Colorado Vacations 
Family Travel Colorado 
Your Guide to Visiting Colorado with the Kids
On the Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients Historic and Scenic Byway, delivers a family vacation unlike anything else Colorado has to offer.

You can drive this loop in a long weekend, or take a whole week (recommended). Along the way, show the kids Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Four Corners Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.


Photo: A young hiker finds another ancient ruin hidden away in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.




Photo: Kids will never forget the experience of sitting around a crackling campfire on a starry Colorado night.

Read our article:  Campingin Colorado with the Kids










Archaeology and Scenery Partner for an Extraordinary Tour of Colorado’s Prehistoric Ruins

View at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado
Photo: A lonely outpost on the Great Sage Plain, the remote Painted Hand archaeological site in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument looks out over
empty country and Sleeping Ute Mountain.


 Hiking with the kids through southwestern Colorado’s canyon country, I feel a tickle in my brain, and do a double take at the cliff to my left. Something hides up there, blending in, peeking through the gnarly branches of desert pinyon trees. It isn’t natural.


Alert now, I scan rust colored rock faces that rise into a sapphire sky. “I spy a ruin!” I sound out, and suddenly all eyes search the rock walls above. Soon they spot ancient stonemasonry tucked beneath an overhang, and we all clamber up a steep slope to the cliff dwelling.


Exploring Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado
Photo: Hikers find an ancient archaeological site in
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.




Canyons of the Ancients National Monument claims the highest concentration of archeological sites in America. This easy hike confirms the idea.


Ancestral Puebloan people built elaborate stone towns here, and then walked away. Over the span of a few decades, every last one of these ancient folks packed up, leaving homes, handiwork, and some big, fat questions. Our family is on a quest for answers.


Our trip takes us in a rough circle around Sleeping Ute Mountain, in southwest Colorado. Much of our route follows the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway, with spurs to Four Corners, McElmo Canyon, and Mesa Verde National Park. The first national park dedicated to preserving human endeavor, Mesa Verde just celebrated its centennial. Along our path, one Forest Service and two National Park Service campgrounds offer places to bed down.




Starting Point

Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado
Photo: The Anasazi Heritage Center's architecture resembles
the buildings of the ancient archaeological sites in the area.




If you want to explore ancient Puebloan culture, start at the Anasazi Heritage Center, near Dolores, Colorado. With a 19-minute movie, microscopes, and mock-ups of prehistoric dwellings, this world-class museum excels at helping visitors understand ancient lifeways. Kids love the chance to grind corn, weave cloth, and touch prehistoric artifacts. An interpretive trail leads to a hilltop ceremonial site with 360-degree views. Pick up maps, directions, interpretive booklets, and invaluable advice here.



      At the Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado       At the Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado
Photos: Students learn about ancestral Puebloan culture with interactive exhibits at the Anasazi Cultural Center, near Dolores, Colorado





McPhee Campground


The turnoff for the McPhee campground lies 3 miles north of the Anasazi Heritage Center. Scattered in a pinyon-juniper forest, 76 campsites offer picnic tables, fire grates, drinking water, showers, flush toilets, electrical hookups, and a dump station. Two sites are wheelchair accessible, and a dozen are scenic walk-in tent sites. About 30 sites can be booked in advance through ReserveUSA.com, the rest are first-come, first-served. A short hike leads to the Ridge Point Overlook, with signs identifying surrounding mountain ranges. McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores River Canyon stretch below.




Lowry Pueblo and Painted Hand Pueblo


From the Anasazi Heritage Center, it’s a half-hour drive to Lowry Pueblo, in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This partially restored ruin has 40 rooms, eight kivas (circular ceremonial rooms), and a Great Kiva, plus architecture that suggests influence from the far away Chaco Canyon cultural center. Interpretive signs, brochures, a shady picnic area, vault toilets, and drinking water are available in this lonely outpost.


On the other hand, the monument’s Painted Hand Pueblo is remote and not developed for visitors. Miles of empty dirt roads and a rough four-wheel drive track lead to a patch of slickrock on a mesa’s edge. A half-mile hike leads to the unexcavated ruin. From the trail, we glimpse Shiprock monolith, in New Mexico. At the site, a stone tower atop a boulder greets us. Pictographs of hands show faintly from a rock wall, below. The desert silence envelopes us. It is a solitude peopled with ancient spirits.


Painted Hand Pueblo, Canyons of the Ancients, Colorado
Photo: Explorers find the pictograph of the painted hand
at Painted Hand Pueblo. The archaeological site is in a
remote part of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument,
in a remote section of southwestern Colorado.



Hovenweep

A few miles south along our circle route, we drive into the parking lot at Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Center. Inside, rangers orient us to various archeological sites in the area. Hovenweep’s hiking trails venture across slickrock to mute stone structures perched on cliff tops – some of the finest examples of Ancestral Puebloan stonemasonry in the world. Our gaze stretches across the borders of four states.


From the visitor center, a wide cement sidewalk arcs to Little Ruin Canyon. There, the bony remains and empty eye sockets of Stronghold House peer over the rim as we approach. The rest of the trail, a rough, 2-mile, self-guided tour lends great insight into the people who built structures throughout the canyon and how they made their living in this arid land. Their stonemasonry tells a story of skill and sweat equity. The wind and the cactus and the defensive stance of the ancient buildings only hint at why these marvelous towns were abandoned.




Remote Camp

At Hovenweep National Monument, 30 tiny campsites scatter across a small mesa top. A few sites will hold an RV of 25 feet or less, but most are designed for tent camping. All are first-come, first-served, and offer picnic tables (a few with shade structures) and fire grills. Drinking water and flush toilets are available.


Petite canyons drop below the campground, their jumbled cliff faces hiding hints to past lifeways. At the ranger-led campfire talk that evening, twilight’s glow on Sleeping Ute Mountain and the crying nighthawks distract me from the discourse. I listen to rustling underbrush and whispering stone, wondering.




Four Corners


Classic country-western twang keeps rhythm with miles of broken rock as we eat up the road towards the Four Corners Monument. KTNN-AM 660, Navajo Radio, received the last 50,000-watt broadcast permit in the United States.


Guttural staccato words, broken by an occasional, “50 percent off!” entrance the kids. Hank Williams alternates with American Indian drumming until we reach the point where we can get out of our car and stand in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona all at the same time.


A slab of cement marks the spot, and the wind feels hot and dry enough to bake cookies. We settle for fry-bread, dripping with honey, as we peruse the turquoise jewelry and sand paintings for sale. The spot isn’t just the touching of four states, it is also the border of the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute nations.



Cortez

From Four Corners, we travel 40 miles north along Navajo Wash, between Sleeping Ute Mountain and the soaring ramparts of Mesa Verde. Scattered gas stations and used-car lots appear as we enter Cortez, the largest town on our circle tour. You can find restaurants, grocery stores, camping supplies and RV Parks there, including a KOA. The Cortez Cultural Center offers evening American Indian performances during the summer.



Mc Elmo Canyon

McElmo Creek, a year-round stream, cuts a wide gulch straight west of Cortez. Sandstone walls flank the floodplain, populated with scattered farmhouses, cattle herds, and apple orchards.


The fruit hints that the land here might support vineyards.  In 1997, Guy and Ruth Drew ditched their city jobs, bought a homestead hay farm, and started planting grapes. Not knowing what would grow in the canyon, they tried several different varieties.


Now the kitchen of their elegant straw-bale home serves as a tasting room for their award-winning wines. They found the arrowhead pictured on their label while tilling their fields, which they carefully cultivate around Anasazi ruins. Down the road from the Drews, the Sutcliffe Vineyards also spread in the canyon bottom, producing wines served at the tony Metate Room at Mesa Verde’s Far View Lodge.


Across the street from the Sutcliffe vineyards, a broad patch of slickrock forms the parking area for the Sand Canyon Trail. One of few designated trails into Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, the hike leads north 6.5 miles past alcoves with cliff dwellings playing peek-a-boo with hikers. Easy and moderate stretches lead to a steep section with 30 switchbacks that climbs 680 feet out of the canyon. At the end of the trail, lies Sand Canyon Pueblo, a huge, mostly buried ruin built around a spring.



Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado - Geology
Photo: Mesa Verde rises over 600 feet above the valleys at its feet. Its unusual geology, the same geology that allowed it to stay so tall, created the perfect spots for ancient people to build elaborate cliff dwellings.




US Highway 160 trails 10 miles east out of Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park. This is the culmination of our search for the ancients.


The huge mesa soars 600 feet over the valleys at its feet. Desert streams carve deep canyons into Mesa Verde, dividing it into several smaller mesas. This national park is peppered with well-interpreted archeological sites.


You can choose self-guided trails or to sightsee via tour bus, tram, or on a ranger-led hike to such icons as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House. The Chapin Mesa Museum houses thousands of artifacts, plus dioramas that help visitors understand Anasazi cultural development. A 25-minute video there gives an overview of the sites and the prehistory of the park.


To visit the major sites, stop first at the Far View Visitor Center to purchase tickets. This kiva-shaped building’s name is understated. Panoramas from the spiraling entrance ramp stretch past layers of canyon and mesa into New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Nearby, visitors will find a gift shop, a cafeteria, and the historic Far View Lodge with upscale dining. All ammenities have big picture windows. Each guest room at the lodge has its own balcony, as well.




Camping at Mesa Verde

Morefield Village, next to the campground, has more services. A gas station, convenience store, laundromat, showers, and café serve visitors. With 435 sites, the campground is the largest in the National Park system. Although reservations are accepted, rangers can’t recall a time when the campground filled up.


Morefield Campground is tucked in a grassy valley between mesas, where scrub oak trees offer some shade. Drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables and fire grates are available. Evening campfire talks are held nightly during the summer. In spite of the fact that it lies near Morefield Village, the quiet campground teems with wildlife, including abundant mule deer.



Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Photo: The Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde National Park
is the largest in the National Park Service system.
It has 435 sites to choose from.





On Edge


Nearby, the spectacular Knife Edge Trail traverses the cliff-edge of Mesa Verde, with vistas extending over the Montezuma Valley. For the really big view, take a quick detour to the Park Point fire tower, the highest elevation in the park. It must be a bit lonely up there; the chatty ranger has a great time showing folks around.



A Very Cool Spot

Our favorite spot? Long House on quiet Wetherill Mesa. Fewer than 15 percent of Mesa Verde visitors drive the 12 winding miles to the park’s second largest cliff dwelling. We sit in its alcove, feeling humidity from its seep-spring, watching cloud-shadows over the canyon, and touch cool stones that some long ago mason carefully placed. In the hush, answers don’t come to us, but, somehow, understanding does.





Travel Information

For information on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, call 
970/882-5600; or check out the Canyons of the Ancients website.  


The helpful National Forest Service people at the San Juan National forest are full of helpful details about McPhee Recreation Area and Campground. Call them at (970) 882-7296 or check out the McPhee Campground web page


Contact Hovenweep National Monument at: 970/562-4282 or www.nps.gov/hove


Find information about Guy Drew Vineyards by calling: 970/565-4958 or surfing www.guydrewvineyards.com


Mesa Verde National Park visitor information number is 970/529-4465; the Mesa Verde website is at www.nps.gov/meve.


For Far View Lodge and bus tour reservations, call 877/264-4884 or check out www.visitmesaverde.com






Related Articles:

Archaeology in Colorado with the Kids
Mesa Verde National Park

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