The only National Scenic Byway in the United States dedicated solely to archaeology, the Trail of the Ancients stretches 480 miles through the Colorado Plateau. Showcasing archaeological, cultural, and historical sites, the byway leads through some of the most spectacular ancient ruins of the Desert Southwest.
The Ancestral Puebloans, also known as Anasazi, lived on the Colorado Plateau for hundreds of years. Remains of their civilization pepper the Four Corners area along this route. Cliff dwellings and other structures, pottery shards, and rock art stand witness to their long-gone civilization, part of the landscape you are driving through. Besides these archaeological sites, you’ll drive through stunning vistas in a desolate landscape showcasing colorful rock formations in stark contrast to their surroundings.
Though I’ve driven along this route with my family many times over the years, exploring both archaeological and geological sites along the way, I still enjoy it every time. We like to take about a week to explore the sites along the Scenic Byway, but you can take more or less time, depending on your preferences. No matter how long you spend along the Trail of the Ancients, you’ll step back in time, creating adventures for a lifetime. Below you’ll find some of the major stops along the route.
The town of Cortez in Colorado is the perfect jumping point to start your Trail of the Ancients adventure. The small town offers plenty of dining and lodging choices and a few archaeological and cultural sites to visit.
The Cortez Cultural Center offers a wealth of information about the Ancestral Puebloans and their modern-day descendants. The center also manages the Hawkins Preserve, home to Hawkins Pueblo, featuring the outline of several rooms, protected by a roof. A paved trail through the preserve leads to the ruins and through a high desert landscape.
Another attraction of Cortez connecting to the ancients and the modern-day native tribes is the Notah-Dineh Trading Post, and its museum, showcasing original and unique Navajo, Ute, and Pueblo artifacts.
The largest and best-known archaeological site in the area, Mesa Verde, rises over 8,000 feet above its surroundings, hiding the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the world. Multi-room villages carved into the steep rock walls showcase the ingenuity of the Ancestral Puebloans and offer clues to their civilization.
You can visit several ruins on the mesa top on your own, but to explore the most spectacular multi-room cliff dwellings, you need to join a ranger-led tour. In 2021 you can only buy tickets for these tours online on the Recreation.gov site. They are available up to 14 days in advance.
Though the cliff dwellings are the highlight of the park, you’ll find plenty to explore even if you don’t make it on a tour. Gorgeous views of the Four Corners area, hikes in pinion pine forests, and mesa-top archaeological sites make the visit worthy. I prefer spending two days in Mesa Verde National Park, which makes for a leisurely visit, especially if adding a cliff dwelling tour.
Staying at the Far View Lodge or camping at the Morefield Campground offer opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, and stargazing.
Canyons Of The Ancients
Designated as a Monument through Presidential Proclamation on June 9th, 2000, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains the highest number of known archaeological sites in the U.S. The cultural landscape, preserving sites of the Ancestral Puebloan culture has over 8,300 recorded sites, including villages, great kivas, cliff dwellings, field houses, sweat houses, and petroglyphs.
Stop at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, where you’ll find hands-on interactive exhibits showcasing the culture and history of the Ancestral Puebloan people. In the museum, you’ll see artifacts and records from excavations in the Four Corners area. A replica pithouse offers a glimpse into the lives of an early Pueblo household.
Just outside of the museum, the paved, half-mile-long Escalante trail leads up the hill to the Escalante Ruins, an ancient village dating from the 1100s. Along the trail, and from the top, enjoy views of the surroundings, and interpretive signs talk about the history and geology of the area.
About a 45-minute drive from the Visitor Center, Lowry Pueblo is the most significant site in the Canyons of the Ancients. Known for its four painted kivas inside a “big house,” Lowry Pueblo offers a pleasant stop along the route. A short walk from the parking lot leads to the main structure comprising 40 rooms and eight kivas. You can walk through these interconnected rooms and stop to look at the painted kivas. Though you won’t see the paintings (they are displayed at the museum), you’ll notice plaster on the lower walls of the kivas.
Outside, stop at the Great Kiva, one of the largest and most significant in the area. One of the earliest buildings of the village, it was used for generations and remodeled often, according to the interpretive sign.
Hovenweep National Monument
Driving farther along the Trail of the Ancients, you’ll reach Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. Preserving six prehistoric villages built between 1200-1300, Hovenweep was once home to about 2,500 people. The most spectacular and easiest to reach sites are clustered along the Little Ruins Canyon near the Visitor Center.
A paved trail leads to the overlook at the edge of the canyon, where you have a splendid view of the full site. To explore it more closely, take the flat, wide, two-mile-long Square Tower Loop trail. You can start in either direction, but my family and I like to walk towards the Hovenweep Castle. The trail follows the rim until the end of the canyon, then leads back on the opposite side, where it passes through a few other large towers and structures until it crosses the small canyon back to the main paved trail to the visitor center.
Hovenweep has a few campsites, where you can spend the night and experience some of the best dark skies if you are up for some stargazing.
Edge Of The Cedars State Park and Museum
Past Hovenweep, the Trail of the Ancients continues in Utah, where the first site worth stopping at is the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum. Here, you’ll find the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery in the Four Corners region, and explore the Edge of the Cedars Pueblo, a village inhabited between A.D. 825 and A.D. 1225. While exploring the Pueblo, you can climb into a kiva through a ladder, and walk through the site on a paved, interpretive trail. Besides the permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts temporary exhibits and programs for adults and children.
Butler Wash Ruins
The cliff dwellings of Butler Wash ruins are visible after a short half-mile walk from a parking spot right off the highway. Once sheltering a small community of Ancestral Pueblo people, the cliff dwellings date from the 1200s. They are not restored, giving you a chance to see them in their natural setting.
Mule Canyon Tower Ruins
About a mile from the stop at Butler Wash, you’ll find a gate and a rough side road leading to the Mule Canyon Tower ruins. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can follow it, otherwise park at the gate, and walk the half-mile to the ruins. Occupied around 1100, the site comprises seven towers on the rim of the canyon.
Natural Bridges National Monument
The next stop along the scenic road is Natural Bridges National Monument, showcasing three of the world’s largest natural bridges. Named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu, they honor the Ancestral Puebloan people who once made this area their home.
You can view all three bridges from the overlooks, but you’ll also find trails leading into the canyon you can take for a closer look. Besides the gorgeous arches, you can also visit the Horse Collar ruins, one of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan sites in the area.
Valley Of The Gods And Goosenecks State Park
You may not find obvious archaeological sites in these sites, but the natural wonders are stunning. You’ll drive among sandstone monoliths in the area fittingly called Valley of the Gods, on a 17-mile dirt and gravel road, just off the highway. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, the drive is absolutely worth it, especially if you end up in the area around sunset.
Goosenecks State Park is worth another stop, where you’ll witness millions of years of geological history as you watch the deep canyon the San Juan River cut through the desert floor.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
You’ll recognize the famous Monument Valley stretching in front of you as you drive towards the Arizona border. Its assortment of sandstone monoliths in all shapes and sizes is astounding, even seen from the road.
Stand by the visitor center of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park for a stunning panorama of the Valley filled with these iconic rock formations. And if you book a tour with a Navajo guide, you can drive into the valley and enjoy them up close.
Besides the unforgettable views, the park offers an opportunity to experience the modern Navajo culture, and explore ancient ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans.
This is a place of stunning beauty, but also the home of the Navajo (Diné) people. Respect their privacy and customs, and follow the rules of the Navajo Nation. Be careful not to wander across residential areas; stay on designated trails or with your tour guide.
Note: The Navajo Nation reopened for visitors on July 12th, with restrictions. Tribal Parks are open with 50 percent capacity, so book ahead if you are planning to visit. Masks are required to be worn by everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
Ancient civilizations in the United States are often stunning places of beauty and help deliver deeper insight into our country’s history: