A National Scenic Byway just for Archaeological Sites? Amazing!
For this Four Corners road trip, we’re envisioning a late summer/early fall excursion around the Colorado Plateau, and it’s a pretty unique road trip if you’re a history buff.
The Trail of the Ancients is actually a series of National Scenic Byways in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States. Each of the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah adds its unique contributions to the cultural history and impact of the byway.
Day 1: Start at FCNM and head to Cortez, Colorado
If you’re starting your road trip from the Four Corners National Monument, it’s only about a 40-minute drive to Cortez, Colorado, our first stop on this prehistorical Four Corners road trip.
Once you arrive in Cortez, start with the Cortez Cultural Center, which will provide an overview of the area’s archaeological sites and the history of the Ancestral Puebloan people. Admission is free, and if you time it right, you might be able to catch a Native American dance while you’re visiting.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Visitor Center and Museum
If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, your next stop should be Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, only about 10 miles west of Cortez.
Start with the Visitor Center and Museum, where you can view the permanent exhibits of Ancestral Puebloan and Native American culture. You can also pick up a map and get directions from the ranger.
Then check out Canyons of the Ancients, which has one of the highest densities of archaeological sites in the United States. So far, there are 8,300 recorded sites dating back over 10,000 years, while the total number of sites is estimated at 30,000.
Be sure to visit Lowry Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan site with 40 rooms and eight kivas. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and is not to be missed.
You’ll be staying overnight in the Cortez area, with plenty of hotel or camping accommodations from which to choose.
Day 2 – 3: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
You won’t have far to go in the morning to get to the next destination, which is Mesa Verde National Park, about two miles from Cortez.
We’ll be spending two days here, and even that may not be enough to take it all in.
Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906 and spans 52,000 acres, protecting over 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings considered among the best-preserved in North America. It was the home of the Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived there from about 600 CE to 1300 CE. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Cliff Palace is considered the centerpiece of Mesa Verde. It’s a 150-room cliff dwelling that is thought to have once housed as many as 100 people. Guided tours are available if you’d like a closer look at what life was like 700 years ago. If not, it’s also visible from the Cliff Palace Loop Road Overlook.
With over 30 miles of hiking trails throughout Mesa Verde, you’re likely to find one that’s a perfect fit. Be sure to carry water with you, as the high altitude and arid climate can be challenging if you’re not accustomed to it.
The Petroglyph Point Trail is a strenuous 2.4-mile hike with views of Spruce Canyon, a panel of Ancestral Pueblo rock writing, and a trek through the mesa-top pinyon-juniper forest.
For more accessible hikes, you can try the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail, which is about a 1.2-mile round trip and provides views of Balcony House and other magnificent cliff dwellings. Another option is Far View Sites, which is about a 75-mile round trip hike to Far View House and four other ancient ruins.
You can stay overnight right in Mesa Verde, either in the lodge or at the Morefield Campground, from May through October. Mesa Verde was certified as the 100th International Dark Sky Park in 2021, so bring a star chart! Check out these tips for stargazers from the National Park Service.
Day 4: Hovenweep National Monument, Utah
From Mesa Verde, you’ll head east about 1.5 hours to Hovenweep National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border. Please note that the National Park Service does not recommend using GPS to find Hovenweep, but they do offer directions on their site.
This one is for the hikers (mostly). You’ll want to start at the visitor center to get a sense of the conditions and other advice from the rangers there.
If you’re not an avid hiker, there’s a paved path from the visitor center to the Little Ruin Canyon overlook, where you’ll also be able to see many of the ruins, albeit from a distance.
From there, you can continue your hike along the Square Tower Loop Trail, which is about a 2-mile round trip and gets you within 5 – 10 feet of the Square Tower Group structures.
Additional trailheads, such as the trail to Cutthroat Castle or Cajon, are accessible down unimproved dirt roads about 8.5 – 9 miles from the visitor center. Be sure to check with the rangers for directions and the latest road conditions before heading out. You’ll want a vehicle with high ground clearance.
You can stay the night at Hovenweep’s campground. For hotels, you’ll need to go to either Bluff or Blanding, both about 50 minutes from Hovenweep. Staying in Blanding for the night will put you closer to the next stop on this road trip.
Day 5: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Depending on where you spent the night, you’re probably about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours away from Natural Bridges National Monument.
Natural Bridges was the first national monument in Utah, receiving that designation in 1908. Of course, the stars of this national park are the three spectacular natural stone bridges that provide the park its name: Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo Bridges. A nine-mile loop connects the overlooks, with reasonably easy walks/hikes to the overlooks for each bridge.
Horse Collar Ruin
There’s a bonus to this national park. You can also visit Horse Collar Ruin, a remarkably well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan site that survived thanks to its secluded location.
Unfortunately, any shards of Ancestral Puebloan pottery have all been removed by previous visitors, but the site itself is worth the 30 – 40 minute hike. If you do find any shards, please leave them in place.
International Dark Sky Park
Natural Bridges Monument holds the distinction of being the very first International Dark Sky Park. So, if you’re inclined to camp, this is another excellent location for stargazing. Spend the night looking up at the sky like the Ancestral Puebloan people did.
If camping isn’t your thing, you can get a room if you head south toward Mexican Hat, Utah. That’ll put you closer to tomorrow’s destination than Bluff or Blanding.
Day 6: Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona
Our next stop is one of those places you’ve likely seen in movies and TV shows over the years: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. In fact, you may have passed by Forrest Gump Point near Mexican Hat on your way in. Yeah, that exists!
Monument Valley is, in a word, iconic. The magnificent red sandstone buttes will be familiar sites to any fan of Western films, but seeing them in person, towering 1,000 feet above you, is much different than just seeing them rendered on the big or small screen.
Monument Valley is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, and you can hire one of their guides when you visit if you want to better understand the rich history and cultural significance of the natural wonders you’ll be seeing. A paid guide also grants you access to areas that otherwise would be off-limits on a self-guided tour.
17-Mile Loop Road
There are 11 stops along the 17-mile loop, one at each of the rock formations with evocative names like Elephant Butte, John Ford’s Point (named for the famed director and frequent John Wayne collaborator), Artist’s Point, and The Thumb.
Please note that motorcycles and RVs are not permitted on the 17-mile loop, as the terrain gets rough in some areas, and RVs, in particular, are likely to get stuck.
If you’re into Native art, you’ll have the opportunity to buy items directly from the artisans themselves, about a mile from the visitor center. And you can also hike the 1.5-mile Wildcat Trail. Be sure to sign in and out at the visitor center.
Want to spend more time in the Valley? You can stay overnight in either the lodge or book a campground site in advance and spend the evening stargazing.
Day 7: Return to Four Corners Monument or Choose Your Own Adventure
For your final day, you may just want to stay in this area before leaving the Four Corners region. There are quite a few natural features within an hour’s drive that are worth checking out if time permits.
For instance, just up the road towards Mexican Hat is Goosenecks State Park, where you can see what the San Juan River has managed to carve out over a span of about 300 million years.
The town of Mexican Hat gets its name from a geological formation nearby that might be a good spot for a photo op.
Another option is to hike the moderate 1-mile trail at Butler Wash Ruins, which will lead to an overlook where you can see additional cliff dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people.
In Blanding, you can visit the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, which houses the Four Corners region’s most extensive collection of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.
Or maybe after a week of hiking, stargazing, and cultural enrichment, you’ll just head to Forrest Gump Point and say, “I’m pretty tired…I think I’ll go home now.”