Exploring the Region of Dolores is a dance between Beauty and History
Your journey through the San Juan Skyway (SJS) can begin at any one of its historic towns. Skirt stunning 14,000-foot peaks or visit world-class ski resorts. You’ll traverse eons of geologic history and follow ancient Indian trails and pack trails created by early pioneers and gold seekers transformed into modern roadways. This one-of-a-kind experience also traces the remarkable visions of 19th century railroad builders. Within its 236 miles the SJS provides access to an amazing variety of destinations and recreation. Consider starting your visit with the footprints of the first migrating people to arrive in San Juan Country thousands of year ago who, like today’s visitors, also were attracted by its geological and ecological diversity and followed the bounty of the seasons.
Dolores is in the heart of Mesa Verde Country, only 15 miles to the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park near the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Anasazi Heritage Center. The Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, located in Dolores, is Southwest Colorado’s premier archaeological museum. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the museum focuses on Puebloan, Native American, and historic cultures in the Four Corners region., Dolores also is a great place for hunting, biking, fishing, boating and Hiking.
Starting in the southern San Juan Mountains, the Dolores River drains this semi-arid region of southwest Colorado. In 1765 the Juan Rivera expedition discovered the Dolores River (El Rio de Nuestra Senora de Dolores – Our Lady of Sorrows River) while looking for a route deep into Ute Indian Country. The Dolores River headwaters are found near the top of Lizard Head Pass in the San Juan National Forest. Just below the town of Dolores the McPhee Reservoir diverts and stores water for local agriculture. Below the Reservoir the Dolores River Canyon stretches for over 40 miles. With the Dolores River running through town and mountains on both sides of the valley, Dolores truly is a unique vacation spot.
A major railroad town along the Rio Grande Southern route between Durango and Ridgway, visitors can tour a replica of the original train depot on Railroad Avenue, now the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Museum. Visit the restored Galloping Goose narrow-gauge railcar and hop on for a short ride.
In recent times Dolores has become known as a gateway to the McPhee Reservoir, a fishing paradise. The West Dolores River is revered by fly fishermen. But it is the Anasazi Heritage Center and the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument only a few miles from Dolores that draw visitors. The Heritage Center includes exhibits depicting the archaeology of the Four Corners region. Located on 164,000 acres, the four main sites of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contain more than 6,000 recorded Ancient Puebloan archaeological sites. However, as a caution, only a few auto routes traverse the Monument. Most roads in this “outdoor museum” are only paved for some of the way, gravel for some, and 4×4 for small portions.
Not to be missed, the San Juan Skyways provides access to a vast region around today’s Dolores that was the home of Puebloan Indians until the end of the 13th century. A .5 mile trail leads from the Heritage Center to the Escalante Ruin that sits on a knoll overlooking the Reservoir, the Dolores River Valley and the San Juan River Basin. To the south you can see Mesa Verde and Sleeping Ute Mountain, and to the east the 13,000-foot peaks of the La Plata Mountains. A visit to the knoll is a time for contemplation. Puebloan farm settlements appeared in the Dolores River Valley in the seventh century A.D. Two centuries later thousands of Puebloans occupied the valley. Then, in 10th century, the settlements were gone, occupants probably moving south, but ancient people returned in droves a century later, populating ridges and slopes to the east and west of the knoll.
One of these houses, the Dominguez Ruin, is at the entrance to the Heritage Center. Below the knoll you can see the Escalante Ruin. The Escalante Ruin is yet another fascinating piece of ancient American history revealed in this area. The Domínguez-Escalante Expedition (1776) looking for a northern route from New Mexico missions to ones in Monterey, California, were the first to discover the Ruin consisting of a multi-storied masonry pueblo with at least 20 rooms built by the San Juan Anasazi between 900 and 1300 A.D. The Escalante Ruin is located and fully explained at the Anasazi Heritage Center.