Infatuated by archaeology since the age of seven, I was lucky enough to grow up in a state chock-full of amazing history and a plethora of archaeological sites.
My father took me out to the canyons east of our town to see the petroglyphs. I remember his carrying both my brother and I on his back in the pitch black when our shoes were too full of cactus spines to walk. Later, I demanded visits to places like Mesa Verde and my hounded parents obliged.
I volunteered on my first dig at the age of 15 at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado. I went back the next year. And the year after that. At the age of 17 I dove head first into the search for the 150-year old Euro-American Fort Pueblo buried under the downtown of my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado.
In compiling this top ten list I stuck with places that I have personally visited. I avoided listing sites on private land, sites that I know of that are endangered or deliberately un-publicized.
Colorado hosts thousands of these. I also wanted to limit it to places that could be accessed relatively easily. As such, there is a hell of a lot out there I just could not put on this list for various reasons.
Any archaeological site needs to be treated with care. These places are fragile and we can never replace them.
So a few rules for the road:
1. Take as many pictures as you want but do not collect any of the artifacts you see.
2. Don’t take any artifacts and, don’t pile them up.
3. Don’t ever touch rock art – nor should you make rubbings of rock art or make any marks of any kind on a rock art panel. That is what your camera is for.
4. If a site is barricaded that means something. Stay behind the barricade. A KEEP OUT sign probably means…keep out. Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. And enjoy.
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Chimney Rock Archaeological Area
A dramatic 1000-year old site in south-central Colorado between Durango and Pagosa Springs. An ancestral Puebloan site, Chimney Rock site is located hundreds of feet above the valley floor within the San Juan National Forest Archaeological Area. At its height, several thousand people lived at Chimney Rock.
The Great House is of particular interest. Of Chacoan design, the difference between it and Mesa Verde style architecture is stark. As such, Chimney Rock marks the northeastern edge Chacoan cultural influence – that we know of.
The visitor center is open between May 15 and September 30th. Guided walking tours are conducted daily. Camping areas are located nearby.
How to get there: 43 miles east of Durango and 17 miles west of Pagosa Springs on U.S. highway 160. At highway 151 and turn south and go just three miles to the entrance on the west side of the road.
More information: Chimney Rock Archaeological Area
Mesa Verde National Park
One of the best known North American archaeological areas, Mesa Verde encompasses more than 5,000 known archaeological sites spanning nearly 2000 years. This was one of several important centers of the ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited the area for about 700 years (600-1300AD) constructing early 600 cliff dwellings – some of which are extraordinarily well-preserved.
This is the kind of place you can easily spend a week and still not see everything. Plan at least one full day but really, between the museums, the hikes, the tours you’ll want some time in this fascinating place.
How to get there: Mesa Verde is located in Southwestern Colorado between Durango and Cortez. From Cortez drive 15 miles east on Highway 160 to the park turnoff to the south. Dive and 36 miles west from Durango, on Highway 160. From the entrance to the park it will take about an hour to get to the campgrounds and headquarters.
More Information: Mesa Verde National Park
Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
It can be a little hard to imagine but 1000 years ago, there were far more people on this landscape than there are now. Canyon of the Ancients is the most archaeologically dense areas in the entire country. In some places there are around 100 sites per square mile and over 6000 known sites total in the area.
Although many Native American peoples left traces of their lives on this landscape over the course of 20,000 + years, artifacts from the more recent ancestral Puebloans dominate this amazing place. In sharp contrast to management of places like Chimney Rock and Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients is a rough and wild landscape prime for exploration on foot. Thankfully, roads are few and unpaved. Be sure to visit Sand Canyon Pueblo (the very first excavation I worked from 1986-1988) and Painted Hand Pueblo for some pretty stunning experiences.
How to get there: Canyon of the Ancients is a massive area with multiple access points. The best thing to do is first stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center 10 miles north of Cortez for maps, orientation and advice on weather conditions.
More Information: Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
Dominguez and Escalante Pueblos at the Anazasi Heritage Center
The Anasazi Heritage Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a museum dedicated to the Ancestral Puebloan culture featuring some excellent exhibits and interpretive information, special events and tours, an impressive library and amazing resource collection. On top of all that, the center hosts two 12th-Century pueblos, Dominquez and Escalante, a Chacoan Outlier overlooking the Dolores River.
How to get there: 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colorado USA 81323 just 10 miles north of Cortez. Take Hightway 145 north to Highway 184 and turn west.
More information: Anazasi Heritage Center
Falls Creek Archaeological Area
Falls Creek is a rather hidden is a 1500-acre valley in the San Juan National Forest on the northwest side of Durango. Flat grasslands surrounded by some rather impressive cliffs, this area protects several sites from the ancestral Pueblo Basketmaker period (500BC-500AD).
The area is divided in half by County Road 205. West of the road, ALL activity, including hiking, is off limits. There is a network of trails in the eastern half of the area that allow you to access some of the archaeology.
How to get there: Exit Highway 500 in Durango and take 25th St. west. The road changes to Junction Street. Then turn north on County Road 205 where you will see a sign pointing to the area.
More information: Falls Creek Archaeological Area
Roxborough State Park Archaeological District
Humans have been on this land for 20,000 years or more to be sure but the earliest evidence for people at Roxborough State Park dates to about 9,000 years ago. Archaic (6,000-3000BC) and Woodland (500-1000AD) left behind a lot of evidence of their lives here in the form of lithic scatters, campsites and quarries. Later the Apaches, Utes, Comanches, Arapahoes and Cheyennes all utilized this area.
In the 19th Century, Euro-Americans homesteaded the area. Located near Denver, 3,300-acre Roxborough is very popular with weekend urban refugees. In addition to its archaeological resrouces the area is geologically unique with a remarkable landscape the a healthy and diverse plant and animal community. How to get there: Roxborough is just 28 miles from the center of Denver. From Denver go south on US Highway 85 through Littleton. Then go west on highway 470 to Highway 121 (S. Wadsworth Blvd) and go south. The road curves east and meets with N. Rampart Range Rd. Go south to the park entrance.
More information: Roxborough State Park Archaeological District
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Curecanti National Recreation Area is a series of three reservoirs along the Gunnison River. A river that used to run wild. It’s an area well-known for its fishing, hunting and bird-watching opportunities. Less well-known, perhaps are is the archaeology.
There are about 160 prehistoric and historic archeological sites in the area and 5,000 acres of the park are protected as the Curecanti Archeological District and recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Evidence for human occupation dates to Paleo times nearly 10,000 years ago. 4,500 year-old Archaic wikiups have been found in the area as well as extensive remains of the Ute peoples who called this area home for hundreds of years. More recently, the northern branch of the Spanish trail linking Santa Fe with Los Angeles ran through here.
How to get there: Curecanti National Recreation Area is located along US Highway 50 between Montrose and Gunnison approximately 200 miles southwest of Denver. You can also access the area via State Highway 149 and State Highway 92.
More Information: Curecanti National Recreation Area
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Some of my best memories of grade school were our frequent field trips to Bent’s Old Fort east of my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. The original fort on this site was built in 1833 by William and Charles Bent and their partner Ceran St. Vrain. The purpose was the trade with the Cheyenne and Arapaho and the mountain men who trapped along the mountain rivers to the west. A small trading “empire” quickly centered on the adobe structure supporting tendrils that extended to Taos, Santa Fe and even into Mexico. In 1846 it served as the staging grounds for Kearney’s invasion of New Mexico. The fort was abandoned in 1849 after disease decimated the plains tribes. The structure fell into ruins and, as adobe does, it melted into the earth.
After archaeological excavations at the site in the early 1970s, the fort was reconstructed using original sketches, paintings and diary entries.
How to get there: Pueblo is located 75 miles to the west. Colorado Springs 110 miles to the northwest. From Pueblo, go east on US Highway 50 to La Junta. Take highway 109 north to Highway 194 then go east for 6 miles. You can’t miss it.
More information: Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Purgatoire River Track Site
Ok. This area will stand out from the list as it is not exactly an archaeology site. Yes, there are some impressive petroglyphs and some homestead remnants in the area but that is not the main reason to come. Still, given that this is one of the largest dinosaur tack sites on the continent, you really can’t go wrong. Located along the banks of the Purgatoire River in Picket Wire Canyon on Comanche National Grasslands this site boasts some 1400 dinosaur tracks!
This is another one of those areas that is, thankfully, hard to access. No, you can’t just drive up in your car and no, you can’t come on your ATV. Time for a walk folks. The tracks were found in 1935 by a local farm girl. The tracks are from various Jurrassic animals but one of the most interesting sets were from five sauropods walking in parallel, not in single file. Therapod tracks are also rather prevalent. Lately, researchers have begun to find actual bones. While you can explore the area on your own or with a Forest Service tour. Call the La Junta office at 719.384.2181
How to get there: The Purgatoire site in the Picket Wire Canyonlands lies within the Comanche National Grasslands approximately 23 miles south of La Junta in southeastern Colorado on state Highway 350
More information: Paleontological Treasures of Picket Wire Canyonlands, A Glimpse Into the Purgatoire River Valley, Comanche National Grassland, Southeastern Colorado and 2012 Picket Wire Canyonlands Tours.
Ludlow Tent Colony Site
Twenty people, including eleven children, died during the Ludlow massacre in an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families in April 1914. The Tent Colony site is a designated National Historic Landmark. The massacre was a key event in the history of the American labor movement. The tent colony originated when coal miners and their families were evicted from company housing during a strike that began in September 1913. The colony was burned in the attack. The site is the first such strike camp in the country to be archeologically investigated.
How to get there: located 73 miles south of Pueblo. Take Interstate 25 south, through Walsenburg to County Road 44. Go west to the memorial and then south to the site.
Enjoy but do not destroy. Colorado’s history is fascinating. Follow some basic rules of respect and have a great time!