Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains more than 6,000 recorded Ancient Puebloan archaeological sites and is located in Southwest Colorado near Dolores on 164,000 acres. Canyons of the Ancients offers four main sites, including a site at the visitor center, all within a day’s drive and a loop.
It’s headquartered in Dolores at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center. The roads are paved for some of the ways, gravel for some, and 4×4 for small portions, most cars could make it, but high clearance is recommended. Compared to Mesa Verde, this place is laxer on the rules. Dogs are permitted on self-guided trails.
Trails are spaced out over public and private land in the high-sage desert. A few of the dirt roads out to the ruins share access with Hovenweep National Monument, so it’s best to combine them into one visit.
Entrance into the monument is a minimal fee for adults from March to October, and free from November to February.
The journey begins at the Canyons of the Ancients Museum in Dolores, the park’s headquarters. It’s a modern museum visit with interesting exhibits about the Ancient Puebloan peoples. Just outside it, there is a short, nature trail that leads up to an old village. This takes about a 45 minutes to an hour round trip.
Make sure to get all information and supplies at the Center and in town before heading out to the sites.
There are no official campgrounds, but free dispersed camping is permitted on most dirt roads, 300 feet from sites. It’s accessible with most cars. Campsites are free and there are several places to pull over, just use an existing spot. See a guide in the Canyons of the Ancients Museum before starting out. If you would prefer amenities, Hovenweep has an actual campground.
Ancient Ruins at Canyons of the Ancients
There are four main sites, with the first one being, Escalante Pueblo, at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center. After leaving the headquarters, it’s best to see Lowry Pueblo and then Painted Hand. All the sites are well-marked with a large Canyons of the Ancients sign.
Each trip takes you from a paved road to a dirt road which is sometimes primitive. Most vehicles with good clearance will be fine. Pets are allowed at all the ruins.
- Escalante Pueblo – A short nature trail from the Visitor Center leads you to this village. The trail contains information plaques on the plants of the region. Highlights are a large village and kiva and breathtaking views of the river and valley.
- Lowry Pueblo – A short walk from the parking lot leads to this ancient village. There is a roof over part of the village which adds a certain element to the experience since you can go inside. One of the highlights is a Great Kiva, one of the largest visible kivas in the Southwest.
- Painted Hand – A short 1/4 mile hike leads to this tower and the start of the tower trail. The Tower trail takes you by several crumbling towers.
- Sand Canyon Pueblo – This unexcavated site is located in a forest valley. There isn’t too much to see except a lot of stone slabs scattered around. The above three are the main attractions.
Activities at Canyons of the Ancients
Biking: Lots of mountain biking down the dirt roads of the Monument.
Camping: Free backcountry camping is permitted on a number of dirt roads throughout the monument. You can pull over and camp anywhere, as long as it’s 300 feet from sites, same as campfire rule. See the Visitor Center for dispersed camping information (PDF) and a map.
- Read about the camping near Cortez and Mesa Verde.
Hiking / Horseback Riding: Permitted throughout the Monument, except in Sand Canyon / Rock Creek area, where travel is restricted to certain trails.
Off-Highway Vehicles: Restricted to designated routes, see map.
Begin your day at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum for maps and info. It can get very hot out in the high desert. Bring lots of water, snacks, and a full tank of gas. Cell phone coverage is unreliable. Roads back to the sites are dirt, so rain, mud, snow, and ice make travel difficult. A 2WD, the high-clearance vehicle will be fine.
A couple of sites share the same road back as the ruins of Hovenweep National Monument. Consider combining the two into one trip by getting maps for both.
Address: 27501 Colorado 184, Dolores, CO
Museum Hours: Mar-Oct (9am – 5pm) | Nov-Feb (10 am – 4pm)
Admission: Entrance fee depending on the season
Pets: Yes, on-leash
Map: Canyons Of The Ancients (PDF)