At the small tribal visitor center near the Ute reservation town of Towaoc in the high Colorado desert, I climbed into an aging Ford van with four others. We'd come to Ute Mountain Tribal Park for an unusual, intimate look at cliff dwellings cut into the sandstone canyons here. The series of stone rooms were built more than 800 years ago by what are now known as Ancient Puebloans (sometimes referred to as Anasazi), ancestors to modern-day Pueblo and Hopi people. Despite the popularity of such sites, we seemed to be alone as we traveled 20 miles of gravel road up the Mancos River Canyon with our guide, Rick Hayes.

Hayes, 54, is half Ute, half Cheyenne, with a pair of braids to his shoulders, a big laugh and a nonstop commentary.

Once on the mesa top, Hayes looked out the van's window to the north. "That's where all the people are," he said, pointing in the distance to Mesa Verde National Park, which the tribal park wraps around.

We, on the other hand, had the world to ourselves.

Visitors to the American Southwest know about the national park, 52,000 acres in the middle of a massive plateau more than 1,500 feet above the desert below. Named after that "green table" of land, the park is home to hundreds of cliff dwellings. For more than a century, millions of people have visited the park.

Fewer people know about the place I'd come to: another 125,000 acres that sit on the same high mesa, also topped by sage, pinyon pines and juniper trees, also sliced by colorful rock canyons and also home to dwellings, rock art and pottery pieces left behind by the same people.

That's because this land belongs to the Ute Indians, who opened it as a tribal park in 1981 and who restrict access to those accompanied by a Ute guide. If you call ahead, you can sign up for a half-day or full-day tour.

My advice: Take the full day.

Ladders lead to rooms of stone

During my daylong tour with Hayes, a band of wild horses watched us approach and then, led by a big black stallion, turned and galloped off. At another point, a massive wild bull, a leftover from some long-ago Ute cattle run, stared at us and then lumbered slowly away.

After some leisurely stops to check out a few ruins and even a couple of ancient check dams that still stored rainwater in small pools, we pulled up to the rim of Lion Canyon. We ate the lunch we'd been instructed to pack and were glad for the water we'd brought along. Then we started hiking down the canyon.

We climbed down a series of wooden ladders the tribe has installed and soon were in Tree House, a collection of well-preserved rooms of stone blocks and a circular kiva, once used for ceremonies, tucked into a sandstone alcove. Above us a worn but well-preserved T-shaped door led to rooms of precisely built stone walls.

Ravens rasped; a breeze whooshed. Otherwise, there was the large silence of the canyon as we worked along a ledge that brought us to one alcove after another, each with another set of preserved rooms. Grooves in the stone marked places where the residents had smoothed their grinding stones. Shards of pottery and tiny corn cobs remained from the last habitation in the late 1200s.

In one room was scratched "A Wetherill 1-1-88" and "J Wetherill 1-14-1890." Al and John Wetherill were ranching brothers credited with "discovering" many ruins in the area in the 1880s.

Hayes estimated that at its peak population, this little canyon was home to maybe 250 people farming the valleys and the mesa top. Tree-ring dating shows they only lived here for about 150 years, from around 1140 to about 1285.

The Four Corners region is dotted with thousands of sets of such ruins and panels of rock art, built and created over at least several thousand years. Scientists have categorized the people by their pottery, their hunting weapons, their architecture and their art. People were coming, going, trading and changing constantly.

One of the enduring questions is why, after all that, everybody picked up and left this area in a fairly short time, just a few years before 1300 A.D., hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived. Theories abound about the role of drought, overpopulation, changing religion, raiders from the outside, raiders from the next canyon. The high, protected cliff dwellings suggest to many a defensive posture.

A personal perspective

As we stopped in the cool shade of each dwelling, Hayes provided a more personal interpretation of what we were seeing.

The Utes were nomadic hunters, not farmers like the corn-, beans- and squash-growing pueblo dwellers. They moved with the seasons and, to Hayes, would quite naturally have mingled and traded with the cliff dwelling people. When those people left, the Utes stayed, making the mesa and the surrounding areas their prime hunting grounds. And indeed this land is a remnant of the vast area of Utah and Colorado that the Utes dominated when Europeans arrived. In an aside, Hayes notes the Utes were considered aggressive and dangerous. "They ain't changed much," he says with a laugh.

But why did the Puebloans leave? Hayes said Hopi Indians have told him it was simply "time to go." They had been told by their gods to expand and bless the land and then return to their homelands after that task was done, he said. He thinks that is what happened, and those who visit today should feel that blessing, he told us, and try to live in harmony with the land and with one another. "Don't judge others; just be with them. The story's not done; to understand you have to know the religion."

In the shade of a sandstone alcove with no one around for miles, you wanted to take it to heart.

Hayes' chattering slowed when it came to the kivas, and although we clambered through other rooms, the circular ceremonial places were off limits.

"I hate to get in the kivas unless I have to," he said. "Had to go get a guy's hat that blew off once. I thought we'd have to do a ceremony," he said with a smile.

Late in the afternoon, we came down off the mesa well behind schedule. But Hayes wanted to show us one last site.

He stopped the van and we hiked 50 feet off the road to a sandstone outcrop.

Pecked into a dark slab of red sandstone was an intricate set of ancient drawings, how ancient nobody knows. There was a spider, a spiral, several human figures, then 10 feet away several more figures seemed to emerge from a crack that had been carved into the rock.

The scene, Hayes said, signified a Hopi story of both the creation of the world we live in by Spider Grandmother and the emergence of people from the sipapu, which led humans into the world. The spiral may have astronomical significance because at the winter solstice the shadow of a nearby rock falls directly on its center, Hayes said.

Like I said, it makes you want to believe.

Dave Peters, an editor for Minnesota Public Radio News, frequents the western United States.