On the trail of the ancients

Explore the lesser-known gems of an archaeological treasure trove near Colorado's Mesa Verde

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Sleeping Ute Mountain looms over southwest Colorado, its low, dark profile instantly recognizable as a supine figure. In the mountain's shadow are numerous archaeological sites that, like Sleeping Ute Mountain, can quickly stir the imagination to envision what life may have been like more than 1,000 years ago, when the Four Corners region was the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world. The remains of villages and structures here represent the greatest concentration of ancient sites anywhere in the United States. Together they help reveal the 1,300-year heyday of a culture that dates back more than 10,000 years.

The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park are the best known of the Ancestral Puebloan settlements in the Four Corners region. But other sites, including the Lowry Pueblo Ruins and Sand Canyon, have recently gained additional recognition ― and protection ― as part of the 3-year-old 164,500-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Lightly visited, these sites make an ideal driving tour for anyone who has come to the Four Corners to see Mesa Verde. While the ancient sites in the new park and at other locations in Utah and Colorado may not be as grand as Mesa Verde, together they can deepen our understanding and appreciation of what is considered the nation's richest archaeological region.

Segments of our 90-mile loop drive (see map below), an easy day trip from Cortez, are also part of the longer Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which covers nearly 500 miles in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.


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