Sand Canyon and Shiprock Glories

Today we hiked Sand Canyon Pueblo ruins – a beautiful collaboration between the NPS, BLM and Crow Canyon Archaeology Center showcasing a surface dwelling community that once housed hundreds of families in 450+ buildings. This settlement was larger than Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Just as we reached one of the kiva ruins, two red-tailed hawks flew close overhead to rendezvous with a third, possibly a juvenile they were teaching to hunt. A very spiritual encounter.

From there we drove to Shiprock, NM, named for a sacred Navajo geologic formation that soars 1750 feet above the desert floor. It is a sheer, massive cathedral of igneous mimette (like basalt, it is very dark, dense rock and lacks the light plagioclase feldspar of granite) and tuff-breccia that has stood in its spot for 27 million years. The formation was caused by an upward-shooting explosion of intrusive magma (fully-encased in earth and did not emerge from its surroundings until after it had cooled). Think of a violent injection-molded rock which forms jagged shards pointed to the sky. Only the wind and water could uncover it from the sands and sandstone which encased it.


The same material squirted into a long fracture in the earth, also appearing frozen and jagged, pointing upward like a long, malevolent wall. This is the dike structure that runs for 5 miles beside Shiprock.

Some Ancestral Puebloans and their Navajo descendants believe that their people were sent in a great ship (the Shiprock) to this land. Today’s millennials would probably sooner believe it’s a Star Wars relic broken off the Death Star. We thought it was highly impressive, massively scaled, and spiritually drenched.

Secrets of the Ute Mountain Tribe

Thinking we were booked for a full-day tour of four primary cliff dwellings on Ute Mountain property, only accessible via Ute tour guides, we were amazed to find ourselves today on a bonus expedition to remote back country on the Ute Mesa with only two other visitors and our guide, Rudiford Mills. We saw much more than the four primary sites, could go directly into the cliff dwellings via ladders up to the platforms, and found the ruins accompanied by hundreds of artifacts. Potsherds, manos and metates (corn-grinding tools), even a yucca fiber sandal – all from the 12th century!!

Rudiford is a Ute, related to most of the 1200 Ute Mountain tribe members living nearby, and has been guiding people through the mesa surrounding the western Chimney Rock for the past 17 years.


He has personally found many ancestral Puebloan sites on the Ute Mountain Tribal Park (situated adjacent to the well-known Mesa Verde National Park). His humor and folklore about the area was much appreciated, as was his expert driving over the extremely rough clay and slip rock road. It took an hour just to get to the first site in Weber Canyon. In all, we could see up close the cliff dwelling in Weber Canyon, the Porcupine House (over 200 yards long and two stories high, hanging on the Cliffside), the canyon-end 45 House and the She House. We also saw all the cliff dwellings across the canyon from the 45 House: Lion House, Eagle’s Nest, Tree House and Morse House. Throw two more unnamed cliff dwellings into the mix, and you see how fabulous the tour was.

Rudiford personally made many of the site enhancements (sturdy ladders, bridges, repairs to the check dams) that improved access to the cliff dwellings. He brought the workman’s perspective to preserving these ancestral sites nearly as they were a millennium ago, as well as protecting them.

Because they are so sheltered, tucked back below sandstone overhangs, the alcove sites have suffered little of the weathering that so often damages or destroys surface sites. We could see the fingerprints of the original masons who laid the stones and affixed the mortar. We put our hands into the metates (stone grinding bowls and concave rock surfaces) used to grind corn into masa, we touched the potsherds and tools left behind. There was even a baby’s footprint in the mortar over the door of one of the dwellings, still visible today. The many, many black-on-white potsherds showed these peoples’ skill in decorative arts. Ancient corncobs (tiny by today’s standards) lie around, and some of the doorways still have their wooden frames, as well as the vigas (rough beams or logs) in walls to support the roof and wall structures. The men of the community stood at most 5.5 feet tall, the women, five feet. Their life expectancy was about 30 – 35 years.

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There is more archaeology of the Ancient North American peoples concentrated in this part of the continent, the small Four Corners area where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, than in any other part of the US.


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