|A Tour Through History: Mesa Verde National Park (courtesy, Colorado Tourism/Tom Stillo)|
These three states offer hands-on access to Native American history as well as interpretation by Native docents and guides who are part of today's rich Native American culture. This route takes you through dramatic, sometimes otherworldly terrain, into cliff dwellings and structures whose age and complexity make for mind-boggling locales, and through centuries of cultures that inspire wonder and respect.
Days One-Two: Durango to Dolores and Mesa Verde National Park (66 Miles)
Start early with a 47-mile drive via U.S. 160 and Colorado 184 to Dolores and the Anasazi Heritage Center (970.882.5600; www.co.blm.gov/ahc), which provides an excellent overview of the Ancient Anasazi cultures you'll learn about on the trip with both hands-on exhibits and easily-accessible ruins. The best of these is 28-room Escalante Pueblo, a short uphill hike on the museum grounds, built in AD 1129.
After you're properly oriented in the world of the ancients, head south for 20 miles to Mesa Verde National Park (970.529.4465; www.nps.gov/meve). The site dates back to AD 600, and the ruins now on display trace back to the 1300s, and represent some of the world's most awe-inspiring dwellings. Settle into one of 435 campsites throughout a grassy canyon in Morefield Campground (800.449.2288; www.nps.gov/meve/pphtml/camping.html; open May to October) and head to Far View Visitor Center (970.529.5036) or Chapin Mesa Museum (970.529.4631). Pick up Junior Ranger materials (a fun, educational program geared to kids, organized by the National Park Service) and walk the 2.8-mile Petroglyph Point Trail near Spruce Tree House, then visit Spruce Tree House, the most accessible of the park's ruins. You do have to buy tour tickets for Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House, the park's must-see cliff dwellings, but it's worth it; the former two are reached by climbing high ladders, while the last is visible only after crawling 12 feet through a narrow tunnel. Keep in mind, however, that you must purchase tickets for tours at the Far View Visitor Center (970.529.5036) before going to the site. Mesa Verde also has nice drives, including the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road with 12 accessible scenic overviews plus exceptional views of the landscape and Cliff Palace. Winter is also a good time to visit if colder temps don't intimidate your brood; crowds typically thin out and the hiking trails are open to cross-country skiing. Of course you could lose a week exploring Mesa Verde, but we suggest two nights to let the magic envelop before moving on.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication