Stretching west and northwest from Cortez to the Utah border, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was established in 2000 and boasts the densest collection of archaeological sites in the United States. An estimated 30,000 sites—including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art—represent concrete evidence of the more than 10,000 years of habitation of the Southwest, particularly by the Ancestral Pueblo people who flourished from about 750 to 1300 CE. Also valued for its geology, flora, and fauna, the sprawling 176,000-acre monument is beset by complex management problems that include private inholdings (private land within the monument’s boundaries) and active drilling leases.
Nestled in the southwest corner of Colorado, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument occupies a rugged landscape of mesas and canyons covered with pinyon-juniper, sagebrush, and cottonwood, as well as isolated, unvegetated rock outcrops. The geology of the site evokes "the very essence of the American Southwest," according to the presidential proclamation declaring it a monument, owing to its mesas, sandstone cliffs, and deeply incised canyons. It is also a crucial habitat for a number of species, such as the Mesa Verde night snake and the long-nose leopard lizard.
The harsh nature of this landscape has greatly contributed to the preservation of the area’s archaeological sites, which provide an unsurpassed opportunity for scholars and the public to see how different cultures adapted to life in the American Southwest before the European invasion.
As early as 7500 BCE, Paleo-Indians lived in the area that is now Canyons of the Ancients. By 1500 BCE, the Basketmaker culture—an Archaic-period antecedent of the Ancestral Puebloans—was prevalent throughout the region (these terms are Euro-American classifications of time and cultures; Indigenous people of the Southwest have their own names for these time periods and people).
Around 750 CE, the Ancestral Pueblo began to establish farming and year-round villages. These villages eventually became part of a prehistoric cultural region that includes Mesa Verde National Park. Occupation of the site fluctuated and changed as the Pueblo people went through different phases of cultural development. The densest inhabitation occurred from 1150 to 1300 CE, when the Ancestral Pueblo began living in large, multistory masonry dwellings. These dwellings could include dozens of rooms and be part of larger villages that also encompassed natural features such as reservoirs and springs.
Eventually dry conditions compromised agricultural efforts, making survival difficult for the Ancestral Pueblo and necessitating a move to more arable lands in present-day New Mexico and Arizona, where the twenty-five descendant tribes and pueblos reside. After the departure of the Ancestral Pueblo, migratory Nuche (Ute) and Diné (Navajo) people were known to inhabit the area during cooler months. The descendants of these groups still inhabit the Four Corners region.
Canyons of the Ancients was an area of archaeological and Indigenous interest for more than 125 years before its proclamation as a national monument in 2000. It has more than 6,355 recorded sites in its 176,000 acres, including some areas with hundreds of sites per square mile. As with other archaeologically rich parts of the Southwest, much early “archaeological” exploration by Euro-Americans was essentially looting or grave-robbing. Values such as scholarly rigor, tribal collaboration, and preservation gradually displaced ad hoc amateur collecting over the course of the twentieth century.
In 1985 Canyons of the Ancients was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a designation used by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to recognize areas that require special management attention “to protect important historical, cultural, and scenic values, or fish and wildlife or other natural resources.” In 1999 Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt recommended it be named a national monument.
On June 9, 2000, President Bill Clinton declared Canyons of the Ancients a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Local residents, worried about loss of access to the lands, were initially opposed to the proclamation. Despite some restrictions put in place in recent years, these fears have been largely unfounded. Monument status did result in a rise in formalized visitation to the area.
Average visitation to the monument is now roughly 45,000 people per year. Most visitors check in at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, located in Dolores. The visitor center incorporates two twelfth-century archaeological sites as well as permanent and temporary exhibits about the Ancestral Puebloans and the research that is ongoing at the monument. The rest of the monument is largely in the backcountry, meaning that the majority of the sites are accessible only via hiking and are not interpreted by staff. A handful of notable locations within the monument have interpretive material available for visitors, including Lowry Pueblo, Painted Hand Pueblo, Sand Canyon Pueblo, and Sand Canyon.
The scope of the studies being conducted at the monument makes it one of the most intensely studied landscapes in the world. The monument already hosts more than 6,000 recorded sites, but there are an estimated 30,000 total sites within the monument’s boundaries. These sites range in size and significance from cliff dwellings, villages, and great kivas to agricultural fields, check dams, and reservoirs. The monument also has a collection of more than 3 million objects and records from archaeological projects in southwest Colorado.
Several current projects involve Lowry Pueblo. In partnership with the University of Colorado—Denver, the BLM is working to digitally document and create three-dimensional models and scaled drawings of the pueblo. In addition, in 2017 the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore started a project to document the surrounding landscape using hand drawings, photographs, GIS maps, and 3D computer reconstructions.
Management of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is complex. It is overseen by the BLM and has several private inholdings that amount to more than 16,000 acres. It also has the unique distinction of including within its boundaries a separate national monument, Hovenweep, which is managed by the National Park Service and covers approximately 400 acres.
Despite its designation as a national monument, the landscape continues to be used not only by scholars and recreational visitors, but also for hunting, livestock grazing, and energy development. As of 2020, the monument contains 193 oil, natural gas, and carbon dioxide wells—the monument sits on top of one of the largest carbon dioxide deposits in the world—and more than 80 percent of the monument is under lease for mineral extraction. The leases predate the national monument, and the BLM is obligated to honor the mineral extraction rights while trying to preserve the monument’s archaeological sites. Many drilling sites within the monument are no longer in use but have yet to go through reclamation, a process of restoring the land to its approximate original state.
Sites within the remote monument still occasionally suffer from looting and vandalism. In 2017 a fifty-seven-year-old visitor damaged and took artifacts from a site in Sandstone Canyon; he was apprehended by BLM officers and later sentenced to one year in federal prison.
On April 26, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order calling for the review of national monuments larger than 100,000 acres, including Canyons of the Ancients. The order generated controversy, particularly in the West, where most large monuments are located. Colorado’s congressional delegation requested that Canyons of the Ancients remain unchanged, and on July 21, 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the size of the monument would stay the same.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21, the BLM began offering online reservations for self-guided tours at Canyons of the Ancients.