When it comes to vacations, many independent travelers seek out historical sites. From museums to battlefields, reenacting history combines fun with a healthy dose of learning what life was like in bygone ages.
In the United States, most of those destinations offer a look back just 200 or 300 years. But there is one spot in the country where it’s possible to get a look at what life was like 1,000 years ago with an off-the-beaten path adventure.
At Ute Mountain Tribal Park, deep in the southwest corner of Colorado, visitors will find rock art on canyon walls that date back 800-1,000 years. Thousands of pottery sherds, flinted stones and beads still cover the ground.
Ute Mountain Tribal Park is an area set aside by the Ute Mountain Utes — one of the seven original Ute bands that inhabited Colorado — to preserve Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) architecture. Today, the remote, little-known park receives recognition from organizations worldwide. National Geographic Traveler has selected Ute Mountain as one of the 80 world destinations for Travel Adventure in the 21st Century.
At the park, visitors must be accompanied by a Ute guide on tours; no self-guided tours are allowed on the tribal land. Ute guides interpret Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and rock art, as well as Ute Indian history and geologic land formations on either half- or full-day trips. Visitors will find myriad pictographs, petroglyphs and artifacts.
Many of the sites are within a short walking distance of a gravel road. The full-day trip includes a three-mile hike and climbs on five ladders to visit four well-preserved canyon cliff dwellings. Upon request, guides will put together special tours to remote sections of the park. These tours involve up to six miles of hiking and climbing on original Ancestral Pueblo trails.
In this arid desert region — an area unlike more familiar high-alpine Colorado destinations — visitors need to bring plenty of drinking water, lunch, insect repellant, sunscreen (even in the winter), a hat and sturdy hiking shoes. They’ll also need a full tank of gasoline before venturing out with a guide (guides can provide transportation into the park for an extra charge).
Archaeological heartland of America
Ute Mountain Tribal Park is located along southwest Colorado’s 114-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, truly the archaeological heartland of America. Some regions of the Colorado Plateau, over which the Trail winds, remain much as they were in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Along the Trail, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument features the highest density of archaeological sites (more than 100 per square mile) anywhere in the United States, with sites dating back to the eighth century. Only a few areas are open for visitation; in one, visitors will find a particularly interesting adventure on the Sand Canyon Trail, traversing 6.5 miles through woodland forest and red rock canyon.
The Anasazi Heritage Center houses the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument’s visitor center, a research center and hands-on exhibits.
Hovenweep National Monument, along the Utah-Colorado border, protects six prehistoric, Ancestral Puebloan villages spread over a 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons. The area is noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character.
In the Four Corners region
Also along the Trail is the Four Corners Monument, marking the point where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet — the only point in the United States where the boundaries of four states intersect. The monument also marks the boundary between two semi-autonomous Native American governments: the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Reservation.
Mesa Verde National Park, one of the least-crowded national parks in the United States, also lies along the Trail of the Ancients Byway. As the country’s largest archaeological preserve, it is the sole park dedicated to the work of humankind. National Geographic Traveler selected Mesa Verde one of “50 Places to Visit in a Lifetime.”
Visitors can explore the park’s spectacular multi-story cliff dwellings, perched precariously in the alcoves of rock walls (some requiring guidance by a park ranger), descending a 100-foot canyon, climbing down ladders and stairs, and crawling through tunnels.
Getting there and staying there
The closest town to Ute Mountain Tribal Park is Cortez, Colorado. Cortez is 273 miles from Albuquerque; 348 miles from Salt Lake City; 382 miles from Denver; and 410 miles from Phoenix.
Cortez offers many affordable lodging options for the independent traveler: motels, bed and breakfast inns, campgrounds and RV parks. Camping is permitted at Ute Mountain Tribal Park’s primitive campground; cabins are also available. Cortez visitors will find authentic southwestern American cuisine as well as local wineries and microbreweries.
Half- and full-day tours of Ute Mountain Tribal Park begin at the park’s visitor center, located 20 miles south of Cortez, Colo. Tour reservations are required.