Over 170,000 acres in the Southwest corner of Colorado is now protected land under the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, where 1,000’s of communities of our Pueblo Ancestors lived. The visitor center is located just West of Delores at the Anasazi Heritage Center, which includes a research facility with over 3 million artifacts and samples. In addition, the museum inside the facility is quite impressive. The half mile paved walkway with an elevation gain of 200 feet leads to the Escalante Pueblo located on top of the hill behind the visitor center, which provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the La Plata Mountains, Montezuma Valley, McPhee Reservoir, and Mesa Verde.
Just North of Pagosa Springs at the foot of a mountain pass is Treasure Falls which cascades 105 feet into Falls Creek in route to the San Juan River. The top portion of the falls is visible from the pullout, but to get a view of the entire falls, one must hike a quarter-mile up a switchback trail with an elevation gain of 300 feet. At the end of the trail is a wooden bridge which suspends over Falls Creek about 25-feet from the base of the falls. Be prepared to get a little wet from the mist.
In the Southwest corner of Colorado is 236 miles of nothing but inspiring beauty, known as the San Juan Skyway with an elevation range of 6,200 feet to just over 11,000 feet. The skyway starts and ends in the towns of Cortez and Durango and travels North through the San Juan National Forest, where the three highways which make up the skyway takes one through steep winding mountain passes and down through the valleys just below impressive mountain peaks which soar some 14,000 feet into the clear blue skies. With the segment of highway between Ouray and Silverton known as the “Million Dollar Highway”, one will see why this part is really priceless, with sheer mountain walls on one side and straight drop-offs on the other side displaying the beauty of alpine peaks and the lush valley below. As a bonus, the road passes through the old mining towns of Rico, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton, where each town hosts many historic buildings as well as activities, shopping and dining.
Telluride sits just a few miles off the byway in a box canyon in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains where some of the old mining Victorian homes are still standing with a walking trail along the San Miguel River. High above Telluride is the world-famous Telluride Ski and Golf Resort. Other than Ouray being an old mining town, they are a few treats for visitors passing through. The Cascade Waterfalls at the end of 8th street showcases a spectacular water fall dropping over 100-feet created from snow melt from the Cascade Mountains. A quarter mile steep and rough trail leads to the base of the falls, where one can walk under and behind the falls. At the other end of town is Box Canyon Falls. After a short 400-foot walk, the trail enters the narrow box canyon where a grated walkway next to the cliff wall leads 100 feet to the back of the canyon where the 85-foot water fall can be viewed. Down a fifty-foot staircase takes one to the base of the falls. Silverton at an elevation of 9,318 feet is located in the valley of the Southern end of the San Juan Mountains and is very rich in its history as the old mining town of the early 19th century.
In the late 1800’s what is known is Cliff Palace was discovered by Wetherill and his son-n-law. Over the next 18 years visitors to this dwelling carried off artifacts, burnt roof timbers for campfires and defaced some of the walls. For whatever reason, there is no mention of any destruction at the site known as Balcony House which was discovered a few years earlier by prospector’s led by S.E. Osborn. In 1906 these two locations and 1,000’s of acres became protected as Mesa Verde National Park. These two locations along with Long House which was excavated in mid-19th century can only be viewed up close by park ranger guides.
Entering the park, one must drive about 18 miles to reach the 6-mile Cliff Palace loop, with the first 15 miles over a steep winding road with switchbacks that leads over and around Mesa’s and Questa’s. Along the way are several overlooks for spectacular views of Mancos valley, Montezuma valley, Geologic overlook and Park Point which is the highest point in the park at 8,572 feet. A.2-mile walk leads one to an overlook with a 360-degree view of the Parks Mesa’s and Questa’s with mountains in the far distance. From here one can see natural structures in the four states that make up the four corners region.
As the highway passes by the Far View Lodge the road becomes level along the Chapin Mesa top, where the Far View community sites are located, which was the most populated with 50 villages within a half square mile. Here a one-mile level loop trail leads one to the Pipe Shrine House, Town Center, Coyote Village, Megalithic House, Far View Tower, and the community reservoir.
The six-mile Mesa Top loop drive has many stops where one can walk a short distance to the Pit House, Mesa top sites, Sun Pueblo, a 300-yard walk to the overlook of Square Tower, and Sun Temple which also provides an excellent view of Cliff Palace sitting in the alcove across the valley.
With Mesa Verde having over 600 alcoves with the best preserved and most notable cliff dwellings in North America makes these sites the most popular. Along the six-mile Cliff Palace loop drive one can reach the Cliff Palace guided tour, an overlook of Balcony House and the Balcony House guided tour. Cliff Palace the largest cliff dwelling with 150 rooms and 23 kivas can be viewed up close by a quarter mile round trip hike with an elevation change of 100 feet. With just 40 rooms, Balcony House is considered a medium size cliff dwelling; however, to reach the site is the most challenging where the quarter mile loop takes one up a 32-foot ladder, through a small 12-foot tunnel, an 18-inch wide crawl through with a 5-foot ladder and to exit the dwelling up a 60-foot open cliff wall with small stone steps and two-ten foot ladders.
The 12-mile Wetherill road with steep grades and switchbacks over and around the mesas will come to an end at the Long House site, the 2nd largest cliff dwelling. The guided tour is a 2.25-mile round trip hike with the first mile being over a pretty much level asphalt walkway and a steep elevation change of 130 feet along the cliff wall to reach the dwelling.
Unfortunately, the 3rd largest cliff dwelling, Spruce Tree House can no longer be viewed up close due to the possibility of falling boulders from the cliff walls; however, an excellent view of the dwelling can be seen from just behind the museum.
In addition, they are many hiking trails which lead to other ruins and smaller dwelling for one’s enjoyment. With a doubt, to really experience what Mesa Verde has to offer, one needs to plan on at least two full days.