South­west Soli­tude

Dis­cover his­tory and beauty in Canyons of the An­cients Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY KENT AND CHARLENE KRONE

Canyons of the An­cients.

The very name con­jures vi­sions of ghostly fig­ures gaz­ing from cliff dwellings in high, shady al­coves. Canyons of the An­cients Na­tional Mon­u­ment, lo­cated in Colorado’s Four Cor­ners re­gion, is an en­chant­ing place to bring your equine part­ner and dis­cover both his­tory and beauty. We ex­plored the area aboard our well-trav­eled Mis­souri Fox Trot­ter geld­ings, Cow­boy and Nate.

Canyon Trails Ranch

Canyon Trails Ranch ( canyon­trail­ is lo­cated about a mile from the Canyons of the An­cients bound­ary, 15 miles south­west of Cortez. It of­fers an equine-friendly camp­ground sit­u­ated on a gen­tle rise over­look­ing an emer­ald field framed in the lay­ered, sun-kissed cliffs of McElmo Canyon. Sage­brush, pinyon pine, and prickly pear cac­tus adorn the camp­ground. Each camp­site has wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, and a cor­ral. We stayed here four nights and had the en­tire four-unit camp­ground to our­selves.

Ranch own­ers Kristie and Rod­ney Car­riker are both horse peo­ple. Kristie spe­cial­izes in cut­ting horses, while Rod­ney prefers horse pack­ing. Rod­ney also re­stores his­toric car­riages and wag­ons.

Kristie is an am­a­teur arche­ol­o­gist and Na­tive Amer­i­can his­to­rian. She’s worked with the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment on cliff dwellings and gen­er­ously shares her knowl­edge and en­thu­si­asm for his­tory with ranch guests.

The day af­ter we ar­rived, Kristie took us on a six­hour, guided horse­back tour of BLM prop­erty aboard her horse Tonka. Half this time was spent rid­ing,

while the other half was spent ex­plor­ing and learn­ing about the an­cient Pue­bloan peo­ple (also known as the Anasazi) who once in­hab­ited this vast coun­try. Over­all, there are an es­ti­mated 1,400 ru­ins in this area.

A Glide Through Time

Rid­ing with Kristie was like hav­ing a ma­gi­cian open the win­dows of time and glid­ing through them. She views the past in terms of artis­tic peo­ple who had fam­i­lies— peo­ple who strug­gled for a liv­ing, yet strongly needed to ex­press them­selves through their art.

“They put art into ev­ery­thing they did,” Kristie said, point­ing to a chunk of pet­ri­fied wood an an­cient home­builder had strate­gi­cally placed in a cliff-dwelling wall. “Peo­ple need art in their lives—it’s a way to ex­press them­selves.”

Kristie led us to six ru­ins: two tow­ers and four cliff dwellings. We ex­plored two of the cliff dwellings, which are 800 to 1,200 years old. Rocks used in con­struc­tion were all sizes, yet the builders were able to cre­ate even wall sur­faces. The tow­ers’ pur­poses were var­ied. Some Hopi tribal ad­vi­sors think the tow­ers were used as look­outs for fires and en­e­mies, to spot game, to sky-watch, and to de­cide when to plant crops. (The Pue­bloan peo­ple were an­ces­tors of the mod­ern Hopi and Zuni peo­ple.)

We then rode past white-and-pink cliffs splashed with green­ery and col­or­ful wild­flow­ers.

At the sec­ond cliff dwelling, Kristie held us spell­bound. A trans­for­ma­tion had oc­curred—she “be­came” an an­cient Pue­bloan mother work­ing in her cliff-dwelling kitchen.

That hole by the floor? It was where Mom ground corn into meal for the fam­ily’s bread. That slice in the rock wall? Mom used it to sharpen her ob­sid­ian knife. And those lit­tle holes in the wall? There, Mom se­cured wooden rods she used for dry­ing thinly sliced meat, or maybe veg­eta­bles, so she could save them for later use.

Kristie bus­tled around in the dwelling’s kitchen, chat­ting about the fam­ily who might’ve lived there. Sud­denly, she leaned out the door­way, shout­ing at an imag­i­nary child. She pointed out to us how Mom might’ve done the same thing, leav­ing the char­coal-smudged hand­print.

At the end of the tour, Kristie shared some­thing spe­cial with us. On their prop­erty, the Car­rik­ers had dis­cov­ered a kiva—a round, un­der­ground room used by an­ces­tral Pue­bloans for do­mes­tic, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, cer­e­mo­nial, and re­li­gious pur­poses. The roof had caved in, and the kiva was filled with soil and rocks. The Car­rik­ers ex­ca­vated it and put on a new roof, but ev­ery­thing else is orig­i­nal. It’s thought to be one of the best re­stored ki­vas in the South­west.

The kiva had a tran­quil, spir­i­tual feel­ing. We felt

hon­ored that Kristie chose to share it with us. She told us that the round de­pres­sion be­hind our cor­rals in the camp­ground was an­other caved-in kiva.

Sand Canyon Trail

The next day, we rode from our camp to County Rd. G and turned right. Within a mile, we were at the trail­head to Canyons of the An­cients Na­tional Mon­u­ment. Trail­head park­ing is se­verely lim­ited, so rid­ing along the road is a good op­tion.

At the trail­head, Cas­tle Rock, a noted land­mark, is on the right. Con­tinue on ahead, rid­ing care­fully on the slab rock, and fol­low the Sand Canyon Trail mark­ers. You can ride up this trail about 4 miles be­fore it’s closed to horses due to nar­row, steep switch­backs. This makes for a 10-mile-loop ride al­to­gether.

Sand Canyon Trail is ex­tra­or­di­nary in beauty and gives the op­por­tu­nity of dis­cov­ery. What’s around the bend? An­other tower? A hid­den dwelling? In places, the trail is rocky but safe. The trail’s edges are scal­loped with pinyon pines; their fra­grance fills the air, and their green­ery pro­vides a rich con­trast to the red-and-cream-col­ored rocks.

As we rode along, we saw huge walls of rock hon­ey­combed with nooks, cran­nies, and al­coves. Over eons, Mother Na­ture carved, scraped, and hol­lowed out these mam­moth, sand­stone ridges, cre­at­ing shel­tered home­sites for the an­cient Pue­bloans.

The main cliff dwellings are named and listed in the vis­i­tor guide. Some have spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics: two sto­ries, ex­cep­tion­ally well-pre­served, ex­tra win­dows, or built to fol­low the curve of the rock al­cove.

This canyon was al­most de­serted. In the soli­tude, time seemed to van­ish. Were those shad­ows or ghostly fig­ures glid­ing near cliff dwellings? And why did we feel as though we were be­ing watched?

East Rock Creek Trail

On our third and fi­nal ride, we ea­gerly sad­dled up to ride the East Rock Creek Trail. We’d heard this trail was even more gor­geous than the Sand Canyon Trail. That will be hard to beat! we thought.

We did this ride in Septem­ber, when the rab­bit bush was bright yel­low and the sage­brush a gray-green. The cedar trees and pinyon pines were vary­ing shades of green; the sand­stone walls changed color with the course of the sun. Un­der the sun’s harsh scru­tiny, the walls were white and gray. As the sun aged, the cliffs warmed, blushed, and turned gold as though brushed with melted but­ter.

Again, we rode along the road a mile to the trail­head, but this time we took the third trail to the left. Af­ter a mile, this trail con­nects with a 10-mile-loop trail. If you have binoc­u­lars, take them be­cause there’s so much to see.

We rode down and around a nar­row canyon. Oc­ca­sion­ally, our horses had to do some high step-ups and ne­go­ti­ate some rocky por­tions of trail. Over­all, though, the trail is quite

safe, al­low­ing rid­ers to fo­cus on the stone sculp­tures and cliff dwellings.

About half­way through the loop, be­fore the head of the canyon, there’s an enor­mous rock arch, about 150 feet high. We stopped to ap­pre­ci­ate this mag­nif­i­cent struc­ture. We felt for­tu­nate to be able to gaze upon this tremen­dous arch all by our­selves.

Dur­ing this ride, we spot­ted six good-sized cliff dwellings. Al­to­gether on this trip, we ob­served a to­tal of 26 an­ces­tral dwellings—and we prob­a­bly missed many of the smaller ones.

Canyons of the An­cients is an es­pe­cially beau­ti­ful trail-rid­ing desti­na­tion, one that not only is a vis­ual feast, but also feeds the soul.

Kent Krone rides Cow­boy, his Mis­souri Fox Trot­ter geld­ing, along the Sand Canyon Trail in Colorado’s Canyons of the An­cients Na­tional Mon­u­ment. “In the soli­tude, time seemed to van­ish,” write the Krones.

TOP-RIGHT: The Krones’ rig at Canyon Trails Ranch camp­ground, lo­cated about a mile from the Canyons of the An­cients bound­ary, 15 miles south­west of Cortez, Colorado. Each camp­site has wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, and a cor­ral. BOT­TOM-RIGHT: Kent Krone, aboard Cow­boy, and Charlene Krone, aboard Nate, stand in front of a tower of McElmo, built more than 1,000 years ago by an­ces­tral Pue­bloans.

FROM TOP-LEFT: Kristie Car­riker shares her knowl­edge of the area’s ru­ins with Charlene Krone in an al­cove above McElmo Canyon. Al­coves pro­tected the an­ces­tral Pue­bloans from en­e­mies and harsh weather. SEC­OND FROM TOP: Charlene Krone de­scends into a kiva—a round, un­der­ground room used by an­ces­tral Pue­bloans for do­mes­tic, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, cer­e­mo­nial, and re­li­gious pur­poses. THIRD FROM TOP: The in­te­rior of a kiva. BOT­TOM: Cow­boy stud­ies the map at the Canyons of the An­cients Na­tional Mon­u­ment trail­head.

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