Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a relatively new addition to the National Park Service roster. It is located in southwestern Colorado, just a few miles from the amazing Anasazi cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park.
You won’t find cliff dwellings at Canyons of the Ancients, but you will find older above-ground dwellings. Lowry Pueblo is a multi-room dwelling that is especially impressive.
Our family spent a fall day exploring Canyons of the Ancients. Here are our tips for making the most of your visit:
1. Check the website
The BLM’s website for Canyons of the Ancients is straightforward and full of useful information. The first page gives you information about each season of the year, a suggested itinerary and additional tips for visiting the monument.
2. Bring plenty of water
Summer is the peak tourist season in this part of Colorado. The elevation is high and temperatures can reach 100 degrees (F). There is no place to purchase water inside the monument, so bring it with you, and be sure to drink it.
3. Pack a picnic
There is no place to purchase food inside the monument either, so pack a picnic for lunch or dinner. Lowry Pueblo has a couple of shaded picnic tables, and that’s where we enjoyed our lunch.
4. Visit the Anasazi Heritage Center
I was more impressed than I expected to be at the Anasazi Heritage Center. The building is new and attractive, the displays are informative, and the interactive exhibits are especially good for children. My children tried weaving on the yarn loom, grinding corn with stones, and looking at shards of clay pots through microscopes.
There is also a wide paved trail leading to Anasazi ruins just outside the museum. It is uphill, but not long. The payoff is two multi-room archaeological sites from the 12th century.
5. Visit Lowry Pueblo
I wish my photo of Lowry Pueblo was better, because it really is the most impressive archaeological site we saw in Canyons of the Ancients. Lowry Pueblo is a 40-room dwelling with eight kivas. Part of the structure is covered to protect it from the elements. You can go inside this part of the structure to see inside one of the large kivas.
6. Visit Painted Hand Pueblo if you have time
Whether or not Painted Hand Pueblo is worthwhile for your family is a personal call. The road is rough, and the short trail is rugged in places. My five-year-old and eight-year-old did well, and it was a good opportunity to get the wiggles out.
The payoff is a small tower and a hand print that are nearly a thousand years old. It might have been more impressive if we hadn’t seen the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the large structure at Lowry Pueblo and the abundant rock art of Newspaper Rock on the same trip.
7. Know your vehicle’s limits
Many of the roads through Canyons of the Ancients are unpaved, though most should be in good condition. The only spot that was a little rough on our minivan was the turnoff to the Painted Hand Pueblo trail. If it had been wet, it would have been impassable for us.
Unless you drive a high clearance vehicle built for off-road travel, don’t hesitate to turn around if the roads get too rough. It could be a long walk or a long wait for help.
8. Enjoy the silence
Canyons of the Ancients is not crowded, especially compared with Mesa Verde National Park nearby. We had the Anasazi Heritage Center nearly to ourselves, saw only two other couples at Lowry Pueblo, and nobody else until we reached the Hovenweep visitor center.
Many people consider these ruins to be sacred ground. With so few people to mar the peacefulness of these places (except my own children), it’s easy to hear the whispers of an ancient people in the breezes.
9. Collect pine nuts, if visiting in the fall
Mid- to late-October is a good time to collect pine nuts from the pinyon pine trees that grow wild at the Anasazi Heritage Center, Lowry Pueblo and elsewhere in this part of the country. You may also be able to purchase local nuts from roadside vendors. These tasty, tender nuts were a nutritious staple for the ancient people who lived here, and they are fairly expensive to purchase at grocery stores today.
Pine nuts are a small, oblong nut. Choose nuts in dark brown shells. You can easily crack the shells with your teeth and eat the nuts right away. You could also try drying or roasting them at home.
10. Visit Hovenweep National Monument if you have time
If you start at the Anasazi Heritage Center and drive all the way through the monument, you will pass by the visitor center for Hovenweep National Monument before looping back to Cortez.
Unless you start your day early, it would be difficult to thoroughly see both Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep on the same day. We stopped at the visitor center long enough to use the restrooms and peruse the small gift shop, and then got back on the road so we could return to Cortez by dinner time.
Our family loves national parks and monuments and we appreciate off-the-beaten path destinations, so we enjoyed our day in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. I hope you will too.
Good to Know
Where: The Anasazi Heritage Center is a good jumping off point for the monument. It is located at 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colorado. You can also enter the “back” way, from Cortez, Colorado. Drive north on Highway 491, then west on County Road BB.
When: The monument and Anasazi Heritage Center are open year round, but the best time to visit is mid-summer through fall. Weather and pests can be unreliable at other times of year.
The Anasazi Heritage Center is open 9 a.m. -5 p.m. from March-October and 10 a.m. -4 p.m. during the off-season.
How Much: $3 per adult to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center from March-October. There is no charge during the off-season. There is no charge to drive into the monument.
How Long: 1-2 hours to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center. Plan most of a day to see the rest of the monument. If you only have half a day, see the Anasazi Heritage Center and Lowry Pueblo and then come back out the way you came in.
Amenities: There are bathrooms and picnic tables at the Anasazi Heritage Center and Lowry Pueblo. Otherwise, the monument is remote, with no services.