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Southwest ruins are a window on ancient past

There is evidence here, in a high New Mexican desert, of Indian dwellings and artifacts, pottery and ornamental turquoise that indicate a culture more advanced and complex than the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde, a two-hour drive north.

But Mesa Verde is better known, perhaps because its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings helped earn it national park status, as compared with Chaco's designation as a national historical park. Mesa Verde is also easier to reach and thus is more crowded. You can get closer to more ruins in Chaco Canyon, but Mesa Verde is where you find the strange cliff dwellings.

Viewed during one trip, the two sites offer differing slices of the ancient history of humans in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde's mysteries

The 20-mile road into Mesa Verde is paved, and it winds up the side of the enormous mesa, leading to an archaeological museum and the Chapin Mesa ruins area. The museum is open 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.

The Anasazi Indians who lived at Mesa Verde 1,300 years ago mysteriously abandoned their homes near the end of the 13th century. They left behind villages, as well as personal belongings, much of which is retained today in the park situated between Mancos and Cortez, Colo.

Mesa Verde is the only national park established to protect man-made artifacts. You can visit the mesa tops where the earliest settlers farmed and tour the famous cliff dwellings, which were built later, presumably to protect the residents from an external threat that has not since been determined.

Some of the well-protected cliff dwellings are visible only from across the mesa. You may be unsure if your eyes are playing tricks or if you really are seeing small window holes embedded in the side of a sheer cliff, perhaps 50 to 60 feet high.

The first Mesa Verde residents have been dubbed "basketmakers" by researchers. These Native Americans lived in pit houses dug into the ground. They grew beans, corn and squash, hunted small game, and raised turkeys, mainly for their feathers, which were woven into blankets.

Sometime around the 12th century, the Indians moved from ground-level homes into caves in the cliff faces. The reason why they made the drastic move is unknown, but the Anasazi lasted only about 100 years more at Mesa Verde.

There are various guided and self-guided tours you can take at Mesa Verde; some of the tours take you on narrow stone staircases.

Getting to know Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon is more of a hands-on place. You have to drive 30 miles on a rough dirt road to reach the park headquarters, which consists of a small museum and information center, bathrooms and a fresh-water spigot providing the only potable water for many miles. There is a treeless campground a mile farther on, with cold-water bathrooms but no drinking water.

Most visitors to Chaco pick up trail maps and back-country permits at the visitors' center. Then they set off on a self-guided tour of the rock-strewn, sandy desert that was an urban center for the Pueblo Indians who farmed the once-fertile lowlands.

When the Indians lived here, the earth was covered with soil and vegetation, grasslands and forests. They cut down thousands of trees to build their giant pueblos. Without trees, the soil lost its ability to hold moisture and support crops. Sustained droughts eventually caused the disintegration of this Indian culture.

The peak of the Chaco Anasazi culture began around the 10th century with the first construction of pueblos two or three stories high. During the next 100 years, Chaco Canyon grew to support approximately 400 settlements housing 5,000 people, with developments in masonry construction allowing the addition of fourth and fifth floors to existing structures. By the 1300s Chaco culture had completely disappeared, its people dispersed, empty structures left intact.

While the Anasazi were building up Chaco Canyon, Europeans were building cathedrals; yet no other tribe in the United States left behind comparably elaborate architecture, cunning irrigation systems or sophisticated trade highways.

Eventually, about 75 communities in Chaco Canyon were spread out over more than 300 miles of roads, the longest of which ran 42 miles. Most settlements were within a day's travel of each other.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest and best-known ruin in Chaco Canyon. It was apparently occupied from about 900 to 1200 A.D. It grew into a cluster of about 800 rooms, rising four stories high, and built around 37 ceremonial kivas _ round pits that were probably used for ceremonial/religious services.

Other Chaco ruins displaying developmental stages of design and construction include Casa Rinconada, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo and Pueblo Alto. Several of these sites sit within yards of a paved park road, and others can be reached along marked hiking trails of one-half to 5 miles.

A major distinction between Mesa Verde's cliff dwellers, who built apartmentlike structures directly into caves, and Chacoans can be seen in a typical ruin here, which consists of independent-standing brick or masonry walls, not built into the side of the canyon. Among these jagged sentinels of the sagebrush and scrub, the elaborate remains of architecture, community life and social organization continue to haunt the imagination.

Steve Cohen is the author of Adventure Guide to the High Southwest (Hunter Publishing), which details activities throughout the four corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

If you go

The entrance to Mesa Verde is 6 miles west of Mancos, Colo., on Highway 160. The biggest town nearby is Durango, Colo., 35 miles east, which is served by several airlines. From May to October the Far View Lodge inside the national park accommodates guests, and nearby is a campground.

Chaco Canyon is a 2{-hour drive from Durango or Farmington, N.M. The closest town is Bloomfield, N.M., where you can buy gas or a meal at a truck stop cafe.

For information on Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon, contact the National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

If you plan to visit Indian ruins in the Southwest, consider that the following are all in the Four Corners area:

Aztec Ruins National Monument and Museum, in Aztec, N.M., 50 miles south of Durango, is the site of the world's largest reconstructed kiva.

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, in Chile, Ariz., is about 2{ hours west of Chaco Canyon. Sandstone canyons here were home to Pueblo Indians for 1,000 years.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 23390 County Road K, Cortez, Colo., conducts research expeditions, workshops, field trips and programs for all ages to learn to excavate, analyze artifacts and document new sites.

Hovenweep National Monument, just across the Utah state line, 60 miles from Cortez, Colo., contains ruins of Indian villages, including Loumy Ruins, the newest excavation of a 1,000-year-old pueblo.