Guide to the Four Corners Area at the Southwest Quadrant of Colorado
Southwestern Colorado and adjoining states offer visitors one of the world’s most fascinating historical and archeological journeys. A thousand years ago, this region was the center of an incredibly complex and influential civilization that flourished over several centuries throughout the entire Southwest. The four-corners region contains thousands of archaeological and natural wonders hidden within millions of square miles of public land. Ancestral Puebloans, along with other tribal groups, occupied land within what today we call the Four Corners and inhabited ecologically diverse sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. Today, the region is home to the descendants of these tribes, many of whom have a strong connection to these important cultural sites. From the dry desert ecosystem at Chaco Canyon to the pinyon-juniper woodlands at Mesa Verde, the geographic isolation of these parks offers visitors much needed and welcomed opportunities to get off the beaten path, find solitude away from big crowds, and seek restoration while having uniquely unforgettable experiences.
Exemplified by its unique landmark, the Four Corners Monument, 40 miles southeast of Cortez, is the only place in the US where visitors can be in four states at one time. If at all possible, visitors should plan to spend as many as six or seven days exploring the Four Corners region. No matter how many days are in the visit, the first of many challenges for an itinerary is where to begin and the best ways to navigate the region’s countless attractions. Families with children will have to make other decisions that ensure everyone’s enjoyment and comfort. Although both Cortez and Dolores offer good starting points or home bases, keep in mind that the initial goal should be getting to the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum on State Highway 184.
From wherever you start driving to the Four Corners, consider taking the fabulous San Juan Skyway to Dolores as the first stop in your itinerary. The Skyway adds another unique scenic experience to historical touring in Southwest Colorado. People traveling with children will find that Dolores can provide an enjoyable start to the trip with a visit to the Galloping Goose Historical Society. The Society has built a replica of the original Rio Grande Southern (RGS) Dolores depot and restored Galloping Goose No. 5 that operates on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. As for Cortez, the town is just an hour from Mesa Verde National Park. Home to more than 4,000 archeological sites, 600 of the Mesa Verde sites are cliff dwellings. At the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, you can pick up maps and brochures, and arrange for guided tours to cliff dwellings. Guided tours, especially to the amazing Cliff Palace, fill up quickly.
As invaluable preparation for the coming days, definitely visit the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum (Museum). The premier archaeological Museum iof Native American pueblo and hunter-gatherer cultures, two 12th-century archaeological sites, the Escalante and Dominguez Pueblos, once home to Ancient Pueblo peoples, are nearby. A paved, ½-mile hiking trail runs from the Museum to the Dominguez and Escalante Pueblos. Constructed approximately 1120 to 1130 AD, the Escalante Pueblo consists of groupings of stone-walled family and communal rooms, including kivas (room used for rites and meetings). Dominguez Pueblo is an example of independent family homes outside the main pueblo. Beads, mosaics, ceramic vessels, woven mats and a great many other items discovered at the site shed light on how the people may have lived a thousand years ago. These two pueblos were named in honor of the two Spanish Franciscan friars, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who recorded these ancient archaeological sites during their expedition in 1776.
To get to the Museum from Dolores, travel west on State Highway 145, then turn west (right) on State Highway 184. Or if you are heading for the Museum from Cortez, travel north on State Highway 145, then turn west (left) on State Highway 184. Continue on 184 for approximately 1 mile and the Visitor Center will be on your right. Before heading to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (Monument), get information, maps and other publications at the Museum and perhaps take advantage of its interpretive exhibits, films, special programs and events covering the history and culture of the Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American peoples. On its way to the Monument, the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway passes right by the Museum. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail, a 19th century Mexican trade route, also runs through this area.
Ten miles west of Cortez and 12 miles west of Mesa Verde National Park, the Monument boasts the highest known density of archaeological sites in the U.S and perhaps even in the world. Some stretches of the Monument boast an amazing 100-plus sites per square mile. Ancient sites, art, and artifacts in this Monument are scattered across 176,000 acres. The Monument has been used or inhabited by humans, including the Northern Ancestral Puebloan culture (or Anasazi), for at least 10,000 years. Historic uses of the Monument include recreation, hunting, livestock grazing and energy development. The Monument contains more than 6,350 documented ancient sites include: villages, field houses, dams, reservoirs, kivas, rock art, and multi-room cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs. Unfortunately, however, most roads are unpaved and can get rough. A reliable vehicle is essential together with caution, especially in springtime when mud on the roads can be a challenge. At least one full-day is needed to explore the Monument, starting with about two hours exploring the Museum.
And if you have more time, Hovenweep National Monument in southeast Utah has six different ancient villages from the Pueblo period in the mid-13th century. Hovenweep is famous for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers. The Square Tower site is easily accessible from a nice hiking trail and visitor center. This site will be especially interesting for visitors who have seen Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde. Hovenweep shows evidence of Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants that constructed a series of intricate multistory towers that demonstrated close connections with civilizations at nearby Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Hovenweep also has some of the best remaining examples of the skillful masonry in the Four Corners region. Take the Square Tower Loop Trail and plan to stay overnight to experience the stars at this remote International Dark Sky Park.
Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906. (Link to Mesa Verde article) It was one of the first places in the world to be designated a World Heritage Cultural Site after UNESCO created the list in 1978. Twenty-six tribes are associated with Mesa Verde. Some 600 iconic cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde gain most attention but they only make up a tiny portion of a vastly larger cultural landscape consisting of nearly 5,000 archeological sites. The archeological record of habitation spans at least 1,300 years. Beginning around AD 1 and reaching its peak between 1100 A.D. and 1200 A.D, Mesa Verde became the hub of a mass migration from historic sites like Chaco Canyon (also an option for further exploration discussed below). After residing primarily on the mesa tops, indigenous people began moving into great masonry pueblos built within deep alcoves in the sheer-walled canyons. You will be able to hike into a few of these cliff dwellings.
The largest cliff pueblo in North America, Cliff Palace includes 23 kivas and 217 rooms that once housed around 250 people. Balcony House was a mid-sized village of 38 rooms and two kivas and probably housed up to 30 people. The second-largest cliff dwelling in the park, Long House is located on Wetherill Mesa. Plan to stop at some of the many overlooks along the three main driving loops in the park. Drive slowly and you’ll likely spot mule deer along the way. People who are prepared for a strenuous hike leading to great views Montezuma and Mancos Valleys should take the 2.2-mile Point Lookout Trail to the highest point in Mesa Verde. The Petroglyph Point Trail leads to excellent views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and passes a large petroglyph panel.
Travelers who have not had enough archeological and historical adventure in Colorado might consider two other possibilities: an extended off-road side trip to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico; and a trip to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona, a vast park on Navajo tribal lands that, in addition to the 800-foot tall Spider Rock spire, has towering sandstone cliffs once inhabited by Native American peoples for millennia. These cliff dwellings can be as seen in The White House Ruins and Mummy Cave, both remains of ancient Pueblo villages.
Located 140 miles south of Cortez (via US 491) and approximately 150 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves more than 15 Chacoan “great houses” that were the hubs of Puebloan civilization between 850 A.D. and 1150 A.D. The scale and sophistication of these communities are extremely impressive. The structures completed by the Puebloans were some of the largest buildings constructed in North America until the 19th century. For generations, this complex culture brought people together from areas as distant as southern Mexico to buy and trade items and celebrate important religious events. First established as a national monument in 1907 to preserve and tell the story of Chaco Canyon, it continues to be an important tribal cultural center to this day.
The park’s visitor center provides interpretive exhibits and ranger-led walks through the pueblos. Pueblo Bonito is the largest of the Chacoan great houses and the most important site in the park. It once contained about 800 rooms and 37 kivas. At its peak it may have housed more than a thousand people. The second-largest Chacoan great house, Chetro Ketl, contained about 500 rooms and two large kivas. As a really good introduction to the diversity of architecture that existed at the center of Chacoan culture, you can take the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive from the visitor center that leads to Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva in Chaco Culture. The trail through Casa Rinconada and nearby villages is half a mile long round-trip. Another trail, the Pueblo Alto Loop, takes you up an old staircase carved into the rock and onto a mesa north of the great houses offering great views of the canyon below. Penasco Blanco Ruins Trail, the longest trail in the canyon, takes you to numerous petroglyph sites.
Don’t miss the ranger-led night sky program at this International Dark Sky Park. You’ll be able to look through high-powered telescopes and, with ranger guidance, learn about the important role of astronomy in the architecture and construction of Chaco. Bring binoculars to spot several petroglyphs and pictographs located around pueblos. Other than camping, there are no lodgings nearby. Plan your trip accordingly. For the best weather aim for spring or fall. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat and some warm clothing.
One of the Southwest’s most fascinating national monuments, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “deh SHAY”) lies in the heart of the Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona. With its spectacular, sheer-walled canyons and numerous Ancestral Puebloan dwellings nestled at the base of towering cliffs or perched in shallow caves, this national monument has a rich cultural history that spans more than 4,000 years. The monument was established in 1931. Unlike nearly all other National Park System units, the U.S. government does not own the land within the boundaries of the park. Thus management of the park is carried out jointly by the Navajo Nation and the Park Service. Members of the Navajo community continue to live in the canyon, raising crops, tending flocks of sheep and cultivating peach orchards.
Canyon de Chelly was the site where the Navajo made their last stand against U.S. Army colonel Kit Carson in 1864. The largest Native American surrender in history led to the infamous Long Walk of the Navajo. Nearly 8,000 Navajo were taken captive and forced to relocate nearly 400 miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation near Ft. Sumner in modern-day New Mexico. Four years later the Treaty of Bosque Redondo allowed the Navajo people to return to their homeland.
A visit to Canyon de Chelly can include two scenic rim drives, a self-guided hike into the canyon to see the White House Ruin or a trek with a Navajo guide. The White House Trail offers a 2-mile round trip self-guided hike from the White House Overlook on the canyon rim down to a Puebloan cliff dwelling named White House Ruin. Dating around 1100 A.D., the structure once housed over 60 rooms. Its name derives from a section of white-plastered pueblo wall in the upper part of the dwelling. A 22-mile South Rim Drive offers some outstanding overlooks including the Spider Rock Overlook, a slender sandstone spire that rises 750 feet from the canyon floor and is sacred to the Navajo. On the North Rim Drive, the Mummy Cave Overlook, occupied from 300 A.D. to the late 1200s, contains some of the largest and most spectacular cliff dwellings in the monument.
Visitors passionate about visiting some or many ancient sites and have the time can follow the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway includes: Mesa Verde National Park and its cliff dwellings; Ute Mountain Tribal Park’s rock art; the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, home to Lowry Pueblo and the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum; the Hovenweep National Monument, straddling Utah and Colorado, with its stone towers; and Canyon de Chelly.
Several other excursions to historic sites beyond Canyon de Chelly require additional driving but lead to some very worthwhile sightseeing and other activities. Located about 40 miles south of Canyon de Chelly, the Hubble Trading Post National Historic Site is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation and well worth a stop to shop for rugs, decorative pottery, arts and crafts. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, that straddles the border of Arizona and Utah, has frequently been used as a filming location for Western movies. A looping 17-mile Valley Drive passes through spectacular, towering sandstone buttes. Monument Valley has been another Western film making mecca. The iconic mesas and buttes have appeared many times in John Wayne, Butch and Sundance, and Thelma-Louise films. To get there take U.S. 191 north to 59, a Navajo Nation road that takes you northwest toward Kayenta, the gateway to Monument Valley. Make a left onto U.S. 160 and a right onto U.S. 163 to access Monument Valley.