One of the richest archeological zones in America just happens to be hidden amid some of the grandest scenery in the Southwest — the pale cliffs and scrubby flats in and around Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park.
Make your home base in the town of Cortez, just an hour from Mesa Verde National Park. Cortez offers a host of excellent accommodations, dining and shopping opportunities, as well as 294 acres of parks, several recreation areas and an abundance of activities.
Wake up early, and head to the "green table" of Mesa Verde National Park, home to more than 4,000 archeological sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. Orient yourself at the Far View Visitor Center, where you can pick up maps and brochures and purchase tickets for tours. Only two cliff dwellings are open for self-guided tours. These fill up quickly, so if you want to go inside the amazing Cliff Palace, you must nab a spot on a guided tour early.
From the visitor center, browse the exhibits in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, and watch the film on Ancestral Puebloan culture. Then take a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, or drive the Mesa Top Loop Road, a six-mile loop that offers an excellent overview of the entire park.
On your way to Cliff Palace or Balcony House, enjoy the scenic drive on the Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop Road. Or if you purchased tickets for Long House, take the Wetherill Mesa Drive, where picturesque trails lead to mesa-top ruins and spectacular overlooks of cliff dwellings.
Now that you have a solid appreciation of the canyons and cliffs that made Mesa Verde Country famous, take a drive on one of Colorado's most fascinating scenic byways. The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop called the "most beautiful drive in America" for good reason. The road tours around southwestern Colorado's rich landscape, starting in Cortez and passing through the idyllic mountain towns of Mancos, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, Telluride, Rico and Dolores.
Alternatively, you could travel the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients, America's only National Scenic Byway dedicated solely to archaeology. From Cortez, wind past Mesa Verde National Park to Ute Mountain Tribal Park, where you can explore the culture, architecture and art of the Ute and Ancestral Puebloan people.
From here, pass Four Corners Monument (where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet) on your way to Hovenweep National Monument, famous for its round and square towers, some of which are easily accessible via short hiking trails.
The Ancestral Puebloans farmed this area as far back as 600 AD, and the fruit-heavy orchards and sunflower fields stretching far into the horizon are proof of the land's fertility. Breweries and wineries, too, stomp out unique vintages here.
Depending on the season, stop by a farmers' market to stock up on fresh local fruit, vegetables, meat and honey. Or get hands-on at a U-pick apple, peach or pear orchard. Tour a craft brewery, winery or distillery, and round out your day with dinner at a restaurant that specializes in local foods.
You might also want to fit in a visit to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Stop first at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a superb archeological museum that provides an introduction to the monument, as well as to the cultures native to the Four Corners. The center features exhibits on archaeology and local history, two 12th-century archaeological sites, a picnic area, a half-mile nature trail and a museum shop.
One of the area's newest attraction is the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum in the town of Ignacio, just 70 miles from Cortez. Opened in May 2011, the center brings to life the oral records, cultural artifacts and rock art of the Southern Ute tribe. The center also houses a library and archive of scholarly works by those who have studied this tribe, as well as many others. The center's architecturally magnificent building, which centers around a glass atrium in the shape of a Ute tepee. The inaugural exhibition features amazing baskets woven by Utes or inspired by their historic designs.
From Denver, Cortez is about seven and a half hours via U.S. Hwys. 285 and 160. Mesa Verde National Park is one hour from Cortez, via Hwy. 160.