Road Scholar adventures in the Ancient Puebloans’ Southwest

On a hiking trail to the White House Ruins. (Photos courtesy Julie Gangler)
On a hiking trail to the White House Ruins. (Photos courtesy Julie Gangler)

The American Southwest is one part of this country with which I was unfamiliar – and I wanted to learn about its ancient peoples as well as see its famed landscapes of dramatic mesas, canyons and rock formations.

So last year I went on the Road Scholar tour “Hopi Mesas, Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley – Exploring Lands of the Hopi and Navajo.” I found that trip so fascinating that this year I took Road Scholar’s “Ancient Puebloans” tour. This one explored ruins in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

Mesa Verde Cliff House Ruins.
Mesa Verde Cliff House Ruins.

If you’re interested in more than being a typical tourist and learning when you travel, Road Scholar offers superb tours in conjunction with local universities and educational institutions. This is what I enjoyed most about both my Southwest Road Scholar tours. I learned the equivalent of a college course in the topic while experiencing the Southwest’s spectacular scenery and several national parks/monuments.

Road Scholar was known – and highly successful – as Elderhostel for many years, beginning in 1975. But its age 55-plus participants began resisting the “elder” label, so Elderhostel wisely changed its name to Road Scholar in 2010. This clever word-play on Rhodes Scholar (the world’s oldest fellowship program at Oxford University in England) perfectly sums up the experiential learning and travel opportunities now offered by Road Scholar.

A not-for-profit organization, Road Scholar currently offers 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and all 50 states, serving more than 100,000 participants per year. The organization bills itself as “the leader of the lifelong learning movement.” Also, Road Scholar has evolved way beyond its early hostel/college dorm rooms to provide comfortable hotel accommodations and quality restaurant meals. My generation spoke – and Road Scholar listened.

The other benefit of a Road Scholar tour is that it connects you with like-minded travelers who want to learn as well as see and experience – and who easily form a sense of camaraderie. On both of my tours, I met wonderful traveling companions and new friends. But not a single complainer, chronic tardy-type or disruptive individual. What a real pleasure, compared to other tours I’ve taken.

This October my “Ancient Puebloans” tour went out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It visited the highlights of famous ruins in the Four Corners area, where people lived from approximately 100 BC to 1300 AD – first in semi-subterranean pit houses, then adobe pueblos beginning about 700 AD, and later amazing cliff dwellings built during a brief period of 1200-1300 AD.

Canyon del Muerto Antelope House Ruins.
Canyon del Muerto Antelope House Ruins.

These included Chaco Canyon (the epicenter of the Ancient Puebloan civilization), Aztec Ruins National Monument (misnomer by early Spanish explorers – Aztecs were never there), Mesa Verde National Park with its many spectacular pueblo and cliff dwelling sites, Hovenweep National Monument, and the incomparable Canyon de Chelly – which I’d experienced on last year’s tour and happily revisited. This year the tour group hiked down a rocky trail into the 6,600-foot-deep canyon to see the famous White House Ruin up close.

Another highlight was Mesa Verde’s Balcony House Ruin. It is one of three ruins in the national park where visitors can actually experience – rather than view from a distance – what life in an ancient cliff dwelling must have been like. My Road Scholar group crawled up a 32-foot-high ladder into the Balcony House Ruin, walked through the pueblo living areas and looked down into ceremonial kiva pits, then crawled through narrow passageways carved in the sandstone to get to other cliff dwelling areas (perhaps constructed to be quickly closed off if enemies attacked?)

Climbing up to the Mesa Verde Balcony House Ruins.
Climbing up to the Mesa Verde Balcony House Ruin.

The Ancient Puebloans left many mysteries about their culture and why they began abandoning their elaborately constructed pueblos in the late 1200s. Theories include a devastating 20-year drought, exhausted soil that impacted their bean-corn-squash farming culture, social unrest and Toltec invaders from Mexico who terrorized the local populace so they abruptly fled elsewhere. But there are as many questions as answers about the Ancient Puebloan sites and cultures – which is what makes this sort of Road Scholar tour so intriguing. We had the opportunity to ask our anthropologist guide endless questions (even if he didn’t have all the answers).

Last year, my Road Scholar trip had both a Hopi and a Navajo guide with us throughout the tour to explain past and present customs, traditions and beliefs. We spent several days on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in Arizona. The most intriguing Hopi place we visited was Old Walpi on First Mesa – it is the oldest settlement and has been continuously inhabited since 900 AD by predecessors of the Hopi. The village perches on a long narrow spine of rock with sheer vertical walls several hundred feet above the surrounding plains – great views (to spot approaching enemies) but not easy to reach. The oldest adobe dwellings at one end still have no running water or electricity.

Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly.
Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly.

Canyon de Chelly was the highlight of our visit to the Navajo Reservation. This spectacular area was occupied by Navajo when white men arrived, so they are grandfathered by treaty to live in the canyon – even though it is a U.S. National Monument established in 1931.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d’Shay”) is a mutilated Navajo word rather than French, and houses the amazing cliff dwellings of White House Ruin, Antelope Ruin and Mummy Cave Ruin among others. Spider Rock, an 800-foot-high spire, rises up improbably right in the middle of the south canyon. There’s just no end to stunning “photo ops” here.

For more information on Road Scholar tours, visit

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.



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