridge (Sipapu Bridge) past a ruin, into a canyon lined by gigantic walls of rocks, cross the stream that carved the bridges many times to a second bridge (Kachina Bridge)

Directions: 45 minutes drive from Blanding, UT. From Blanding, drive south on US 191 to UT 95. Turn west at UT 95 (right) and drive 35 miles west to UT 275. The entrance to Natural Bridges is at the end of UT 275.

Fee: $20 per private vehicle, Free with National Parks Pass

Website: Natural Bridges National Monument


Colorado

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado

Just a short skip away from Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients has many different dwelling ruins from 800-1500 years ago. We only had time to visit two. One ruin was a short walk from the Visitor Center in Cortez.

Dwelling Ruins within a 'chimney' rock formation, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO
Dwelling Ruins within a 'chimney' rock formation, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO

The second set of ruins were found along Sand Canyon Trail. Sand Canyon Trail is a 13-14 mile out-and-back trail that connects a Lower Trailhead to the once cliff-side village of 225-500 people Sand Canyon Pueblo near the mesa top, complete with a wall on its topside. It was a 420-room village occupied in the mid 1200s. Unfortunately, after the Pueblo was studied by archaeologists, it was reburied to better preserve it. The information boards tell us in its heyday, these cliff dwellings would have been double the size of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. The walls were not tall, so it's purpose was probably more for water diversion than defensive. There were a network of connecting kivas and towers along the wall. There were 100 kivas and 14 towers in this community. With a lot of imagination, we are told to notice the D-shaped buildings used for public events. Oh what an amazing sight it would have been, had it not all been reburied.

Sand Canyon Pueblo - schematic of what it would have looked like, Canyon of the Ancients, CO
Sand Canyon Pueblo - schematic of what it would have looked like, Canyon of the Ancients, CO

For more information on the findings at Sand Canyon Pueblo, click here

Sand Canyon Pueblo may be reached by car (County Road N) if one would prefer to avoid walking the 14 mile uphill hike on mostly sandy trail. We started our hike at the Lower Trailhead on County Road G. Parking is limited, so arrive early. We got the last spot when we arrived at noon, having been intrigued by the museum in Cortez for longer than we anticipated. Our hike gained 2200 ft in elevation, but 1800 ft of that elevation was gained in one direction (going towards the Pueblo), the remaining 400 ft elev gain on our way back to the trailhead. There was a steep section of switchbacks that gained more than 700 ft in ½ mile, (our threshold for difficulty is 500 ft elevation gain in ½ mile. Less steep than that seems easy but more than 500 ft in ½ mile feels challenging).

Luckily, all of the one or two house ruins in alcoves occurred along the first 3-4 miles of trail from lower trailhead. There were about 5 or 6 such ruins high in alcoves that were viewable from the trail. Along the way, there were also multi-colored rock formations. Some resembled large chimneys (even with ruins in it), others large teapots in the cliffs. Having started our hike at noon, ours was a hot hike with minimal shade and no water along the trail. Bring hats, water and wear sunscreen. Watch for weather forecast for rain and inquire at the Visitor Center for trail safety. As with any hike in the desert, flash flooding can be an issue if there is rain in any surrounding area.

Multi-level Dwelling Ruins within an Alcove, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO
Multi-level Dwelling Ruins within an Alcove, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO

Giant 'Teapot' rock formations along Sand Canyon Trail, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO
Giant 'Teapot' rock formations along Sand Canyon Trail, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, CO

If you're looking to reduce hike distance/elevation, you could walk 3-4 miles one way (6-8 miles rt) from the Lower Trailhead, to see the half-dozen cliff dwelling ruins and rock formations. Then drive to Sand Canyon Pueblo (on County Road N) to see the remains of the 420-room Pueblo.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: one of the prettiest hikes we've done this trip, combining history (cliff dwelling ruins) with nature (red/white rock formations of giant chimneys, teapots etc)

Our hike: 14 mile rt, 2200 ft elev gain hot hike on a sandy trail, 700 ft elevation gain in ½ mile switchbacks when closing in on Sand Canyon Pueblo near Mesa top. To reduce hike distance/elevation, one can do 3-4 miles one-way(6-8 miles rt) to see the cliff dwelling ruins and rock formations in the canyon and drive up to Sand Canyon Pueblo on County Road N.

Fees: $3/adult or free with Annual National Parks Pass

Website: Canyon of the Ancients

Directions: Lower trailhead is on County Road G, a road going west from US 160 when going south from Cortez. Sand Canyon Pueblo Ruins parking lot is on County Road N.


Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde has over 600 ancient (800 year old) cliff dwelling villages built into rock alcoves high up in the cliff face of Mesa canyons. One canyon has 7-8 cliff villages and a community center built into alcoves, connected by toehold trails and footpaths. Alcove villages have kivas, sometimes more than one, towers and multi-level homes. They farmed on Mesa tops and edges. Puebloans built cliff houses in the 1200s but abandoned it by 1300s. The reason for migration is unclear, but the lack of water caused by severe drought may have played a large role.

Three (of eight) cliff villages side-by-side in the same canyon, high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Three (of eight) cliff villages side-by-side in the same canyon, high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Cliff Palace - a cliff village high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Cliff Palace - a cliff village high in the rocky alcoves of Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Usually, the cliff village Spruce Tree House would be available for self-guided tour throughout the year. However, due to the threat of rockfall, this cliff dwelling was also closed to tours. Even with Spruce Tree house closed, we were able to view it from a spot not too far from the Museum. The museum is also worth a visit. The most impressive ruin that I saw was Cliff Palace. It is possible that it because it was the one I had the most up close look of; an outlook along the loop road on Chapin Mesa provided for that.

Spruce Tree House - a cliff dwelling near the Museum at Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Spruce Tree House - a cliff dwelling near the Museum at Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Also along the loop road, other ruins were available to see: Fire temple (a temple like structure on the Mesa top just above where the cliff dwellings were), Oak Tree House and it's neighboring ruins (one believed to be cliff buildings of the center of government), ruins of farming terraces, ruins of pithouses and Far View (a village ruin on the Mesa top consisting of a multi storey apartment building-like structure. This central building was apparently built on the Mesa top by Puebloans before they moved into alcove house.)

800-year-old version of an apartment building on the Mesa-top, Coyote Village, Far View,  Mesa Verde National Park, CO
800-year-old version of an apartment building on the Mesa-top, Coyote Village, Far View, Mesa Verde National Park, CO

In 2019, ranger guided tours into the cliff houses start April 14. Tickets are required for tours. Unfortunately, spring break for us occurred a week before, so we did not get a chance to take any of the tours. Another Mesa that was also closed during our visit was Wetherill Mesa. The road leading to the cliff dwellings there was closed for the winter, due to be opened again in late May. We will have to visit again.


Practical Information (as of April 2019):

Features: Explore the edge of a Mesa top where there are many ruins of cliff building of different functions (homes, center of government) and multi-storey apartment-like structures of Native American homes of 800-1500 years ago.

Fee: $15-$25 per private vehicle depending on season, FREE with Annual National Parks Pass

Website: Mesa Verde National Park

Directions: about an hour from Cortez, heading east on Hwy 160.

Reserve tour tickets: Mesa Verde Guided Tours Reservation


Warning: All listed adventures come with inherent risks. The information provided is based on personal experience which may or may not be typical. The safety of these adventures are dependent on a variety of factors including but not limited to: terrain, weather, wildlife, hiker skill level, human error, preparation and other foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. As such, we do not assume any liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information provided. We will not be held responsible for any harm, injury, and/or loss that may result. Your personal preparation and judgement on the safety of each adventure is required at all times. Please use your own discretion and always be safe.
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