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Jim OP | 04.27.2016

Evidence of the magnificent cultures that lived and even flourished across the American West prior to European contact with the New World can be found in some truly remarkable locations. In some cases these ruins and artifacts seem to blend in with their surrounding environment with little to announce them; after thousands of years, a handprint or a stone granary may become one with the landscape, available for any keen eye to discern and experience. Other sites are more conspicuously studied and protected, and while there may be some crowds, visitors can also take advantage of the tours and information that tends to accompany such infrastructure. The Antiquities Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and additional federal and state legislation codify the protections that each of these locations is due, though worst-case scenarios in which a site is obliterated through vandalism or development are all too common. Consider, for instance, the inundation of Celilo along the Columbia River, where communities had lived and fished for 15,000 years before the site was flooded by the construction of the Dalles Dam in 1957.

Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Denis Leblanc.

The sites that remain are monuments to human endurance. From elaborate cities built into the canyon walls to petroglyphs and pictographs along a trail (or a river, or a climbing route), each site challenges visitors to imagine a lived experience hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of years ago: imagine members of an Ozette tribe hunting sea mammals from skinny canoes off of a stormy Olympic Peninsula 2,000 years ago; a Pueblo household deciding, for reasons not entirely understood today, to abandon the elaborate structures their people had thrived in for centuries and move out to the desert; a family creating a family portrait with handprints on a cliff wall, the adult handprints larger and high, the children’s smaller prints low and a little messy.

Outdoor Project is fortunate to work with Contributors who wander far and wide and have shared some remarkable photos of these special places. We’ve rounded up some of the best adventures for seeing Native American ruins and rock, so have a look at the Featured Adventures for a broad exploration. To get you started, check out this short list of must-see spots:

  • Mesa Verde National Park: Home to Cliff Palace, Chapin Mesa, Spruce Tree House, and so much more, this should be the first stop for anyone interested in Pueblo ruins and petroglyphs.
  • Canyonlands National Park: Views from the False Kiva are breathtaking, pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon are haunting, and the hike to the granaries at Aztec Butte are fascinating.
  • Cedar Mesa: Mule Canyon is the location of the famous House on Fire Ruin. While the structures themselves are rather modest, the colors and formations on the cliff wall above lend an otherworldly quality to this ancient dwelling.

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