Colorado's Trail of the Ancients Takes Summer Vacationers Back in Time

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Sole National Scenic Byway Dedicated to Archaeology

As Americans start to plan summer vacations, many are looking to combine fun, scenery, outdoor adventure and education - all in interesting destinations that fit the budget. They may be pleasantly surprised to find it all in on one of the country's newest national byways, in a part of Colorado that sports few crowds, stunning vistas and the most archaeologically dense area in the United States.

The 116-mile Trail of the Ancients, America's only National Scenic Byway dedicated solely to archaeology, is a byway full of archaeology and culture in the heart of the Colorado Plateau. With access to countless examples of Ancestral Puebloan culture, scenic vistas, and some of the most austere land in the country, the Trail invites visitors to step back in time and create their own adventures.

Some regions of the Colorado Plateau, over which the Trail winds, remain today much as they were in the 13th and 14th centuries. The terrain along the Trail encompasses the arid Four Corners region that includes Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, the Anasazi Heritage Center, Ute Mountain Tribal Park and the Four Corners Monument before connecting to Utah's Trail of the Ancients.

Indian Culture
Home to many different Indian peoples throughout the centuries, the area holds myriad remnants of the Ancestral Pueblo Culture.

  •     Ancestral Pueblo - Pueblo dwellings reveal family and community-centered tradition, and opportunities to learn about their culture and survival in this harsh environment.
  •     Ute Indians - After the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the region, the Utes moved into the area as part of their seasonal migrations.
  •     Navajo - Arriving later in the region, many still reside on the Navajo Reservation just across the border in New Mexico and Arizona. The reservation is the largest in the United States.

Archaeological Sites

  •     Mesa Verde National Park - Provides a look into the life of the Ancestral Puebloans, with pithouses, intricate multi-story cliff dwellings and ancient artifacts.
  •     Ute Mountain Tribal Park - Features elaborate cliff dwellings and historic rock art, tours by Ute guides.
  •     Hovenweep National Monument - A remote and starkly beautiful area, famous for towers that protect its springs.

Wildlife and Nature

  •     Animals - Diverse habitats provide homes for many species of birds and mammals, including raptors, songbirds, deer, elk, fox and coyotes.
  •     Recreation - Wide array of activities, including rafting, hiking, biking, horseback riding, hunting, boating, fishing, photography and golf.
  •     Scenic vistas - Lining the Byway are stunning views of massive valleys, 14,000-foot-mountains, badlands, lakes, raging rivers and trickling streams.

For more information on the Trail of the Ancients and other destinations in Colorado's Mesa Verde Country, call 800-530-2998 or visit

The Trail, Point by Point

Begin the journey at the westernmost branch of the Trail, which starts at the Utah border, in Hovenweep National Monument. The ancient architecture of the Ancestral Puebloan residents includes multi-story towers that overlook the area's mesas and canyons. The By Way passes by the access roads to several ancient Pueblo groups, including the Horseshoe, Hackberry, and Cutthroat Castle groups.

After leaving Hovenweep National Monument, drive north along County Road 10 to County Road CC. At County Road CC, the byway turns west for a short distance to Lowry Pueblo, which includes the largest Great Kiva in the area.

Retrace the distance on CC east and follow it to US Highway 491. At the small town of Pleasant View, turn south on U.S. Highway 491. Envision the farming areas of today, as they would have appeared in Ancestral Puebloan times, dotted with small villages and producing crops of corn, beans, and squash.

At the Junction of 491/184, head east, toward the town of Dolores, on Colorado Highway 184. Pass Narraguinnep Reservoir and McPhee Lake, both popular sites for fishing, power boating, kayaking, sail boating, sail-surfing and water-skiing.

Stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center on Colorado Highway 184, than continue on 184 to the intersection with 145 and head for the Town of Dolores. Stop in at the Anasazi Heritage Center, which also serves as headquarters of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and is itself a unique museum with hands-on exhibits, special collections, and traveling exhibits.

Continue on Colorado Highway 184 to 145 and into to the Town of Dolores where the restored "Galloping Goose No. 5," a unique mail and freight rail vehicle, is on display at the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Museum. From Dolores, visitors may also connect to the San Juan Skyway and recreational opportunities in the San Juan National Forest.

From Dolores, head south on Highway 145 to Cortez. At Highway 160, turn east for a short drive to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde National Park is America's premier archeological park and a World Heritage Site. In addition to the popular ranger-led tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House, visitors may explore at their own pace, with self-guided tours.

From Mesa Verde, head west on Highway 160 back toward the town of Cortez. Visit The Cortez Cultural Center, home to free Indian dances and cultural programs in the summer, and special programs and exhibits throughout the year.

Drive south from Cortez on Highway 160, passing through the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, and stop at the Ute Tribal Park Visitor Center. Visit Ancestral Puebloan surface sites, cliff dwellings and petroglyphs with tribal guides on the 125,000-acre Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Turn southwest on Highway 160 at the junction of 491/160 at the Visitor Center for the Tribal Park. The Colorado portion of the Trail of the Ancients ends at the Four Corners Monument, the only place where four states (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico) meet at a common point. From here, visitors may continue along the Utah portion of Trail of the Ancients, or head into New Mexico, or Arizona to explore the Navajo Nation and the Grand Circle of National Parks.

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Gaylene Ore
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