Back in the days when Arthur Cuthair's father was a young man, the Ute Mountain Indians stayed away from the prehistoric cliff houses scattered across their reservation in southwest Colorado. They believed that evil spirits lived in these ancient, multistory stone dwellings, resembling apartment buildings, built on ledges high up on the walls of narrow canyons.

But times have changed. Today, Cuthair is director of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, a small, struggling tribal enterprise that seven years ago began offering tours of these remarkable cliff dwellings left by Indians known as the Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones"). The Anasazi lived in the region from about A.D. 400 to 1300, and then mysteriously disappeared.

The Anasazi cliff dwellings in the Ute park are hidden in remote canyons. Even the most accessible cliff houses can be reached only after a dusty drive on a winding gravel road and a short hike. But this adds a sense of exploration and discovery to a tour of the park.

The Anasazi ruins are part of the rich archeological heritage of the Southwestern United States. Most are located in the arid Four Corners area, where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Perhaps the best known are the large cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, near Cortez, Colo., which have been restored and stabilized by the National Park Service.

The Ute park takes up 125,000 acres of the 500,000-acre Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, and is twice as large as Mesa Verde, which it borders on three sides. In fact, the Mesa Verde area was once part of the Ute reservation, but was taken back by the federal government in 1906 so the national park could be established.

Last summer I made the 15-mile drive to the reservation from Cortez, Colo., along a desert road that parallels a high mesa. Eventually, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, I came to the cement block building that houses the tribe's bingo hall and a small pottery factory. This is at the edge of a village called Towaoc (pronounced "toy-yahk"), which means "a fine place" in the Ute language. From Towaoc, it is about 20 more miles to the entrance of Mancos Canyon and the world of the Anasazi.

I was the only visitor to the park that day, so Cuthair asked me to join him and another guide, Shirley Deer, in the cab of his Chevy pickup for the 110-mile round-trip tour of the park. Along the way, Cuthair told how the Anasazi grew corn, beans and squash on the fertile banks of the small rivers that cut through the canyonlands. They built roads to connect their far-flung cliff house settlements, and were active traders.

Many archeologists believe the Anasazi abandoned this region because of prolonged droughts beginning about 1160, and that they migrated south into present-day Mexico, where they were assimilated into other Indian groups.

Mancos Canyon is narrow, and enclosed by high, flat mesas covered with scrubby pinåon pine and sagebrush. Cottonwoods and willows grow along the Mancos River, which runs slowly through the canyon. The canyon's steep sandstone cliffs are colored in shades of gray and brown; many are streaked with black mineral stains called desert varnish.

We moved at a lazy, comfortable pace, stopping frequently to savor the sights. The area is rich in Indian art, from ancient Anasazi petroglyphs -- small scenes depicting deer and hunters carved onto a rock -- to more recent Ute rock paintings showing warriors and horses.

Before "the reservation days," Cutler said, eight separate bands of Utes wandered the mountains among the present-day sites of Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.

At first the gravel road follows the river, but then turns away and climbs about 1,000 feet to the top of a mesa. On top we stopped at the site of a former archeological dig of an Anasazi settlement. The earliest Anasazi, Cuthair explained, lived on the mesa tops in pit houses. The cliff dwellings were not developed until around A.D. 750, probably to provide better defense.

The view from the high mesa was spectacular. Directly north was Mesa Verde. To the south, in New Mexico, we could see the famous landmark peak called Shiprock; far to the southwest, in Arizona, we saw the purple Chuska Mountains in a desert haze; and to the east, Colorado's snow-capped La Plata Range, the source of the Mancos River.

The gravel road became a dirt path as our truck zig-zagged along the mesa. We stopped in a pinåon grove, where Deer led the way to the edge of a cliff. We climbed down four ladders fashioned from pine branches, Anasazi-style. The canyon floor was hundreds of feet below. The pungent, piney odor of the pinåon trees filled the air. Our destination was the magnificent Anasazi ruin called Tree House, named for the giant, 180-year-old Douglas firs that have grown up in front of it.

We walked about a quarter of a mile along a narrow ledge. By now, late morning, the summer day had become hot -- but we were cool in the quiet shade under the rim of the cliff.

At the ruin, rays of sunlight flickered and played in the shadows on the Anasazi masonry. The only sounds were the chirping of birds and the light wind rustling through the canyon. Shards -- pieces of Anasazi pottery -- were scattered about. The dominant feeling was a great sense of peace, and separation from a crazy world outside this canyon.

"Sit for a moment or two and don't say anything," Cuthair suggested. "I think you can feel the spirit of the Anasazi. That's the difference between this park and Mesa Verde. This experience doesn't exist for the tourist at Mesa Verde."

Indeed. Only 550 tourists visited the Ute park last year, compared with more than 700,000 visitors to Mesa Verde.

Cuthair and Deer pointed out the parts of an Anasazi underground ceremonial room called a kiva: the fireplace, the ventilation system and the sipapu, a hole in the floor that was the symbolic entrance into the spirit world from where the Anasazi believed they came.

Tree House once had 26 rooms and three kivas. The remaining rooms are dark inside, almost chilly, even in summer. How many people lived in a place like this? "No one can tell exactly," Cuthair said. "But always count the kivas. There was one for each clan. That's as far as I wish to break it down."

We worked our way back past the ladders to another ruin called Lion House -- the remains of 47 rooms and six kivas. Large pine rafters, perhaps 700 years old, still lay across the top of one kiva, and masonry rubble mixed with shards lay about.

The entire Ute park is open to backpackers. They are welcome to hike into the back country and camp at remote cliff houses, if accompanied by a Ute guide -- usually Cuthair.

Cuthair is a good-humored, enthusiastic spokesman for his tribesmen, 1,600 of whom live on the reservation. He and his assistants are knowledgeable about Anasazi history and the park's environment, having been trained by the National Park Service.

For visitors unaccustomed to spending time with Native Americans, the opportunity to chat with your guide while driving through the park can be an insightful addition to a tour. As we drove along, Cuthair talked about tribal politics and the reservation's poverty and 70 percent unemployment rate, not uncommon on Indian reservations.

In 1986, despite Cuthair's strong disapproval, the ruling seven-member Ute Mountain Tribal Council signed an agreement with a helicopter charter company in Cortez to fly tourists through the canyons of the Ute park to view the ruins.

Cuthair believes the noisy copters spoil the special serenity of the Ute park, and fears their noise and vibration may damage the cliff dwellings. He says visitors complain about the helicopters.

"I was with one group that spent half a day on a tough hike to reach a remote site," Cuthair said. "They were just about to climb into the ruin to explore it, and here comes a helicopter right into the canyon. They shook their fists at it."

Primarily because the helicopter tours are so expensive ($50 a person for two people for 20 minutes), the number of flights has been limited.

On the hot, dusty drive back to Towaoc, we stopped in the canyon to eat a lunch of sandwiches and fruit. The temperature must have been about 90 degrees, but we were comfortable in the shade of two big cottonwood trees on the bank of the Mancos.

We stayed by the Mancos for an hour, enjoying a breeze and the rugged, arid landscape that surrounded us under the clear, blue Southwestern sky. Cuthair talked of his hopes for the park, and for the economic benefits it may bring.

"The first few years we stumbled along," he said. "We didn't really know what the public wanted. I'd like to see the number of tourists increase a little each year, to maybe 3,000 visitors. That would mean more jobs for our people." Robert C. Wurmstedt is a free-lance writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE:

The Ute Mountain Tribal Park is in the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado, adjacent to Mesa Verde National Park. Towaoc, where tours begin, is 15 miles south of Cortez, Colo. (pop. 7,095), on Route 666; about 380 miles southwest of Denver; and about 250 miles northwest of Sante Fe and Albuquerque. Cortez is served by air from Denver by Continental Airlines.

VISITING THE PARK:

The park is open from about June through October or as long as the weather holds. Reservations must be made in advance for all day tours, campsites or backpacking trips in the Ute park. There is a $7 per day entrance fee (although there is some talk of raising the fee this summer), which includes a day tour and overnight camping privileges at a site on the Mancos River. Campers are left alone in the campground but must be accompanied by Ute guides on hikes out of the campground area.

Tours of the Ute park are unstructured, unhurried and uncrowded. In fact, on any summer or autumn day, your party may well be the only visitors in the park.

Tours start about 9 a.m. and may last until noon or as late as 4 p.m., depending on the number of stops and how much time is spent at each site. Some visitors use their own vehicles and follow a guide who drives ahead in a pickup. Others carry a guide in their own cars, or ride with a guide in another pickup truck that has a back seat for passengers.

Visitors may arrange tours around their special interests, such as photography, rock climbing or bird watching. But all visitors in the park, including hikers on overnight backpacking trips to remote ruins, must be accompanied by a Ute guide. This is to protect the ruins, and also to prevent visitors from becoming lost.

Visitors must take their own food and water for day tours. Sturdy walking shoes and a hat are recommended, even for day tours. Visitors are advised to start out with a full tank of gas.

Overnight trips into the back country cost $20 per person per night, although this fee, too, may be raised this summer.

HELICOPTER TOURS:

Four Corners Helicopters Inc. offers air tours of the Ute park ruins. The helicopters do not land at the sites. They leave from a pad in the Ute park that can be reached only by driving through Mesa Verde National Park.

The tours last 10, 20 or 45 minutes and range in price from $25 to $125 per person. (Prices may go up this summer.) A 20-minute tour for two persons, for example, costs $50 per person. For information: Four Corners Helicopters, 7553 County Road 25, Cortez, Colo. 81321, (303) 565-8994 or (303) 882-4966.

WHERE TO STAY: There are more than a dozen moderately priced motels and campgrounds in the Cortez area. Ute Park will provide names, rates and locations. Or contact the Cortez Visitor Center, 808 E. Main, Cortez, Colo. 813221, (303) 565-3414.

INFORMATION:

Contact Arthur Cuthair, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Towaoc, Colo. 81883, (303) 565-3751, ext. 282, or (303) 565-4684.

Visitors spending a couple of days in the area might combine backpacking or touring in the Ute park with a visit to Mesa Verde. For information about Mesa Verde, contact the National Park Service, Mesa Verde National Park, Colo. 81330, (303) 529-4461. Robert C. Wurmstedt