It’s easy to forget that the ground upon which we walk has been home to humans for millennia. But in Mesa Verde, Colorado, evidence of our ancient ancestors is everywhere, from the stone foundations of their homes and villages to the intricate cliff dwellings that are carved right into the canyon walls and mountainsides where the Ancestral Pueblo people once lived. Mesa Verde is a history buff’s dream, with the highest density of archeologically significant sites in the United States, and an abundance of incredible nature that will make visitors feel like they’ve stepped out of time. Museums, historic railroads, dude ranches, and gorgeous national parks and monuments make Mesa Verde a must-see for anyone passing through the area or looking for a unique and culturally rich destination for their next vacation.
1.Anasazi Heritage Center
Before heading into the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, visitors should be sure to check out the Anasazi Heritage Center, which is located near the entrance and right on the way along the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. Here, they can find maps and information pertaining to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments, and they will also be able to take a look at some exhibits to learn about Native American and Pueblo culture and history. At the Anasazi Heritage Center, visitors can check out an educational film, explore a comprehensive research library, view authentic artifacts, and take part in interactive exhibits.
27501 CO-184, Dolores, CO 81323, Phone: 970-882-5600
2.Canyons of the Ancients
Canyons of the Ancients is a national monument in Montezuma County, and it is home to some beautiful and unique natural land and rock formations. Within its 176,000 acres, Canyons of the Ancients holds more than six thousand archeologically significant sites, making it the highest known density of such sites in the entirety of the United States. There are some areas in this rich and diverse place that have hundreds of sites, from ruins of villages or cliff dwellings to shrines and ancient sacred springs. There is so much evidence of ancient human civilizations here, and scientists believe the area has been habited by ancient humans for over ten thousand years.
9651 Rd N, Cortez, CO 81321, Phone: 970-882-5600
3.Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
Ancestral Pueblo life has been a part of this region for thousands of years, and it stands apart from many other places in the world due to the sheer volume of archaeological evidence. At the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, which is located inside Mesa Verde National Park, visitors can explore exhibits detailing the lives and culture of Ancestral Puebloans, including some ancient artifacts that pre-date written history itself, visit Spruce Tree House, an ancient cliff dwelling, and watch a short film about the history of the area. The museum is open to visitors year round, though it is closed on some holidays and its hours change seasonally.
1 Mesa Verde, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330, Phone: 970-529-4465
4.Circle K Ranch
© Viacheslav Iakobchuk/stock.adobe.com
Tucked into the beautiful San Juan mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, Circle K Guest Ranch is an all-encompassing Wild West experience located in Dolores, Colorado. At Circle K Ranch, guests can stay in a top-tier bed and breakfast, with accommodations that range from rooms to full cabins, and spend their days hiking or horseback riding through the gorgeous Colorado wilderness. Guests can not only ride their horses but learn from experienced wranglers how to connect and communicate with their mounts. During hunting season, groups can rent cabins at the ranch to use as a home base for their hunting excursions.
27758 CO-145, Dolores, CO 81323, Phone: 970-562-3826
© R. P. Jennings/stock.adobe.com
Cliff Palace is one of the largest and most in-tact cliff dwellings not only in Mesa Verde National Park, but in the world. At its height, archaeologists believe it once held over 150 rooms, and was home to approximately one hundred people. By comparison, most of the other cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde had only about 1-5 rooms. This unique slice of history is a sight to behold, and visitors to Mesa Verde National Park who want to get a closer look can stop by the Mesa Verde Research and Visitor Center on their way into the park to obtain tickets for a one-hour guided tour inside the Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace Loop, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330, Phone: 970-529-4465
6.Cortez Cultural Center
© Hanna Tor/stock.adobe.com
Located in the town of Cortez, Colorado, the Cortez Cultural Center is a great place to learn about the archeological finds of the area as well as the historic culture of the American Indian people who have always called the area home. The history of the Ancestral Pueblo people, including from the Basketmaker and Pueblo periods, are on display in a variety of interactive exhibits in the Cortez Cultural Center, as well as exhibits pertaining to the history of the Ute and Mountain Ute, Navajo, and Pueblo tribes of Native Americans. The Cortez Cultural Center is open year round to visitors.
25 N Market St, Cortez, CO 81321, Phone: 970-565-1151
Situated on 170 acres of land full of archeological sites, research centers, interactive exhibits, and classroom space, Crow Canyon Archeological Center is a full and unique experience. Visitors can get up close and person with ancient artifacts, see a fully operational archeological lab, and learn about the work that archeologists and field researchers do at Crow Canyon. A guided tour of Crow Canyon will take visitors to the laboratory, to the Pithouse Learning Center, where they can explore a detailed replica of a Pueblo dwelling typical of those that date back to the eighth century, and to the demonstration gardens. Tours are free and last about one hour.
23390 C R K, Cortez, CO 81321, Phone: 800-422-8975
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8.Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
The Rocky Mountains are no joke—the steep slopes and sharp turns made it incredibly difficult for passage, and that’s why narrow gauge railroads were built. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is more scenic than functional these days, but it is truly a spectacular way to get around. Passengers can traverse the 45 mile track through dramatic mountain landscapes, and even opt to add other exciting and educational stops like a tour of the historic Silverton Mines. Throughout the year, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers plenty of great, seasonal events, like a pumpkin patch ride, a Polar Express ride, and even some great Wine & Rails or Brew Train events.
9.Far View Visitor Center
The Far View Visitor Center is located inside Mesa Verde National Park, and it is open from the months of April through October. At the Far View Visitor Center, visitors can take a break from their day of explorations and learning to use the restroom, or purchase tickets to see Cliff Palace, Long House, or Balcony House. Nearby is the Far View Lodge, a restaurant where visitors can enjoy a delicious meal, as well as a small bookstore and gift shop that is well equipped with a wide variety of souvenirs, collectibles, and information about the park.
Mile Marker 15, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330, Phone: 800-449-2288
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A lot of US states are shaped around natural features like rivers or mountain ranges, but out in the center of the country, state lines were parceled out in big, rectangular tracts of land. It’s a bit repetitive, sure, but what this means is that in the southwest corner of Colorado, there’s a place where the borders of four different states meet. At Four Corners, visitors can straddle the state lines between Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, a cool way to be in four places at once and the only place in the United States where it’s possible to do so.
597 NM-597, Teec Nos Pos, AZ 86514, Phone: 928-206-2540
11.Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores
© Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores/stock.adobe.com
If a name like the Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores isn’t enough to draw interest, then perhaps the sheer volume and worth of the artifacts and exhibits inside this small museum will do the trick. At the Galloping Goose, which is located inside a replica of the original Dolores train depot, visitors will find a number of great exhibits pertaining to the history and operations of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. The museum’s name is a direct reference to the Galloping Goose #5, a historic and completely renovated motor car that now takes visitors on rides along the narrow gauge railroad.
420 Central Ave, Dolores, CO 81323, Phone: 970-882-7082
12.Hovenweep National Monument
© Zack Frank/stock.adobe.com
There are six prehistoric ruins along the Colorado and Utah state line, which together make up Hovenweep National Monument. These ancient dwellings mark the sites where entire villages once stood. They date back to the 13th century AD, and were once the home of more than 2500 people. The structures at Hovenweep National Monument vary from ancient stone and brick walls to tall towers that balance precariously on top of boulders and rock formations. Visitors can explore Hovenweep on foot or by car, and even camp near the ancient dwellings for a full experience.
During the 11th century, Lowry Pueblo was much more than the collection of stone ruins it is today. Archeologists believe this structure once had as many as forty rooms, and eight kivas, which were used for religious purposes, and was home to about a hundred people. Mesa Verde and the surrounding area is full of ancient ruins of pueblos and dwellings, but Lowry Pueblo is different. The pueblo bears the distinction of having evidence that it was built in a number of different styles, including a more traditional Chacoan architectural style as well as a later style that is more common within Mesa Verde.
County Rd 7.25, Pleasant View, CO 81331, Phone: 970-882-5600
14.Majestic Dude Ranch
Southwestern Colorado feels a lot like the Wild West, even today. With wide swaths of untouched land, dramatic rock formations, and big sky and views that stretch as far as the eye can see, it can be easy to get lost in the beauty that Colorado has to offer. At Majestic Dude Ranch, visitors can take that feeling one step further by exploring the surrounding region as the cowboys and explorers once did—on horseback. With gorgeous and comfortable accommodations at the ranch, and amazing activities that include archery, whitewater rafting, fly fishing, and of course, horseback riding, Majestic Dude Ranch has all the ingredients for a vacation like no other.
42688 Road N, Mancos, CO 81328, Phone: 970-533-7900
15.Mancos State Park
At Mancos State Park, the waters of Jackson Gulch Reservoir are a perfect place to enjoy a peaceful paddle on a kayak or try to catch some of the yellow perch and rainbow trout in the waters. The surrounding area, with its gorgeous mountain vistas and poderosa forests, has plenty of great trails that are wonderful for hiking during the warmer months, and perfect for snowshoeing or cross country skiing during the winter. The lake can be used for ice fishing in the winter as well, and there are several camping and accommodation options at mancos State Park, which range from primitive tent camping sites to RV sites and even two yurts which are available for rental.
42545 Road N, Mancos, CO 81328, Phone: 970-533-7065
© Michele Benoy Westmorland and Danita Delimont/stock.adobe.com
McPhee Reservoir is located in the San Juan National Forest, and it is the largest body of water in that forest, as well as the second largest reservoir in all of Colorado. Tucked in the valleys of the tall mountains that rise from its shores, McPhee Reservoir was built to dam the Dolores River and provide irrigation for the surrounding areas. It’s name comes from the small lumber town of McPhee, which was completely submerged by the creation of the reservoir. McPhee Reservoir has a marina and boat launch that offers boat rentals, and it also boasts some panoramic overlooks and even a bike trail. The waters are ideal for several types of boating, including kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, and fishing.
17.Mesa Verde National Park
Colorado is a beautiful state. It is the proud home to four national parks, as well as several other national monuments, and although Mesa Verde National Park doesn’t draw quite so many visitors as Rocky Mountain National Park to the north, it is a beautiful and culturally rich place in its own right, and it’s definitely worth a trip. Mesa Verde National Park is most famous for the cliff dwellings that were once home to Ancestral Puebloans, and visitors can view the cliff dwellings from a distance or purchase tickets for a guided tour with a ranger who will take them up close. Hiking and biking trails abound within the park, with views of the cliff dwellings, gorgeous ridges, canyons, and mesas, and even a petroglyph site.
18.Phil's World Bike Trail
Mesa Verde and the surrounding region is a mecca for mountain bikers, and one of the best trail systems around is Phil’s World. The Phil’s World Bike Trail system extends for over 60 miles of amazing mountain bike trails, and it has all the features of a world-class trail system without the huge, frustrating crowds that bikers might find elsewhere. The gorgeous views of the nearby mountains make a great backdrop to all the ledges, slickrock, and pitches that bikers will find on the trail, and the system has something for everyone, from the most anxious of beginners to the most confident professionals.
9450 Rd 30.1, Cortez, CO 81321
Riding through the San Juan Mountains on horseback is an experience like no other. In the summer, tall forests of pine give way to mountain springs and clearings or incredible vistas of the surrounding peaks, and in the fall, the aspen groves turn a glorious golden yellow, surrounding riders with an unbelievable glow. Guided horseback rides at Rimrock Outfitters will pair visitors with a trustworthy mount before heading out into the wilderness for a sightseeing adventure of a lifetime. Visitors can take short day trips, full day rides that include meals, or even a camp and pack trip that will allow them to spend the night under the stars. Seasonal and special offerings include winter sleigh rides, wagon rides, and even horse-drawn carriage rides.
12175 Co Rd 44, Mancos, CO 81328, Phone: 970-533-7588
20.San Juan National Forest
The San Juan National Forest occupies a staggering 1.8 million acres of land in southwest Colorado, and practically every inch of that land is incomparably beautiful. During the summer, the landscape turns green and is dotted with massive fields of colorful columbines, lupines, and other amazing wildflowers. The mountain springs and lakes are a glittering blue that reflect the impossibly blue sky, and the rocky peaks which rise up dramatically behind them are incredibly gorgeous. San Juan National Forest has thousands of miles of trails, which are suitable for hiking, mountain biking, off-roading, and winter sports such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
21.San Juan Skyway
Colorado is home to 26 scenic byways, and the San Juan Skyway is one of the 11 of those 26 that have been deemed “America’s Byways”. This fully drivable road stretches and weaves for 233 miles through some of the most beautiful land in Colorado. It will take drivers through towns like Telluride, Silverton, and Durango, with incredible views of the San Juan Mountains at every turn. Keen-eyed drivers will find abandoned ghost towns that were once thriving mining villages, amazing wildlife like moose and elk, and even a stretch of canyon that was deemed the “million dollar highway” because of the sheer volume of gold in the surrounding rock face.
22.Spruce Tree House
© Brad Pict/stock.adobe.com
Of all the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, Spruce Tree House is not the largest, but it is the best preserved due to the overhanging cliff which has protected it from the elements over the centuries. This 130-room ancient dwelling has 8 kivas, which were used for spiritual reasons, and was built in the 13th century AD. The Spruce Tree House is built into a hidden alcove in the surrounding cliff, and was named for the large spruce tree which once grew from the front of the structure up to the top of the mesa. This spruce tree was climbed down by the ranchers who discovered the dwelling in the 19th century to reach the place. Today, visitors can explore Spruce Tree House by purchasing tickets from one of the park’s visitor centers.
Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330, Phone: 970-529-4465
© Aleksandr Lesik/stock.adobe.com
Sunflower Theatre, located in downtown Cortez, is a hub for entertainment of practically every kind. The theatre showcases live performances of theater and music, as well as cinematic and film events, and even educational opportunities. Their eclectic schedule of events includes classic films, live acts from local and touring musical performers, lectures, and theatrical productions, and the 105-seat auditorium offers audience members an intimate setting no matter where their seat. The Sunflower Theatre is a 501c3 non-profit, and its full performance calendar can be found on their website.
8 E Main St, Cortez, CO 81321, Phone: 970-516-1818
24.The Children’s Museum of Durango
© The Children’s Museum of Durango
The Children’s Museum of Durango has been known by many names, including the Powerhouse Science Center, and the Durango Discovery Museum. It is an interactive museum designed with kids in mind, and its name—The Powerhouse—comes from the fact that the building where it is located was once a power plant. The museum offers exhibits and programs for kids that teach them about anthropology, chemistry, space, and more, with options for kids of all ages, from toddlers to those who are only young at heart. The museum is open year round, though its hours are reduced during the winter months.
1333 Camino Del Rio, Durango, CO 81301, Phone: 970-259-9234
25.Ute Mountain Tribal Park
The Ute Mountain Tribal park is part of the Ute Mountain Reservation. They are a sovereign nation within the Colorado borders, and so visitors to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park must have a Ute guide to be able to enter and explore the park. They offer several tiers of tours, depending on what visitors would like to see. Some tours will take visitors through Mesa Verde National Park to the reservation, where they will see cliff dwellings and inaccessible casas, and another tour is focused on physical activity, and includes a 5 to 7 hour hike and a climb to a cliff dwelling.
Ute Mountain, Towaoc, CO 81334, Phone: 970-565-9653
25 Best Things to Do in Mesa Verde, CO
- Anasazi Heritage Center, Photo: Heater/stock.adobe.com
- Canyons of the Ancients, Photo: traveller70/stock.adobe.com
- Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, Photo: simone/stock.adobe.com
- Circle K Ranch, Photo: Viacheslav Iakobchuk/stock.adobe.com
- Cliff Palace, Photo: R. P. Jennings/stock.adobe.com
- Cortez Cultural Center, Photo: Hanna Tor/stock.adobe.com
- Crow Canyon, Photo: matimix/stock.adobe.com
- Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Photo: spiritofamerica/stock.adobe.com
- Far View Visitor Center, Photo: vito/stock.adobe.com
- Four Corners, Photo: Kelly/stock.adobe.com
- Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores, Photo: Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores/stock.adobe.com
- Hovenweep National Monument, Photo: Zack Frank/stock.adobe.com
- Lowry Pueblo, Photo: traveller70/stock.adobe.com
- Majestic Dude Ranch, Photo: Svetlana/stock.adobe.com
- Mancos State Park, Photo: LStockStudio/stock.adobe.com
- McPhee Reservoir, Photo: Michele Benoy Westmorland and Danita Delimont/stock.adobe.com
- Mesa Verde National Park, Photo: SKPG_Arts/stock.adobe.com
- Phil's World Bike Trail, Photo: Halfpoint/stock.adobe.com
- Rimrock Outfitters, Photo: igorsinkov/stock.adobe.com
- San Juan National Forest, Photo: ablokhin/stock.adobe.com
- San Juan Skyway, Photo: tristanbnz/stock.adobe.com
- Spruce Tree House, Photo: Brad Pict/stock.adobe.com
- Sunflower Theatre, Photo: Aleksandr Lesik/stock.adobe.com
- The Children’s Museum of Durango, Photo: The Children’s Museum of Durango
- Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Photo: oscity/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: tristanbnz/stock.adobe.com