Living History Surrounding Mesa Verde National Park

·4 min read

This article originally appeared on My Colorado Parks

Mesa Verde National Park's cliff-dwellings might get all the attention, but southwestern Colorado is incredibly full of archeological sites. Spend a few days in the towns of Cortez, Dolores and Mancos to see other historical sites like Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep National Monument, an itinerary dubbed "Trail of the Ancients."

Canyons of the Ancients

Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center in Dolores, Colo.
Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center in Dolores, Colo. (Photo: by Emily Sierra courtesy of Mesa Verde Country)

Most visitors check out Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum near Dolores and don't venture out to explore the 176,000-acre monument, which contains the highest known archaeological site density in the U.S. Stay at Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch, which has petroglyphs on the property and is just seven minutes from the national monument.

Spend the day mountain biking Sand Canyon Trail in the monument, a 12-mile roundtrip ride that will take you past tons of ancient dwellings built into the red-rock walls. Afterwards, relax in a rental cabin at the guest ranch.

Biking on the Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Biking on the Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (Photo: by Emily Sierra courtesy of Mesa Verde Country)

Mountain biking isn't limited to the summer months in Cortez. Rent fat bikes, which are mountain bikes equipped with wider tires for the snow, from Kokopelli Bike & Board and explore the Phil's World Trail System or Chicken Creek Trail when the snow flies.

More Indigenous History

Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado
Hovenweep National Monument (Photo: Getty Images)

Can't get enough archaeology? Head to Hovenweep National Monument to see incredible stone masonry that's stood the test of time. Yucca House National Monument was preserved in 1919, leaving a large pueblo unexcavated for future generations. Lowry Pueblo National Historic Landmark houses a 40-room village.

Lowry Pueblo National Historic Landmark
Lowry Pueblo National Historic Landmark (Photo: by Emily Sierra courtesy of Mesa Verde Country)

Indigenous history and culture isn't limited to the past in this part of Colorado. Visit the Cortez Cultural Center to learn more about the Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo and Navajo tribes through art installations, interpretive exhibits and weekly dances in the summer.

Stargaze Near Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park and nearby Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments have some of the darkest skies in the country. All three are International Dark Sky Parks, meaning they are revered for their dark skies and dedication to keeping light pollution at bay.

Seeing the Milky Way arching over ancient buildings is perhaps one of the specialist ways to experience this corner of the Southwest. For the best skies, visit in the winter and spring months when longer nights give you more time to stargaze and colder air brings less moisture and haziness. To see the most stars, visit around a new moon when the sky will be darkest.

Surprising Cuisine

Southwestern Colorado is also home to a burgeoning craft beverage scene. And lush vineyards and orchards dot this part of the state, making it home to wine and hard cider producers. Try both at Fenceline Cider, tucked next to the Mancos River with food trucks and live music. If you want to make a day of wine tasting, add in Sutcliffe Vineyards and Yellow Car Country Wines. Dolores River Brewing is a great spot for those looking for a craft beer. Dolores is located along Hwy. 145 leading into the mountains, which makes it cooler in the summer than the nearby parks and monuments situated in the desert.

Sutcliffe Vineyards in Southwestern Colorado
Sutcliffe Vineyards in Southwestern Colorado (Photo: by Emily Sierra courtesy of Mesa Verde Country)

When you're ready for dinner, Cortez has a surprisingly vibrant dining scene for a small town. You'll find everything from creative locally-focused restaurants like the Farm Bistro, which has yak burgers and a relleno pie made with roasted poblanos on its menu, to Burger Boy Drive In, a retro spot complete with car hops.

The Farm Bistro in Cortez, Colo.
The Farm Bistro in Cortez, Colo. (Photo: by Emily Sierra courtesy of Mesa Verde Country)

Learn more at MesaVerdeCountry.com

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