Colorado Scenic Byways: Trail of the Ancients

On an arid, sage-studded plain, ancient towers stand like sentinels. Cliff dwellings nestle in alcoves in deep canyon walls. And symbols etched on rocks perplex modern wayfarers. These and other priceless vestiges of prehistoric communities grace the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway.

Situated in southwestern Colorado, the 114-mile route forms a semicircle curving from the Four Corners (where Colorado borders Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) northeast to Cortez and Dolores, then west to the Colorado/Utah border at Hovenweep National Monument.

Using the town of Cortez as a base, byway travelers can tour pithouses and cliff dwellings, hike among ancient ruins in remote desert country, learn about Ancestral Puebloan and recent cultures at intriguing museums, and observe traditional Native American dances.

Mesa Verde National Park, nine miles east of Cortez, offers a comprehensive overview of the ancient cultures that once populated this region. Excavated pithouses and cliff dwellings chronicle community life from A.D. 600 to 1200.

As the road climbs to the visitor center, sweeping views of mountains and desert unfold. Park Point captures a panorama of the region’s key landmarks, including the San Juan and La Plata Mountains, Mancos and Montezuma Valleys, Shiprock and the fabled Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Square and D-shaped towers characterize the ruins at Hovenweep National Monument.

Travelers can explore the park on their own or with a guided tour. In celebration of the park’s centennial, in 2006 the National Park Service offered special guided hikes to backcountry sites that have been closed to the public, including Mug House and Oak Tree House.

The classic sites are still must-sees. In multi-storied Cliff Palace, rangers orient visitors to its 150 rooms and 23 kivas, or underground chambers used for both ceremonies and everyday living. Balcony House adds the adventure of climbing down a hand-hewn 32-foot ladder to enter the cliff dwelling and of crawling through a 12-foot-long tunnel to exit. At Spruce Tree House, painted figures still decorate some walls. Explorers can even descend a ladder into its roofed kiva.

Back at Cortez, the byway heads south via U.S. Hwys.160 and 666/491 to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. On Ute-guided tours the park offers, participants can drive and hike to remote archaeological sites. Besides climbing into 12th-century cliff dwellings, they can view fascinating petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn canyon walls, and admire ancient pottery shards scattered on the ground.

The byway’s southern segment culminates at Four Corners National Monument on the Navajo Indian Reservation. By standing on both hands and feet, travelers can be in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah at once.

After returning to Cortez, follow Colorado 145 to Dolores. There, the Anasazi Heritage Center presents an orientation to the region. Among its exhibits is a full-sized replica of a pithouse that interprets how Ancestral Puebloans lived in A.D. 600.

Hands-on displays give children the opportunity to grind corn with a hand stone, weave on a loom and view artifacts under microscopes. Outside the museum are two 12th-century sites, named after Dominguez and Escalante, the Spanish Franciscan friars who found and recorded their existence.

The center also serves as the headquarters of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, created in 2000. So far, more than 6,000 archaeological sites have been recorded. The monument’s only developed site is Lowry Pueblo, about 19 miles northwest on the byway.

As the route heads west on Colorado 184, it passes McPhee Reservoir, whose excavation unearthed several million artifacts. Along northbound U.S. Hwy. 666/491, irrigated bean fields intermix with arid land dotted with junipers and pinon pines. At Pleasant View, the byway then turns onto graveled County Road CC to Lowry Pueblo.
Among the site’s remarkable features is the Great Kiva, which measures an impressive 47 feet in diameter. The juniper-shaded picnic area offers an inviting place to enjoy the pueblo’s quiet surroundings.

The grounds at the Anasazi Heritage Center contain this kiva and other ancient pueblo remains discovered by Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante. Fabled Sleeping Ute Mountain rises in the background.

The byway then follows Road 10 (impassable when wet) about 20 miles to Hovenweep National Monument. Deep canyons score the dry, rolling plateau. On the horizon, blue silhouettes of mesas rise.

Pavement heralds proximity to the visitor center and the most accessible of the monument’s five Ancestral Puebloan villages, the Square Tower Unit. Round, square, oval and D-shaped towers rim Little Ruin Canyon. Their purpose continues to intrigue archaeologists. They may have served as observatories, ceremonial chambers or signaling stations. The 1.5-mile Rim Trail Loop reveals great views of the 13th-century structures.

Back in Cortez, the byway offers other intriguing attractions. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center features crash courses in archaeology. One-day programs, for example, offer tours of the archaeology laboratory and excavation site, as well as hands-on activities with artifacts.

As a byway trip finale, travelers can complete their journey by attending a lecture, art exhibition or other event at the Cortez Cultural Center. On summer evenings, tribal members attired in splendid native dress perform colorful dances.

If You Go

Location: Southwestern corner of Colorado, from Mesa Verde National Park west to the Four Corners and Hovenweep National Monument

Total length: 114 miles Driving time without stops: 3 hours, but plan a multi-day trip to explore major sites. Great for: Archaeological sites, rock art, desert canyon and mesa landscapes. Vehicle restrictions: Trailers not permitted beyond Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park. Accessibility: Year-round. No winter maintenance on road to Hovenweep National Monument.

Ansazi Heritage Center

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

Hovenweep National Monument

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park

Mesa Verde Country

Rose and David Muenker, a travel writer/photographer team based in Denver, are the authors of Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways, a guidebook to the state’s official scenic and historic byways located in Colorado’s most populous region.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.