Colorado has no lack of scenic byways, but there's something truly special about the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway. In addition to featuring stunning backroads views of the red rocks and scrubby forests of southwestern Colorado, it also provides a look into the past. The byway highlights some of the many sites that were left behind by Native Americans, like Hovenweep, Mesa Verde National Park, and Canyons of the Ancients. Let the archaeological remains and artifacts tell the story of the Anasazi, ancient Puebloans who lived here thousands of years ago, and whose influence is still felt even to this day.
Start your trip through the Arizona portion of the Trail of the Ancients right at the edge of that state, at Four Corners. This is a classic tourist attraction, in the middle of the desert, and it's perfect for a photo op. Check out the little booths run by locals and pick up a few souvenirs along the way as well!
The Ute Mountain Tribal Park is a truly special place. You need to book a tour in advance since you can't even enter without a Ute guide, but it adds a whole new dimension to touring ancient ruins. You'll get a new perspective on the petroglyphs, dwellings, and geological formations in the park as interpreted by the guide... and all of the guides are incredible storytellers who can make the features of the park really come to life.
Roll into Cortez and grab a bite to eat at Blondie's Trophy Room. The taxidermy on the walls and live music might seem a little gritty, but the food here is truly outstanding: Keep with the Trail of the Ancients theme of the trip and try their take on the Navajo taco. Fry bread slathered with green chile, meat, cheese, and more makes for a great way to fill up after a long day of exploring. It all goes well with live music and cold beer, which Blondie's provides in spades.
The atmosphere of the Retro Inn is, in a word, perfect. From the kitschy sign out front to the black-and-white checkered floor in the lobby, this place is incredibly welcoming. But just because they lean into the 1950s motor lodge vibe doesn't mean they're not up-to-date with their amenities! Keurigs for coffee, awesome AC, a modern grill and family games in the courtyard, and A+ service make this the perfect road trip stop.
Stretch your legs before hopping back in the car with a stroll down the one of the short trails at Cortez's Hawkins Preserve. Enjoy the views into Mesa Verde National Park, and examine the Hawkins Pueblo. It's housed under a shelter so you can view it easily, and there are some interpretive signs and pieces of Native-inspired artwork along the trails as well.
Mesa Verde National Park is a main feature along the Trail of the Ancients. With more than 5,000 archaeological sites within the park, including some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings, it is definitely an incredible place. Whether you just cruise Cliff Palace Road or Mesa Top Loop Road to spot these sites from afar, or you park and hike into the ancient buildings, Mesa Verde National Park is a bucket-list-worthy National Park that shouldn't be missed. Pro tip: Step House doesn't require purchasing a ticket for a guided tour at the visitor center, so if you want the freedom to explore on your own, plan to stop by this site.
Before you dive right into Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, walk through the Anasazi Heritage Center. It has tons of artifacts and incredibly well thought out and presented information on the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi.) From their artist-in-residence program to their research library, this museum is more than just a collection of objects excavated from the area... it's preserving the culture and story of these influential peoples.
If you thought the 5,000 archaeological sites at Mesa Verde National Park were impressive, wait until you hear how many sites Canyons of the Ancients preserves: 6,000 and counting! The Canyons cover a massive region, and there is a ton to see and do here. Some of the coolest features include Painted Hand Pueblo, an impressive stone tower built onto a boulder surrounded by hand-shape pictographs; Lowry Pueblo, which features a huge building and a massive kiva, along with some murals; and Sand Canyon, which is a large area with many sites, great for hiking and mountain biking.
Make the final stop on your tour of the Colorado portion of Trail of the Ancients Hovenweep National Monument. Campsites, hiking trails, and a visitor center are dotted among the ancient ruins here. Towers, kivas, petroglyphs and more can be found spread across the monument, and many of them are still in good condition. It's incredible to see how these dwellings have survived and to see how they line up with the sun during equinoxes and solstices. If you are camping out here, then make sure to take advantage of the summer stargazing programs!
Whether you go on to travel the Utah portion of the Trail of the Ancients or not, there's no denying that this part of the country is historically and culturally significant. The Puebloan influence mixes with some kitschy, retro roadside fun to make for a road trip that's as informative and impactful as it is downright fun.
Welcome to Southwest Colorado! Amazing views and Southwestern charm are waiting for you. Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos make up this ancient land, and the National Park, Monuments, tribal heritage and western cultures offer you so much more to explore. One Day isn’t Enough in Mesa Verde Country.