Every Friday morning, all summer long, The Early Show is featuring vacation destinations a little off the beaten path. It's a series called "The Best Of America."
For this week's segment, CBS News National Correspondent Hattie Kauffman traveled to sacred land where Native Americans lived centuries ago.
Tourists who visit Arizona often come to see the Grand Canyon. But if you're willing to detour toward the Flagstaff area, you'll find an array of archeological ruins nearly 900 years old. But you have to look carefully; the cliff dwellings and adobe buildings blend into the desert landscape.
Over millions of years, water carved Walnut Canyon, creating limestone ledges that offer protection from the elements, a perfect place to build a house, as the Sinagua Indians did.
"We have a little over 350 cliff dwellings throughout this canyon," says Ranger John Portillo.
So when you're inside the cliff dwelling and look out, you're seeing what somebody saw "a little over 800 years ago, the same view. And we're looking across to other ruins, maybe another clan member," says Portillo.
"Imagine their fires glowing in their little caves. So I bet you, it had a warm feeling to it, just looking across and seeing that," he adds.
Today, we have the advantage of handrails and stairs. Archeologists believe the Indians used natural crevices in the rock to travel up and down the steep canyon walls.
"Average height was about 5 feet 5 inches. They didn't live very long by our standards. If you were over 30, you were approaching the end of your life. If you were around 15, you were midlife," he notes.
Around 1300 A.D., the Sinagua abandoned their cliffside homes. Scientists still don't know why.
"Maybe the crops weren't doing so well, maybe there was disease. They might interpret that as a reason to leave, that there was a spiritual message that it's time to go," says Ranger Portillo.
The scenery changes as the painted desert unfolds about an hour's drive north of Walnut Canyon. At Wupatki National Monument, ancient pueblos built right into the rocks have stood the test of time.
National Park Ranger Rueben Honahnie is a member of the Hopi tribe. Hopi consider themselves descendants of the Sinagua.
"The building stood, they say, about four stories and 100 rooms or so. This is but one of many communities that were here," says Ranger Honahnie.
Two circular structures are a mystery. Archeologists can only guess at what took place here. A market, ballgames, perhaps the tribe gathered to hear storytellers, or for spiritual ceremonies.
"These places are the places of our origins, life ways and our beliefs. And our ceremonies," says Ranger Honahnie, "These are just the footsteps into where we are now."
Adding to the sense of spirituality is a natural blowhole. A breeze comes out of the ground, as if the earth were breathing. All of it is unforgettable, for those who make the extra effort.
Both Walnut Canyon and Wupatki National Monuments are open all summer long from sunrise to sunset. Walnut Canyon is at an elevation of around 7,000 feet, so even in the summer, you might need jacket early in the day. Wupatki is at a lower elevation, about 5,000, so it's much warmer.