If you’ve been in the Four Corners for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the Ancestral Puebloans. The ancient Native American culture lived in the region for more than 700 years before moving away in the late 1200s A.D. The ruins of their civilization can be found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, with the most famous being Mesa Verde and Chaco.
The evidence suggests that the prehistoric people lived or traveled as far west as southern Nevada and east into the Great Plains. But their best preserved ruins are basically centered around northwestern New Mexico. As such, it’s a bit surprising the first time you hear about the Manitou Cliff Dwellings in Manitou Springs, located just west of Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods.
We’re not archaeologists, but the dwellings in the Pikes Peak area don’t feel like they’re anywhere near all the other Ancestral Puebloan ruins. After all, Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon are more or less 100 miles apart as the crow flies. Manitou Springs is much further away, and located in an environment that just feels different from the others. The organization that manages the dwellings claims they are authentic, but they also let anyone climb around on and touch them, something you certainly won’t find at Mesa Verde. (“You don’t understand, Park Ranger ... I gotta get that Gram!”)
If something feels off, there’s a good reason: The dwellings are fake. Sorta.
In 1889, a Colorado Springs-based journalist named Virginia McClurg formed the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association with historical preservationist Lucy Peabody after multiple trips to explore Mesa Verde. Their mission was to get the federal government to protect the ruins in Southwest Colorado by making them a national park. Congress wasn’t interested, though, and after ten years of failure, McClurg gave up and moved on to Plan B: destroy the ruins.
McClurg obtained the rights to a group of dwellings in McElmo Canyon, west of Cortez, and had a team of preservationists map their layout. Then, she had them dismantle the ruins and load them onto oxen-pulled wagons bound for Dolores. From there, they were hauled by train to Colorado Springs and then to Manitou Springs’ Cliff Canyon. There, from 1904 to 1907, the ruins were reassembled into an approximation of what they looked like originally.
The reconstruction, however, was only faithful to a point. For instance, instead of the adobe the Ancestral Puebloans would have used to mortar their buildings together, the team used concrete. They also added other features to transform the ruins into a safe tourist attraction.
Ironically, as McClurg was taking apart her ruins and moving them to the Front Range, Peabody found success in her original goal. Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, and Teddy Roosevelt immediately began using its powers to start protecting Ancestral Puebloan ruins, creating Mesa Verde National Park that same year.
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings opened as a preserve and museum of Puebloan history. Is visiting it an authentic experience? Probably not — but they still try to present the culture to people in the same way the World Showcase pavilions at Disney’s Epcot theme park try to inform visitors about, say, French or Japanese culture. It definitely isn’t the real thing, but if you can get past that (and the feeling that they stole a part of Southwest Colorado’s history), visiting this site is far from the least interesting thing you can do near Colorado Springs.
After all, Mesa Verde and Chaco won’t let you run around like a maniac inside their ruins.