Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

The twin towers are part of the Square Tower Group of structures at Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

County Road G is a rural road southwest of Cortez, but it’s the heart of an adventure deep in the land of the ancients and the beautiful scenery that makes up southwestern Colorado.

Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch

Her long dark hair drifting over her shoulder, petite Ming Adams strokes the feathers on a plump quietly clucking hen with one hand and reaches under with the other withdrawing a brown egg. Gently placing it the basket resting on the fresh sawdust floor, she nestles the basket into the crook of one arms, smiles and holds up one of the larger eggs and says, “Breakfast up at the house.”

Ming Adams prepares lunch

Ming Adams, co-owner, Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, prepares lunch for guests. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

The ‘house’ is the adobe, sustainably-constructed rammed earth ranch home of Garry and Ming Adams overlooking their 2,000 acres at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch outside of Cortez, Colorado. “We put the house on top of this hill to be able to take in the views up and down the canyon,” explains Garry, wearing overalls and a safari-style cap complete with khaki neck covering drooping over his collar. Walking on the dirt road, I take a deep breath of the crisp Four Corners air. A potpourri of fragrances is in the air—fresh flowers from Ming’s hummingbird garden, newly cut hay in the field down by McElmo Creek and very light in the background, a fragrant reminder that this is a working ranch.

Chickens at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch

Chickens and rooster roam freely during the day, and head to the hen house to lay eggs. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

The chickens range next to Pioneer House and a few steps from the doors of the historic Elden Zwicker Stone House and Cowboy Log Cabin. “The cowboy cabin was the original house on the spread back in the 1800s,” says Garry. We kept the exterior intact and added a kitchenette and pebbled shower stall.” Remodeled and furnished with antiques and rustic furniture, the three guest cabins hold from two to six people. Joining the trio, the Adams built the ancestral pueblo-style Mokee House Cottage house for up to five people adjoining the main ranch house on the hilltop. Staying at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch puts visitors in the middle of McElmo Canyon and the western stretch of Mesa Verde Country and the southern fringe of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.

Garry and Ming Adams

Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch owners Garry and Ming Adams in their garden

The center of Mesa Verde Country, Cortez, Colorado is the crossroads of the Trail of the Ancients National Historic Byway, the only designated archaeology byway in the U.S.

The 500-mile loop travels through Colorado and Utah, the Four Corners cities of Dove Creek, Dolores and Mancos, Colorado; and the Ute Mountain Reservation capital, Towoac. The route winds through forests for hunting, fishing, rafting, canoeing and agritourism. Portions of the Ute Reservation and Navajo Nation, plus more than 10,000 archaeological sites, including over 1,000 cliff dwellings and ancient pueblos, are wrapped inside the Trail.

Historic Ismay Trading Post

Survey Hill at Ismay Trading Post

Survey Hill was the name given to the pile of broken soda bottles at the Ismay Trading Post because it was a group of surveyors who first started tossing bottles into the pile. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Meandering on County Road G west just before the Utah State Line is the historic Ismay Trading Post. It looks as abandoned today as it looked in 2010 with rusting hulks around it, mobile homes in the rear, but the trading post sign over the door is still easily read. The bright new “Open” sign that hung in the window the last time I was there is also long gone, as the Trading Post’s last owner, Robert Ismay, passed away a few years ago, just shy of the 95th anniversary of the trading post. It would have turned 100 in 2021.

It was walking into history when entering a real trading post that had served the Navajo Nation and Ute Reservation for 90 years. A small bell tinkled as the door closed behind me. Wearing jeans and a long-sleeved pale brown western shirt, Robert Ismay sauntered from the backroom and smiled. With a wood- burning stove set in the center, a U-shaped display counter separated me from the variety of merchandise ranging from canned goods, some fresh fruit, to household utensils and auto parts, and a collection of original Navajo pottery and rugs. Asking Ismay about the history of the trading post, most answers were “yup,” “nope,” or just a smile. The post was built in 1921, grew to serve Navajo families as post office, grocery, and consignment by the 1930s.

Scenes from the Ismay Trading Post

The late Robert Ismay, who ran the trading post until his death around 2013. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

I asked to see one of the small pots locked in the venerable dusty glass and wood display counter. “It’s by Nancy Chilly,” he drawled in the longest sentence spoken since I walked into the store, “she brings in some from time-to-time to trade for supplies.” Opened by the Ismay brothers, Robert ran the trading post for more than 15 years after his brother’s passing in 2000. His sister owned the Hatch Trading Post down the road near Blanding, Utah.

Although Robert has passed on and the trading post is closed, outside to the east of the parking lot, a mound of broken glass still sparkles in the sun. “Surveyor’s hill,” Ismay had told me. “Surveyors working this area would come to the trading post to buy a cold drink. When emptied, the bottles were tossed over there and just kept piling up.”

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

The Square Tower at Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Northwest of Ismay across the Utah line, Mesa Verde Country turns north towards Hovenweep National Monument. The five ancestral canyon head villages were agriculture centers built hundreds of years before European arrival. Water was captured in a sophisticated system of dams and ditches and used to irrigate terraces for corn, beans, squash and other plants sustaining Ancestral Pueblo populations. The villages were occupied until the early 1200s, when the populations migrated south closer to the San Juan River. The National Monument is broken into five communities. Square Tower, next to the Visitor Center, is accessible with a paved walkway to a canyon overlook. A well-maintained rock and dirt trail circles and enters the canyon allowing visitors to walk through the pueblo remains.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ming bustles in the kitchen making lunch at Canyon of the Ancients. Retracing the route through McElmo Canyon, Garry quickly shoos us into their house for the waiting-to-be-served midday feast. Home- butchered beef with her home garden vegetables are complemented by biscuits baked in the outdoor adobe hornos and gravy. Fresh fruit dessert pies complete the feast.

Guy Drew Vineyards

Back on County Road G we wind our way up-canyon to the Four Corners wine country east of the Adams’ ranch. “People who don’t like Chardonnay like this wine,” explains Ruth Drew, pouring Unoaked Chardonnay from Guy Drew Vineyards into several tasting glasses for people seated at the counter and the Drew’s kitchen table, “this is pure Chardonnay without any accoutrements to blemish its taste.”

The tasting room has limited hours posted on the website., and Ruth opens some newly bottled Meritage from a bottle next to the sink to pour for a red wine lover. “This is a blend creating an American Bordeaux,” she explains. “Only wines bottled in Bordeaux from local grapes can be called ‘Bordeaux.’ ‘Meritage’ is what it’s being called domestically.” The sampling is capped with one of my favorite wines, a Gewürztraminer from the grapevines I’m viewing across the driveway outside the kitchen window.

Wines in the tasting room at the Guy Drew Vineyards, Cortez, Colorado. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Wines in the tasting room at the Guy Drew Vineyards, Cortez, Colorado. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Satiated with the wine sampling, it’s time to head towards town. In Mesa Verde Country it’s possible to eat your way through the area’s small, family organic farms and stands dotting the landscape and selling fresh seasonal produce and from-the-tree fruit. Consolidating the effort, the Cortez Seasonal Saturday Farmer’s Market opens at 7:30 in the Courthouse parking lot bringing many of the small growers together. Supplemented with homemade pastries, locally- roasted coffees, and site cooked foods, the market is walking restaurant. Munching on healthy and tasty foods, stroll past original crafts booths, enjoy live music, and turn the market from shopping excursion into a small festival.

Mesa Verde Country

With Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez is an international destination. It’s a richer experience extending park time to take in the local agritourism and off-the-beaten track sites. The area is a collection of family farms and agriculturally-oriented businesses.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

Some of the ancestral pueblos in the Cutthroat unit at Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Some farmers are Native Americans, some are native to the area, others have come from Denver, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas and back east. All demonstrate that history does repeat itself, and agricultural production existing more than a thousand years ago now returns to one of the Four Corners— Mesa Verde Country.


 

 

  • Hovenweep National Monument
  • San Juan County (Utah) Road 413 (Hovenweep Rd.)
  • Between Blanding, Utah, and Cortez, Colorado
  • Do not use GPS for routing; use a map from National Park Service
  • 970-562-4282 x10
  • NPS.gov/Hove

 

 

 

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