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Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Lowry Ruins at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Bureau of Land Management, Rick Athearn.
Lowry Ruins at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Bureau of Land Management, Rick Athearn.
Established: 2000
Location: Southwestern Colorado; 45 miles west of Durango and 12 miles west of Mesa Verde National Park.
Size: 164,000 acres

Special Features

The 164,000 acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains the highest density of archaeological sites in the nation. Archaeologists have recorded more than 6,000 sites so far of an estimated 20,000-30,000 total. In addition to its immense historical value, the Monument also provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species including golden eagles and the Mesa Verde nightsnake.


Vandals, pot hunters, off-road vehicles, and a lack of BLM funding for law enforcement plague the Monument and its rich evidence of cultures and traditions spanning thousands of years. Large, spray-painted graffiti "tags" deface walls in several of the ruins. Unscrupulous treasure hunters have dug tunnels into ruins, carted away artifacts and excavated ruins with shovels. Drilling for oil, gas and carbon dioxide is another threat; 85 percent of the Monument is under lease to oil and gas interests. Seismic exploration and new wells mean new roads, which in turn bring off-road vehicle and general traffic, and provide greater access to cultural resources and a larger potential for vandalism. Damage to soil, vegetation, wildlife, and air quality from such road use is also a problem, and ruins can be damaged by the huge seismic trucks--called "thumper trucks"--that roll through fragile lands in search of oil.

"There's no price for the damage because there is no way to fix it. It's irreplaceable." --Laura Kochanski, Archaeologist, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, on vandalism at the Monument., January 31, 2003.More about the Monument

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument evokes the very essence of the semi-arid American Southwest. From a distance, the area looks deceptively benign as the land slopes gently from the McElmo Dome in the south before rising sharply to the north of McElmo Creek. Yet McElmo Dome itself is buttressed by sheer sandstone cliffs with mesa tops rimmed by caprock and punctuated by deeply incised canyons.

Amid those cliffs and this austere landscape are marks of cultures and traditions spanning 10,000 years, from the earliest hunters who crossed this area to the Ancestral Puebloan farmers (also called the Anasazi) to the Ute, Navajo and European settlers who followed.

There is scattered evidence that Paleo-Indians used the region on a sporadic basis for hunting and gathering until around 7500 BCE. By about 1500 BCE, the more sedentary Basketmakers spread over the landscape. As Ancestral Northern Puebloan people occupied the area around 750 CE, farming began to blossom and continued through 1300 CE. After that, however, the Puebloans seem to have deserted the "Four Corners" area and what is today the Monument, perhaps because a growing population overstressed the soils, and because of widespread drought.

The early homes of the Puebloans consisted of pit-dwellings; later those evolved to cliff dwellings. Some elaborate remains still exist in the Monument, including a Puebloan site with 420 rooms, 90 kivas, a great kiva and plaza. Field houses, check dams, reservoirs, shrines, sacred springs, petroglyphs and sweat lodges can be seen at other ruins.

Today, the Monument is home to a wide variety of desert wildlife, including the Mesa Verde nightsnake, the long-nosed leopard lizard and the twin-spotted spiny lizard. Peregrine falcons, golden eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers soar overhead. Game birds like Gambel's Quail and mourning doves enjoy lush riparian habitat along the canyon bottoms.

Planning for the Monument's Future

In 2002, the BLM began a multi-year effort to develop a management plan that should protect the Monument's special ecological, cultural, and historic resources. To learn more, go to: BLM Colorado or San Juan Citizens Alliance.


Anasazi Heritage Center: 970-882-5600
BLM Colorado, Canyons of the Ancients
Colorado Environmental Coalition
Friends of the Monument (CANM):Contact Chuck McAfee
Great Old Broads for Wilderness
San Juan Citizens Alliance
The San Juan Mountain Association
The Wilderness Society - Four Corners Office: Jill Ozarksi, 303-650-5818, ext. 111

Updated December 2003