Historical evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan culture is scattered throughout the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners region of the United States. Drive through this wildly beautiful desert landscape and explore some of the most fascinating historic sites along the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway in southwest Colorado.
This road trip features one national park, three national monuments, and endless views along the way.
The communities of Cortez, Mancos, and Dolores are ideal hubs for exploring the Trail of the Ancients with their proximity to the sites. The Cortez Municipal Airport offers flights from Denver and Phoenix, or the Durango-La Plata County Airport nearby connects with even more cities. You’ll need a set of wheels for this trip, so whether you drive to southwest Colorado or fly, get ready for an unforgettable road trip. Lodging, food, and travel amenities are widely available throughout Mesa Verde Country, so you can make arrangements that best suit your style of travel.
By the time you reach the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll have nearly forgotten your main purpose for visiting. The vistas and viewpoints along the drive through the park are as expansive as they are striking! Mesa Verde National Park protects the cultural heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans in the area. Whether you take a tour through the cliff dwellings or view them from afar, you’ll leave feeling inspired by history. Visiting Mesa Verde National Park is a logical first step along the Trail of the Ancients and a wonderful introduction to the region.
A short drive from Cortez or Dolores, you’ll reach the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center and Museum. Learn all about the Ancestral Puebloan culture and how the monument works to safely excavate and preserve the past. There are plenty of hands-on exhibits as well, making this a fun and educational experience for all ages. Outside the visitor center, follow the mellow wheelchair-accessible path up to Escalante Pueblo. There, you can imagine the thriving livelihoods of Ancestral Puebloans over 1,400 years ago. The 360-degree views from this spot are the cherry on top.
There are a few different roads leading to Hovenweep National Monument from Cortez, but I recommend the drive through McElmo Canyon, at least in one direction. Once you reach Hoveweep, imagine a sprawling population of over 2,500 people and six prehistoric villages built between AD 1200-1300. Towers perch proudly on cliff edges, and the preservation of these buildings is unmatched in the area. I’d highly recommend visiting in the evening when the soft light makes everything glow wonderful shades of yellow and orange.
As a final stop along the Trail of the Ancients, stop off at the Four Corners National Monument. This is the only place in the country where you can stand in four states at one time (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah). More than just a photo-op location, there are Navajo and Ute vendors selling tribal arts and crafts. Oh, and don’t forget to eat a Navajo taco while you’re there–the local specialty!