Mesa Verde and More

A day-by-day, mile-by-mile guide to exploring the spectacular ruins of the Southwest's first civilization.
May 30, 2013Long Weekend

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.

DAY ONE

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

NPS Photo / Sandy Groves

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 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 town of Dolores, tucked next to the San Juan National Forest. Sample local brews and explore the local shops in this unique Colorado town.

DAY TWO

Cutthroat castle group at Hovenweep National Monument

Cutthroat castle group at Hovenweep National Monument

NPS Photo / Andrew Kuhn

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 (but you can find detailed directions here) 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 

Just outside of Bluff, Utah, about an hour's drive from Hovenweep, explore the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, an expansive rock wall covered with ancient scrawlings estimated to be thousands of years old. Head into Bluff, a breezy frontier town, to enjoy dinner and local shopping.

DAY THREE

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

NPS Photo

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

Grab lunch at Chinle's Junction Restaurant 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 in Hesperus–named in honor of the Greek god of the evening star–to watch the sun set over Las Platas. 

 

Travel Details

Stone opening at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Stone opening at Aztec Ruins National Monument

NPS Photo

Transportation 

A number of major airlines fly into Durango’s small airport. At the airport, there are a variety of car rental options to get you around the area.

Activities 

See beautiful 900 year-old artifacts in the museum and visitor center at Aztec Ruins National Monument, where you can also pick up a trail guide to help you on self-guided tours. The North and South "Rim Drives," ten overlooks and the White House Trail at Canyon de Chelly National Monument are open year-round and are paved and accessible by vehicle. Walking tours of the monument can be arranged through the Visitor Center, or you can book a half-day, four-wheel drive tour at Thunderbird Lodge, located near the monument entrance. Hovenweep National Monument offers ranger-led programs spring through fall, including guided walks and porch talks at the visitor center–contact the park for current schedules. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site offers free self-guided activities outside of the Trading Post, as well as summer programs and tours. Mesa Verde National Park is open year-round, but opportunities vary from season to season–reference their Visitor Services and Program Schedule for the most updated information. There is no Visitor Center at Yucca House National Monument–download their Visitor Guide before you leave to help you navigate around the monument.


Start a Conversation


CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Stay Inspired
Connect with the parks you love. Sign up to receive the latest NPF news, information on how you can support our national treasures, and travel ideas for your next trip to the parks. Join our community.