Arriving at Yucca House National Monument leaves a lot to the imagination.
But that’s half the fun of visiting this unexcavated ruin that keeps its secrets from when it was a thriving village 800 years ago.
Managed by Mesa Verde National Park, Yucca House (once known as Aztec Springs) is a series of sagebrush-covered mounds and depressions in the shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain.
“Increasing interest in the site caused the park service to begin offering tours,” said Jill Blumenthal, an interpretive ranger with Mesa Verde National Park. “Not a lot of research has been done on the site, but it has the potential for new discovery and could answer a lot of questions.”
Blumenthal warns our group of seven to be wary of rattlesnakes and avoid trampling pot sherds that litter the undeveloped and remote monument, which is surrounded by private farmland north of Towaoc.
Don’t expect the perfectly preserved and displayed kivas, towers, rooms and walls of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers.
This is Yucca House. There are no signs on how to get there, the trails are faint and undeveloped, there are no exposed structures, save one stabilized wall, and no bathrooms, shops or eateries.
No interpretive signs means taking the guided tour is a must.
Indeed, to the untrained eye, Yucca House is unremarkable, but closer inspection while listening to the narrative backstory of a guide is intriguing.
The 35-acre Pueblo site includes 600 rooms, more than 100 kivas, several towers, multiple plazas, unexplained structures, and one great kiva.
“It was a significant village along the Montezuma Valley, a major transportation corridor to the Mancos and San Juan Rivers and around to Mesa Verde,” Blumenthal says.
A crumpled rubble pile at the village entrance rises to a circular stone tower in the mind’s eye: “Watching the comings and goings of the community, for defense, for astronomical study, nobody knows for sure.”
A productive spring flows through the middle of the complex, and is protected by defensive walls and enclosed structures, an indication that residents were intensely protecting their water source at Yucca House.
Upper House rises above the village, a three-story Great House that is a mystery to archaeologists because it does not fit the timeframe of Pueblo III (1150-1300) and has Chacoan characteristics.
The purpose of a rare bi-wall structure surrounding a kiva is also not understood.
“Will this all be excavated?” asks Deepa Vijay, a New Jersey tourist.
Blumenthal says that is an ongoing debate within the park service. But right now there are no plans to excavate Yucca House.
“There are mixed feelings on that. It is well preserved now because it is not well known and people have stayed away,” she says. “Inventory has been done; now managing the people who visit is the next step.”
Noninvasive fieldwork was conducted on the site in 2000 in cooperation with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez. The project mapped all visible architecture using modern techniques and was the first official map made of the site in 100 years.
Interestingly, the first map of Yucca House was created in 1878 by William H. Homes as part of a U.S. Geological Survey, and it is not far off from today’s modern one.
The tour shuffles across an ancient plaza, admiring individual piles of black-on-white pieces of pottery. One large decorative piece is part of a serving bowl that would have been shared during group feasting.
But the fact the sherds have been collected and moved into piles speaks to the need for more attention at the site.
“They have been disturbed and are now out of context so it takes away from research,” Blumenthal says. “It has low visitation, but because of the Internet it is increasing and the park service is recognizing that better care is needed here.”
Currently local landowners help keep watch over the site and allow for access, but it is not an ideal situation.
“Our hope is to have land for parking that is specifically part of the monument and not where it is now – in someone’s driveway,” Blumenthal says.
Yucca House culture is contemporaneous with that of Mesa Verde and its ancestors. The Hopi tribe’s unique Tewa language has words referencing the site, and elders from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico have oral tradition about the village.
“It has a clear connection to the Pueblo people today,” Blumenthal says. “It was a home of their ancestors, and the fact that it is still here relatively untouched and preserved as a national monument is special.”
The next available tours of Yucca House are Sept. 10 and 19. A 2-3 hour tour begins at the Colorado Welcome Center and participants carpool to the site 8 miles south of Cortez.
Go to www.recreation.gov and enter Mesa Verde National Park. Scroll down to the Yucca House tours to sign up.