Long before Colorado was occupied by white settlers, Spanish emigres or the Utes, and hundreds of years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Four Corners region was home to an Indigenous people who left their mark on the landscape: the Ancestral Puebloans.
They lived in the deserts of the Southwest and unlike the mostly nomadic peoples of the time, built houses and cities, palaces and towers, with only crude instruments and mud. The civilization vanished in the late 1200s but many of their homes remain, a lasting testament to the ingenuity of this mysterious people.
Just think: Will your house still be standing in 1,000 years?
Though a long drive from the Front Range, visiting these ancient ruins should be on every Coloradan’s bucket list. To walk quietly through these settlements, listening to the wind whistle through the rooms, hallways and kivas (round ceremonial chambers) is to step back in time. How did they survive such a harsh desert landscape? Where did water and lumber come from? And why did they abandon such places after so much hard work? (There are many theories on the latter, from wars to climate change.)
Here is an introduction to exploring the ancient ruins of the Four Corners region. There are many more places throughout the Southwest where you can see such remnants of these communities, but we’re focusing on accessible ones in Colorado or just over the border. This region can be very hot in the peak of summer, so plan ahead. The upside: You can camp quite comfortably in the region into November.
Mesa Verde National Park
This national park is the most famous of the ancient sites in the area and for good reason. It has the largest and best-preserved ruins, built on cliffsides and in massive caves known as alcoves, protected from the elements and in some cases meticulously restored by the National Park Service.
The drive up is dizzyingly steep, and you’ll marvel at the effort it must have taken to build such marvels. nps.gov/meve/index.htm
When you go: Stop at the visitors center at the park entrance and make your tour reservations, as most of the ruins can only be visited on ranger-led walks. They also can be reserved in advance at recreation.gov.
Fees: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days (available online, too); annual pass, $55; America the Beautiful annual parks pass, $80; $8-$25 per person for cliff dwelling tours (ages 2 and younger, $1).
Where to stay: The Far View Lodge, located high on the mesa, offers hotel-style rooms and a restaurant and bar ($176-$186/night). Campers can overnight at the bottom of the mesa in the Morefield Campground ($38/night).
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
This sprawling national monument in the shadow of Mesa Verde is quite the opposite, small pueblos and isolated towers scattered over 176,000 acres of windswept desert and parched canyons. Ask yourself why people would live out here compared to the relative safety and protection of the cliff dwellings.
Hikers will enjoy a walk through Sand Canyon, where tiny homes built into shallow alcoves provide a stark contrast to the majesty of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/colorado/canyons-of-the-ancients
When you go: Make your first stop at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum in Dolores, where you can tour exhibits, pick up maps and ask questions of the helpful rangers.
Fees: $7 per person for the visitor center; free to enter that national monument
Where to stay: McPhee Campground is just outside of Dolores and is a great base camp for exploring the national monument. Primitive camping can also be found off some dirt roads (see blm.gov for ideas)
Chimney Rock National Monument
This unique site is perched atop a steep bluff west of Pagosa Springs, marked by two massive natural pillars visible for a long distance in any direction. The ruins of the settlement haven’t been restored like others have, so you’ll need to use your imagination, though tour guides can help fill in the gaps. Experts believe this was a ceremonial site of great importance to the entire Ancestral Puebloan civilization. Plan ahead to time your visit with the full moon and book a guided visit at night. chimneyrockco.org
When you go: Stop at the visitors center and sign up for a tour of the ruins, or lace up your hiking boots and hike on your own to the top of the bluff.
Fees: Tours cost $16-$25 for adults
Where to stay: There is nowhere to stay at the national monument, though there are several campgrounds along U.S. 160. Pagosa Springs has many hotels and a famous hot springs.
Hovenweep National Monument
This national monument is barely 2 miles into Utah, and some of the sites are in Colorado. In contrast to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde or the small canyon homes nearby, Hovenweep has many spectacular free-standing structures, most reachable via an easy trail from the park entrance. Other outlying sites require driving on rough roads but are also worth a visit.
Once home to more than 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Add adventure to your trip by camping and hiking to the Holly Group through two slot canyons. nps.gov/hove/index.htm
When you go: Pick up a map from the visitors center
Fees: No entrance fee
Where to stay: There is a first-come, first-served campground adjacent to the main ruins, so you can walk from your campsite ($15/night).
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
This site in northern New Mexico is a long trip but worth the drive. Experts believe this was the cultural and perhaps political center of the civilization, a gorgeous canyon with many large communities and imposing towers to impress and perhaps humble visitors. Ancient roads branched out in all directions, suggesting it was also a center of trade. Some of the sites require long hikes to reach, so bring your boots. Keep alert for petroglyphs. Yes, it’s a captivating as they say. nps.gov/chcu/index.htm
When you go: Stop at the visitors center to pay the entrance fee and tour the small museum. Trails maps cost $2.
Fees: $25 per vehicle, good for 7 days
Where to stay: Gallo Campground is located just before the visitors center ($20/night).
Exploring the ruins
- Take lots of water, because you’ll find none among the ruins.
- Dogs are not allowed in the ruins or on interpretive trails.
- Don’t touch the walls, which can be fragile.
- Don’t take any relics you might find, such as ancient pot shards. It’s illegal and disrespectful.
What about the Manitou Cliff Dwellings?
You may have seen these “ancient cliff homes” along U.S. 24 at the base of Ute Pass near Manitou Springs. They resemble what you’ll see in Southwest Colorado, but they weren’t built by nor lived in by Indigenous people. The stones were taken from an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region more than 100 years ago — long before the federal Antiquities Act made such activity illegal — and used to build structures that resemble the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.
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