Colorado became home to me when I was just 14 years old. I lost my heart to the Centennial State and even today, I feel as if I’m home under those endless blue skies with the smell of pines and junipers in the air. One of the places I rediscovered recently is the Four Corners Area. Sure, it’s fun to stand in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico at the same time, but it’s so much more than the novelty. When I travel in Mesa Verde Country, I feel the history. I see the tiniest details showing how life has existed in this area for thousands of years. As author Craig Childs says, “You will become this place.” Come along and enjoy everything there is to experience in Mesa Verde Country—become a part of the past and enjoy everything the area has to offer today.
Wonders of Mesa Verde Country
Mesa Verde Country is a massive area that encompasses two national scenic byways—including the 114-mile Trail of the Ancients—along with Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and the surrounding small towns including Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos.
Ancestral Pueblo people called this area home for years and at every turn, you can get a touch of that historical view. Walking along almost any hiking trail, you’re likely to see bits of potshards and perhaps a rock painting or two. Cliff dwellings are under the wide buttes throughout the area. But it is also filled with an excitement as the local foods, wines, art, and culture welcome new residents and visitors.
Exploring Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
I had visited the area years ago but had never really had a chance to get out and explore this beautiful area, so I welcomed a chance to start my visit to Southwestern Colorado at The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Ranch Stay at Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch
The perfect spot to call home for a few days while exploring is at Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch. I flew into Durango on American Airlines with a non-stop flight from DFW and made the 90-minute drive to the ranch, admiring the late spring scenery and wide open spaces that make Colorado so special to me. You can also fly into Cortez on Boutique Air directly from Phoenix or Denver. These little planes fly daily and then you will have about a 20-minute drive to the ranch.
Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch is owned and operated by husband and wife team Garry and Ming Adams. I immediately felt as if I was part of the family on this working ranch—having a chance to go with Garry to feed the cows and sheep and listening to Ming tell stories of how she uses the grass-fed meat raised right there on the ranch to create breakfast burritos.
I stayed in Pioneer House, a 2-story, 3-bedroom home with a full kitchen, downstairs bedroom, upstairs loft bedroom and separate room with loft bunk beds and a reading nook that I knew my grandkids would adore.
I could have stayed there for days and would love to return to have time to enjoy the grill in the backyard, sit on the patio watching the ranch life and have time to soak up the serene atmosphere. It’s an ideal spot for family reunions and for corporate retreats.
While at Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch, I had a chance to walk with the ranch’s archeologist to explore the majestic McElmo Canyon. The Adams found rock art and pueblos on private ranch property, and they love taking guests along to see the archeological dig in process. I truly hated saying goodbye when it was time to leave, but I knew there was much more to discover.
Wine Tasting in Mesa Verde Country
Nearby Sutcliffe Vineyards, about 10 minutes from the ranch, is an ideal spot to relax with a glass of wine and take in the surrounding beauty. John Sutcliffe bought historic Battlerock Ranch back in 1990 and started making wine in 1997. Today, under the guidance of winemaker Joe Buckel, they make some darned good wines. Everything is 100% organic and contains no animal-based fining agents.
I was eager to taste the wines and enjoyed a couple of hours in the Colorado sunshine discovering a few new favorites. I loved the rosé—I’m always impressed when a US winemaker understands how to make a French-style rosé. This rosé is made from 100% Cabernet Franc and is ideal for a hot summer afternoon. But my absolute favorite was the Cinsaut (known as Cinsault everywhere in the world outside of the US). Mostly Cinsaut grapes from Black Bear Orchards in Palisade, Colorado, Sutcliffe's 2015 that I sampled also blended Grenache, Viognier, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can find these and other Sutcliffe wines in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
Wandering The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Over the years, thousands of archaeological sites have been discovered throughout Mesa Verde Country. The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument stretches over 170,000 acres and gives you a chance to explore some of those archaeological sights, learn more about the history of the ancient Pueblo people, and explore the natural beauty of the area.
The national monument is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System and you have miles and miles to explore. I suggest starting out at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores. While this serves as headquarters for the monument, it also has a great interactive museum that explains some of the history and culture of the area and its people. You can also pick up maps, get updated visitor information, and talk to experts who can tell you what you should see in the time you have available.
It’s definitely worth the time to walk the short trail behind the Anasazi Heritage Center to Escalante Pueblo.
This paved accessible path takes you to the top of the hill above the museum, where you can look at some existing pueblo ruins and get a breathtaking view of McPhee Reservoir and Montezuma Valley.
The ruins at the top of the hill give you a chance to get up close and explore, making this a great first stop before you visit the national park. Do remember to respect the area when you visit. It’s common to see pot shards on the ground, but don’t ever remove them. I encourage you to explore and even touch, but be gentle and leave everything exactly as you found it. There has been trouble in the past with vandalism and people destroying these ancient remains. If you ever see someone destroying the ruins or taking anything, report it to park officials immediately.
Exploring Nearby Cortez and Mancos
Once you’ve had an introduction to the ancient cultures and have had a chance to get out and do some hiking in The Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, I suggest exploring the area around Cortez. I suggest stopping by Notah-Dineh Trading Company & Museum. This family-owned trading post opened in Cortez in 1961, offering a collection of Native American art. You can find jewelry from Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Santo Domingo Pueblo artisans. There are also some beautiful Navajo rugs and pottery from across the Southwest. I found a beautiful silver ring that became the perfect memento of my Colorado trip.
Before you leave the trading post, be sure to step downstairs to check out the Notah-Dineh Museum, which opened in 1994. It includes an extensive display of historic Native American art and artifacts. The most impressive piece is the largest known Two Grey Hills weaving, which is showcased in the museum. The museum is free to the public.
Finish up at Notah-Dineh and to make your way to the small town of Mancos. I fell in love with this little, artistic town that is one of 21 Colorado Creative Districts. This creative little town stole my heart and I want to return and spend more time getting to know the people in town, touring the shops owned by the local artisans, and enjoying the local food.
I suggest timing your visit so you can enjoy breakfast at Absolute Bakery. Everything is amazingly fresh at Absolute Bakery, with all-natural meats, farm-fresh eggs, and their award-winning chili verde. Don’t worry—there are plenty of vegetarian options if you prefer. The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, and you don’t want to miss this one.
While in Mancos, be sure to walk just across the river from the bakery to visit Fenceline Cidery. This local craft cidery, under the direction of Neal Wight and Samuel Perry, uses quality Colorado fruit.
I’m not a beer drinker, but I love a good cider and there were several at Fenceline that called to me. My favorite was Fenceline Reserve, made using local Southwestern Colorado fruit, including Dolgo crabapples. While Dolgo crabapples are difficult apple to pick, the fruit is full of flavor, color, and character. There are frequently local musicians and artists who share their talent at Fenceline Cidery, so check out the schedule online.
Wandering the Wonders of Mesa Verde National Park
The most famous of the sights in this part of Colorado is Mesa Verde National Park, which gives us a look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who called this area home for more than 700 years, from 500 to 1300 A.D.
Exploring Mesa Verde National Park, which was created back in 1906 to help preserve the ruins and cliff dwellings, isn’t something for an afternoon. I suggest spending a couple of days so you can take in the cultural treasures. You can book a room at Far View Lodge, which sits at 8,250 feet above sea level and provides spectacular views into four states. The rooms are simple, yet peaceful, giving you a chance to unwind after a day exploring the park.
In addition to the Visitor Center, there are walking trails and driving routes that let you view and explore some of the park’s most impressive archeological sites. I suggest you start with the 4-hour 700 Years Tour, offered by Aramark twice a day from Far View Lodge from mid-April through late October. I had one of the best tours ever, with a driver and a guide who were passionate about Mesa Verde National Park and its history. They were fun yet informative and gave me an introduction to the rich history of the Pueblo people who once called the area home. There are more than 4,500 archeological sites in the park, so this is a great introduction to some of the most impressive.
The 700 Years Tour gives you a chance to take short walks to the pit houses and view the cliff dwellings along the Mesa Top Loop Road. The highlight for me was looking out over Cliff Palace, the most famous cliff dwelling in the park. Cliff Palace is currently undergoing preservation, but viewing the ruins from stops along Mesa Top Loop Road and from the overlook on the Cliff Palace Loop Road gave me a real sense for the history of this area.
After a long day of exploring the park, you can get dinner at The Metate Room, which is Far View Lodge’s main restaurant. For me, the best moment, however, was sitting on the outside patio at Far View Terrace, looking out over the valley, sipping a glass of Sutcliffe wine. You get a chance to relax and enjoy that sense of history you can feel from every step you take in Mesa Verde National Park. The restaurant and lounge are both open from mid-April through late October.
There are so many other ways to experience some of the wonders at Mesa Verde National Park. Although the park itself is open year round, some of the activities are only available between April and October, so be sure to check the schedule online before visiting. You might want to take a ranger-guided tour or get out and hike to some of the backcountry areas with a guide, both of which will ensure that you understand and fully appreciate everything you see. You can check the availability of the backcountry tours here and book online.
There is a vehicle fee to enter Mesa Verde National Park, ranging from $15 in low season to $20 throughout the summer months. There are, however, a number of fee-free days offered throughout the year. Details are available on the national park website.
Exploring Southwestern Colorado and Mesa Verde Country gives you an opportunity to experience the culture and history of this amazing location. From the moment you begin exploring The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and the charming mountain towns of Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos, I’m sure you’ll also lose your heart to Colorado.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, travel, tours, and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.