When we think of ancient cultures, images of ancient China, Peru, or Greece typically come to mind. But what if I told you remnants of ancient civilizations await us in the crevices and corners of rugged backyard landscapes that make up the North American Southwest?
In the Southwest, archaeologists have found scatter sites that date back over 10,000 years. Many of the modern-day tribes in Utah or Northern Arizona were descendants of prehistoric tribes known as the Fremont Culture or Ancestral Puebloans (formerly referred to as the Anasazi). These groups were the descendants of even smaller tribes of people that made up the Paleo-Indians and date back to when mammoths and ground sloths roamed North America.
Ancient relics, granaries, art panels, kivas and cliff dwellings of these nomadic tribes and prehistoric farmers are scattered all over the Southwest and particularly concentrated in the National Parks and Monuments included in this list.
Zion tops everyone’s list of mandatory stops while road tripping through the Southwest. While Zion isn’t typically known for its archaeological sites, it does have one of the few sites that date back to the Paleo-Indian era, and several sites consisting of rock art panels and cliff dwellings from the Ancient Puebloans. Even better, the park has an onsite museum called the Zion Human History Museum, which is a great place to get general knowledge on prehistoric tribes and their interaction with the natural landscape.
The spectacular Newspaper Rock drawings found near The Needles section in Canyonlands. (Photo: Jim Unterschultz, Wikimedia Commons)
Located right down the road from Arches National Park, you will find Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands has four districts: Island in the Sky (the busiest due to its proximity to Moab), The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers, featuring dramatic rock formations and natural arches carved from Wingate Sandstone. While all districts have prehistoric granaries and cliff dwellings leftover from the Ancestral Puebloans, two of the best-preserved are in The Needles district, with easy access points from the road.
The Needles district is approximately a 1.5-hour drive from Moab and boasts impressive arches, hoodoos, and rock formations without the dense crowds commonly found in Island in the Sky. Bonus: the only access road from Moab to Needles intersects a scenic section of Bears Ears National Monument, offering endless views of towers, mesas, bluffs, and spires. Which brings us to…
You may recognize this as the header photo for this article, but the “House of Fire” cliff dwelling is just too spectacular to not include it a second time. (Photo: PDTillman, Wikimedia Commons)
Large stands of Cottonwoods dot the scenery, with patina-stained sandstone cliffs looming in the background; this is Bears Ears National Monument. Bears Ears is home to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites, and one of the most extensive rock art panels in the region is located on the road to The Needles District. Alternately, drive a little farther up the road to visit the House of Fire, an impressive Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling that reflects the stratospheres of the sandstone in the morning light, resembling undulating flames.
More than a national historical site, Bears Ears is also a national recreation area. Parallel to the road are patina-tinged sandstone cliffs reaching 100 feet, many with large cracks across their faces. The ridges and their cracks are unlike any others globally, making it a world-class destination for crack-climbers. On any given day of the week, you’ll see climbers hanging from the colorful sandstone walls along the roadside.
In 2017 the size of Bears Ears National Monument was reduced from 1.35 million acres to just 201,876 acres through executive order, and it is now open to drilling and mining claims, putting historic sites at risk. While the Biden administration promised to review the order, the site is still in danger, which is why you may want to visit the area while it remains untouched.
A wicked-cool slot canyon in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument. (Photo: John Fowler)
This incredibly scientific rich plateau boasts numerous paleontological sites, slot canyons, natural delicate arches, and lush river valleys – and this is in addition to thousands of art panels, granaries, dwellings, and artifacts from prehistoric Fremont Culture and Ancestral Puebloans. The monument itself is over 1 million acres, and you could easily devote months or years to explore it all.
When Escalante Grand Staircase was declared a National Monument in 1996, it spanned almost 1.9 million acres. However, in 2017 by executive order, the area was reduced by nearly 50% to just over 1 million acres, with the remaining portion open to mining and drilling claims. If developed, thousands of archaeological and paleontological sites will disappear.
The first evidence of humans in the Grand Canyon dates back nearly 12,000 years. (Photo: Jad Limcaco)
To provide an idea of the extent of human history in the Grand Canyon, an intensive survey of just 5% of the park led to the registration of 4,300 archaeological sites! The first evidence of humans in the Grand Canyon dates back nearly 12,000 years when small nomadic tribes of hunter/gathers known as Paleo-Indians inhabited the area. The Paleo-Indians eventually evolved into the Basketmakers, who grew into the Ancestral Puebloans, who made up the ancestors of 11 modern-day tribes today.
Throughout the Grand Canyon you can find physical evidence of the evolution of these tribes, starting from prehistoric scatterings and crude dwellings to more complex granaries along the cliffs that parallel the shores of the Colorado River where the Ancestral Puebloans stored their food. While hiking, it’s common to find ancient relics such as tools, pottery shards, fibers, or knapped flints (rock chips from making weapons or tools).
Inside the park, you can visit the Tusayan Ruins, a small Ancestral Puebloan Village with an adjacent museum, where you can learn more about their way of life and which boasts artifacts 2,000-4,000 years old in addition to traditional handicrafts made by ancestral Puebloans.
A traditional wikiup structure of the Hualapai tribe, modern-day descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, near the Grand Canyon.
Everything on this list can be included in our customizable Southwest National Park Tour. These recommended adventures are sure to bring out the explorer in everyone, from the youngest to the oldest members of your family. Talk to one of our Destination Experts today to begin planning your next private Southwest expedition.
About the Author: Gina Allman
In 2012 Gina moved from the 4 Corners area of the US to Peru, where she now spends her free time chasing single track, running rivers, hiking though the Andes and participating in the most thrilling of extreme sports, driving in Lima.