A day-by-day, mile-by-mile guide to exploring the spectacular ruins of the Southwest's first civilization.
Although the desert-scapes of the American Southwest may seem barely habitable, people have been drawn to these cactus-spiked mesas for millennia. The architectural vestiges of a series of Pueblo cultures, discovered during the late 19th century, date back more than 3,000 years, and the excavated ruins have been preserved in national parks and monuments all within a few hours' drive of one another. Take one long weekend, when the days have cooled and the crowds have scattered, to explore six Pueblo sites in four states, starting in Durango, Colo.
Morning: From Durango, head south on Highway 550 to Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. It may be hard to believe that a 900-year-old site so mammoth and well maintained lies right off the highway. But convince yourself by exploring the maze of rooms—originally numbering 500—built with logs and sandstone blocks by the Animas River.
Afternoon: En route to the day's main attraction, Mesa Verde National Park—about 75 miles northwest on Highway 160—stop for lunch at the Absolute Bakery and Café, purveyor of homemade breads and pastries, in the tiny ranching outpost of Mancos, Colo. The entrance to Mesa Verde, a metropolis of ancient Native American settlements, is seven miles from Mancos, and the visitor center is 45 minutes into the park. Most villages within the park are visible from the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Drive. But be sure to book a ranger-led walking tour to Cliff Palace or Balcony House, or try the self-guided walking tour of Spruce Tree House, where you can descend a ladder into a kiva, a round, subterranean ceremonial structure.
Evening: Cortez, Colo., about nine miles west, is the usual base camp for Mesa Verde visitors, but head 12 miles north instead and you'll find the smaller, cooler town of Dolores, tucked next to the San Juan National Forest. For pizza and beer, try the Dolores Brewing Company, a quirky locals' hangout outfitted with posters and board games. Then hit the hay in one of the towns many quaint Bed & Breakfasts.
Morning: Set out for Yucca House National Monument, about eight miles south of Cortez. Though small and unexcavated, these clay-brick ruins, once home to the ancestors of the native Pueblo people, are worth the adventure. There are no signs to this site (find detailed directions at nps.gov/yuho), and you'll have to navigate dirt roads through remote private ranchland. But you're likely to have the site—and unobstructed views of Sleeping Ute Mountain—to yourself.
Afternoon: County Road G, leading west from Cortez to Hovenweep National Monument, is long, winding and desolate, so fortify yourself with lunch in town at the Wild Bunch Deli. At Hovenweep, hike the two-mile loop from the visitor's center around the Square Tower Group, where as many as 500 Puebloans lived between 1200 and 1300 A.D. You're almost guaranteed blissful solitude among 800-year-old towers and rock carvings. Hawks soar overhead, eyeing the prairie dogs and turquoise-and-yellow collared lizards that roam the ruins. Also make time for some of the five outlying sites.
Evening: About an hour's drive from Hovenweep is the breeze-by frontier town of Bluff, Utah. Choose between barbecued chicken, ribs or a T-bone steak at the Cottonwood Steakhouse before retiring to the Desert Rose Inn & Cabins, which features plenty of porches for prime sunset viewing.
Morning: The 100-mile drive south through Navajo tribal land to Chinle, Ariz., the gateway to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, will take about an hour and a half. Cruise the "rim drives" along the canyon's edge—don't miss the turn, on South Rim Drive, that allows you to ogle the 800-foot Spider Rock—but you'll have to hire a Navajo guide to get to the canyon floor. (The monument is located on tribal land and is run jointly by the tribe and the National Park Service.) As you descend on foot, horseback or four-wheel-drive vehicle, you'll discover streaked red canyon walls, olive trees and ancient cliffside dwellings.
Afternoon: Lunch at Chinle's Junction Restaurant, where an eclectic menu offers pizza, mutton stew and fry bread. Before heading north again to Durango, swoop 30 miles south for your grand finale: the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site is the oldest continuously operating trading post of the Navajo nation. Shop for rugs, pottery and baskets among antique scales and cupboards. Then peek into the visitor center, where Navajo women demonstrate weaving techniques.
Evening: About 10 miles from Durango, a three-hour drive from Canyon de Chelly, stop for dinner at Kennebec Café and Bakery in Hesperus to watch the sun set over Las Platas and savor a house specialty, such as duck breast with pomegranate glaze. Crash at the historic Rochester Hotel in Durango, where evidence of the area's other past—cowboys and miners—lines the walls.
Transportation: United, Delta and America West fly into Durango’s small airport. At the airport, rent a car from Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz or National.
Activities: For more information about the Pueblo ruins, visit Aztec Ruins National Monument (nps.gov/azru), Canyon de Chelly National Monument (nps.gov/cach), Hovenweep National Monument (nps.gov/hove), Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (nps.gov/hutr), Mesa Verde National Park (nps.gov/meve) and Yucca House National Monument (nps.gov/yuho).
Walking tours of Canyon de Chelly can be arranged through the visitor center, or book a half-day, four-wheel-drive tour with Thunderbird Lodge at the monument entrance (800-679-2473, tbirdlodge.com).
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