Monday, July 31, 2017

Yucca House National Monument: NPS Centennial Project

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Escalante Pueblo
Anasazi Heritage Center.  Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  Colorado.  May 9, 2016.
Copyright © 2017 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved

Whereas there is in Montezuma County, Colorado, on the eastern slope of the Sleeping Ute Mountain an imposing pile of masonry of great archaeological value, relic of the prehistoric inhabitants of that part of the country...there is hereby reserved and set apart as a national monument, to be known as Yucca House National Monument. 
- Presidential Proclamation 1549, December 19, 1919

I have not been to this monument, but I deeply regret not going when I was near by in 2016.  I stamped my passport at Mesa Verde National Park with great plans to visit the monument before I left the area, but a lack of time and the fear of missing other attractions won the day and cost me a visit to Yucca House.

Yucca House National Monument is at the foot of Sleeping Ute Mountain, close to Mesa Verde, and is managed by that park.  This is a crazy, obscure place that I'd never heard of until I saw its passport stamp for the park in the Mesa Verde Visitor Center.  It is tiny, remote, hard to access, and virtually unheard of...  Originally, I figured that this was a newer monument that had yet to be developed, so I was very surprised to find out that it was created almost a century ago, which, for me, only added to its mystery and charm.

The monument was created on December 19, 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson.  It preserves a mostly unexcavated Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan site that was occupied from approximately 1150 CE to approximately 1280 CE.  The Denver Post notes that the area's population "is believed to have moved into what is now northern New Mexico in the 1280s to live along the Rio Grande River, where the Hopi and Zuni tribes live today," though where they went is the subject of some speculation and dispute.

Remnants of Ancestral Puebloan architecture at Yucca House National Monument, surrounded by private farmland.
Photo: NPS

According to the National Park Service (NPS):

Yucca House is one of the largest archeological sites in southwest Colorado, and acted as an important community center for the Ancestral Puebloan people from A.D. 1150-1300. On July 2, 1919, Henry Van Kleeck deeded 9.6 acres of land, including most of Yucca House, to the federal government. Due to its significance as an excellent example of a valley pueblo, Woodrow Wilson made Yucca House a National Monument by Presidential Proclamation on December 19, 1919.

Yucca House National Monument is one of our earliest examples of public/private stewardship of our cultural resources and will remain protected well into the future. The long-term preservation of Yucca House ensures that archeologists will be able to continue studying Ancestral Puebloan society and what caused them to migrate from this region in the late 1200s.

In the late 1990s, an additional 24 acres were donated by Hallie Ismay and added to the monument. She "was an unofficial steward of the Yucca House site for 62 years." (Wikipedia)

Archaeological mound at Yucca House National Monument, in Montezuma County, Colorado.
Photo: NPS
Public domain work of U.S. Gov't agency

The site was originally called Aztec Springs, as one of the first folks to document the site thought that it was made by the Aztecs, not the Anasazi, a common mistake made with Ancestral Puebloan ruins at the time.  

When the monument was created, the site's name was changed to avoid confusion with Aztec Ruins National Monument, another Ancestral Puebloan site not far away in New Mexico. The NPS explains that the new name "was selected for the monument because the Ute Indians called Sleeping Ute Mountain by a name meaning yucca." While yucca are plentiful on the mountain, the NPS notes that none currently grow within the monument itself.

There are two main pueblo complexes within the monument.  The “West Complex” is "a large pueblo with an estimated 600 rooms, over 100 kivas, and a great kiva (that perhaps served the entire community)" with a "productive spring flow[ing] through the middle of the complex." (NPS)   The other is the "Lower Complex," which the NPS describes as "an L-shaped pueblo with at least eight first-story rooms" including a wall enclosed "plaza with a great kiva at its center."

I've been mildly obsessed with this monument since I first learned about it last year.  It is so tiny and secret!  There are a few, old, hand made signs marking the location, though no actual interpretive materials.  The Denver Post strongly suggests doing some research on your own before visiting the site.

Just finding and getting to the monument is part of the fun.  For example, the NPS directions to the monument includes the phrase "head towards the white ranch house with the red roof on the west horizon" and asks visitors to be sure that all the gates on the road are closed behind them to "prevent livestock from escaping."  There are no signs until you reach the monument itself.

But it is a public location accessible by a public road, though The Denver Post notes that only about 1000 people a year make the trip.  This public access was re-affirmed in 2014 when the owner of those gates on the road filed an application with Montezuma County to have the road vacated, closing it to public use.  The county decided to keep the road open because its "1936 easement agreement states it cannot be abandoned or vacated unless there is an alternative road to reach the monument."

Entrance to Yucca House National Monument
Photo: NPS
CC BY-SA 2.5

Change may be coming to the monument.  A "nearby landowner, Bernard Karwick, has signed a letter of intent to donate 160 acres to the National Park Service," states The Denver Post, which may eventually be used to build a new access road to the monument.  If a new road is built, "the Park Service plans to add a few more amenities in the form of more signs, a shelter and a parking lot."

These changes still won't alter the fundamental nature of the monument, though.  A massive, virtually untouched Anasazi ruin left in its "natural" state.  To me, that is a very cool thing, but not everyone agrees.

On TripAdvisor, most of the very few reviews are negative.  People don't want to see barely noticeable piles of rocks.  People want better, easier, more comfortable access.  People want visitor facilities.  As one of the positive reviews notes, criticizing these "unfair" complaints, "If you are on a 'highlights' tour or want an entertainment site, this should not be on your list."  The charm of the site is that it is not reconstructed, that it is as it was found...  It is a place to use your imagination, stepping back to the site's discovery in the 1800s, or even further...

As a different reviewer notes, this is a place to see "real ruins."

Mesa Verde from Yucca House National Monument
Photo: NPS

Finally, a few bookkeeping notes...

This post started as a paragraph in today's National Monuments in Danger post on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, but I realized that it didn't really fit there.  This monument is too far away, it's tied in more with Mesa Verde National Park and the NPS system than the BLM's Canyons of the Ancients, and it's not in immediate danger of elimination like the 27 monuments under review. While both Canyons of the Ancients and Yucca House are largely undeveloped and contain Ancestral Puebloan ruins, that is largely where their connections end.

So, instead, I am throwing the "NPS Centennial" project tag on this one.  That project, less organized than the monuments project, is still on-going in my eyes.  I'll continue to use that tag for posts involving the parks I visited last year, the actual centennial, since the itineraries for my travels were largely shaped by the desire to hit as many national parks and monuments as possible.  In 2016, I did post many photos under that tag from parks I visited in previous years, but that is because those posts actually went up during the centennial year.

However, I am cheating a bit with this post.  I got the stamp, but I didn't actually visit the park!

Likewise, I am cheating on the National Parks section of my website, which is sort of the home base for the Centennial project. This is the only page there for a park that I have not visited and from which I have no photos.  Of course, over my life I've visited many more parks than those that appear on the website now, but all those old prints and negatives have been lost over the years, so I have no photos to post, and, consequently, no pages to share...

Passport Stamp
Mesa Verde National Park.  Colorado.  May 9, 2017
Copyright © 2017 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved

With the National Monuments in Danger project, though, I didn't let a lack of photos or a visit stop me from posting on the 27 monuments facing reduction or elimination.  And over the last weeks, more and more, I can see these two projects merging together in the future.

Let's face it, with the current administration, all of our parks and monuments are in varying levels of jeopardy from budget cuts, resource extraction, and increased privatization all the way through to reduction and elimination.  Plus, I'd like to to start ranging far and wide, visiting and sharing about these special places, in a year or so, but until then, I would still like to "virtually" explore a lot of these parks and monuments before that trip can occur.  Some of that is just for fun, but it also should be valuable prep work for a long trip, or series of trips, over the next few years.

What will this merged, grander project look like?  I am not sure yet, though some ideas are kicking around.  I haven't obtained a top level URL for the monument website yet because I am not sure of what the final name will be.  I suspect that the monument website may become a significant part of indexing the merged project.  Likewise, the blog posts will continue to make up its "pages" and the photo galleries will continue to grow on my main website.

There is much I want to write about from my travels last year, and many more photos and videos left to share, and from the last 10 or more years, too.  And there are many more places to go...  And many more places that I can learn about from my desk, until I go...  And there are not enough hours in everyday to do it all!  But I will keep chipping away at everything as well as I can, and I am looking forward to the evolution of all of this as I forge ahead.

For the near future though, I plan on keeping my focus mostly on the 27 monuments currently under review.  I have much more to share about the ones that I have been to, and will also continue to post updates about the rest as we learn more about the results of this process.

Here and there, though, I may sneak in a post like this one, though, just for a short break and a brief change of pace...

Yucca House National Monument

33.5 acres



National Park Centennial Project

National Monuments in Danger

National Park Service

Yucca House National Monument Visitor Guide

Yucca House National Monument Website

Glimpses of Our National Monuments: Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument (1930)


Go Hike Colorado: Yucca House National Monument

This page has some great photos...

The Denver Post

Yucca House National Monument access gets challenged by landowner (August 10, 2014)

Road to Yucca House National Monument to remain open, county decides (September 14, 2014)