Discover Native American Cultures on the Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway traverses a portion of the American Southwest that once experienced cannot easily be forgotten

The Trail of the Ancients is the ultimate American Southwest road trip into the Native American history of the region running through four states.

Long before the United States existed there were many civilizations throughout the lands that now make up the country. Today, visitors can learn about the history and heritage of these lands in the Four Corners region on the Trail of the Ancients. The route is found in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Trail of the Ancients explores many of the state parks, Indian reservations, national parks, and national monuments of the region. On this trail, travelers can see some of the best landscapes of the region along with some of the land’s deepest history. But it’s not all about history; you will also see the enduring traditions and practices of the Ancient’s living descendants today.

The Trail of the Ancients is a collection of Scenic Byways that highlight the archeological history of the region. Along this route, visitors can delve into the cultural history of the Native American peoples of the Southwest.

Here are some helpful resources:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients Byways

  • Utah: Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
  • Colorado: Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway
  • New Mexico: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
  • Arizona: Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road

The Trail of the Ancients connects historic points of interest of the Navajo, Utes, and early Puebloan peoples. Along the way, visitors see snow-capped mountains, red rock landscapes, green valleys, canyons, and some of the most iconic landscapes of the Southwest.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Colorado

The Colorado section of the Trail of the Ancients has been a National Scenic Byway since 2005. It traverses the arid and cultural terrain of the Ancestral Pueblo. This is a land with cliff dwellings, rock art, and broken pottery sherds.

The scenic drive starts on US 160 at Mesa Verde National Park, home to over 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi People between 450-1300 AD. Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park designated by UNESCO and you can spend days here exploring over 4,500 archaeological sites and extraordinary setting. 

From the park, the drive heads to the town of Dolores by following the US 160 west and CO 145 and CO 184 north. The premier archaeological museum, Anasazi Heritage Center honors the history of the Anasazi People and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region with exhibits on archaeology, local history, and lifestyle including how they weaved and prepared corn. A short trail will bring you to two pueblos. The Anasazi Heritage Center is also the visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which protects more than 6,000 ancient ruins.

From Dolores, head west on CO 184 and then north on US 491 passing pastoral farmland with mountain peaks in the distance. As you approach the town of Pleasant View, turn right onto Country Road CC. Heading west for 8.5 miles, you arrive at Lowry Pueblo, an Anasazi ruin constructed around 1060 AD. It housed approximately 40-100 inhabitants who subsisted as farmers and made elaborately decorated pottery.

Retracing back a few miles, you arrive at Country Road 10 which heads southwest towards Utah for 20 miles on a dirt road. After crossing the border into Utah, stop at the Hovenweep National Monument. Along the canyon rim stand two, oddly-shaped stone towers created by the master builders of the Anasazi’s people, the meaning of which are still unknown.

The Monument also has a total of six groups of ruins and is known for its square, oval, and D-shaped towers. Explore the Square Tower Group by walking the two mile loop trail from the Visitor Center. Stargazing is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this peaceful and moving setting. Make a night of it with camping which is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

The scenic drive comes to an end as you arrive at the US 191. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Utah

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on US Highway 491 and travels to the junction in Monticello with US Highway 191. Turn south onto US 191 and travel to Blanding where you find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Musuem, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area.

From Blanding the route follows US 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and west on US 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument along the way. It then turns south at the junction with UT 95 and UT 261 and proceeds to the top of the Moki Dugway, a 3 mile stretch of gravel road that descends the 1,000 foot cliff from Cedar Mesa to Valley of the Gods. Along the way you will find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Just before dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road #274 leading to Muley Point and views into Johns Canyon.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway the route continues past the entrance to Valley of the Gods and on the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosencks State Park. At Goosenecks you encounter a view of the largest entrenched river meander in North America.

UT 261 continues to the junction with US 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat or turn left to drive to Bluff. Turning right will take you to Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley; turning left will take you to Bluff and back to Blanding.

Along US 191 between Bluff and Blanding is the junction with Utah Highway 262 where you turn east and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument OR you can access Hovenweep from Bluff on US Highway 162 and follow the signs.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-New Mexico

The Trail of the Ancients passes through the unique geology of the Colorado Plateau high desert offering a rich but fragile mix of natural resources. The stunning rock formation, Shiprock, is a central scenic point that is visible from most places on the Trail of the Ancients. Shiprock provides a focal point for the interpretive theme of the landscape and helps to integrate the trail stops. The visible cultural heritage of the Four Corners area boasts numerous archaeological sites, modern communities, and Indian lands.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a USESCO World Heritage Site, is the centerpiece of the New Mexico segment of the byway. Occupied at the height of Ancestral Pueblo culture between around 850 and 1250 AD, it served as a major center of the ancestral Puebloan civilization. Remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, astronomy, artistic achievements, and distinctive architecture, it was a hub of ceremony/trade for the prehistoric Four Corners area for 400 years.

The Navajo people arrived late on the scene. Their roots trace back to the Athabascan people of northwestern Canada. Spanish explorers first used the name Navajo. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ meaning The People. Contact with other groups and the introduction of farming and ranching brought lasting changes to the lives of the Dine’. The Navajo reservation is the largest in the continental United States both in size and population.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic turnouts along the Trail of the Ancients reveal vast valleys, towering mountains, badlands, clear blue lakes, raging rivers, and gentle streams.

The route traces a massive hook shape on the New Mexico northwest as it explores some of the loneliest parts of the state. Sites along the way include the El Morro National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Crownpoint (stop here for the monthly Navajo Rug auction), Casamero Pueblo, El Malpais National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Here are some helpful resources:

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Arizona

In Arizona, Trail of the Ancients consists of two distinct roads, The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road.

The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road consists of two sections of a single road. The road crosses the state line between New Mexico and Arizona. The official scenic road is only on the Arizona side of the line. The southern section runs from Lupton north through the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to the state line. Then it picks up again further north in the Lukachukai Mountains when the road crosses back into Arizona wraps around the north side of Canyon de Chelly National Monument and turns southwest to end at Chinle. At no point does the route leave the Navajo Nation.

The Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road is a 27-mile route along US Highway 163 from Kayenta to the Utah state line. Monument Valley is known as Tse’ Bii’ Ngzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks) among the Navajo.

Forrest Gump Road in Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arguably, Monument Valley offers one of the most iconic drives of the entire American Southwest with Route 163 (featuring the Forrest Gump Road) being one of its most scenic. This area has been the backdrop of countless Western movies (as well as where the character Forrest Gump in the famous namesake movie decided to give up running as the road’s nickname suggests). These roads in Arizona are not designed as national scenic byways but they are of immense cultural and scenic value.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb