If you want to create lifelong memories, look no further than Colorado's seven National Monuments. Whether you're interested in fossils, geology, ancient peoples or the lore of the gold rush, the National Parks Service has set aside areas of interest in Colorado you simply can't miss.
Why Go?: Picturesque Colorado lives here. Don't blink, because with colorfully striated cliff walls, rock arches, high mesas and ample wildlife, there's a magnificent sight everywhere you look in the Colorado National Monument.
Don't Miss: The geology of the site appeals to rock hounds and landscape lovers alike. View the varied formations by taking the winding 23-mile Rim Rock Drive along the plateau, where wind and water-sculpted sandstone greet you around every turn.
Around the Park: The Colorado National Monument is a gateway to the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic Byway. Prehistoric rock art is found along this route, as are many dinosaur excavation sites where museum-quality bones have been extracted.
Nearby Cities: Grand Junction, Fruita
Why Go?: Culturally rich Canyons of the Ancients National Monument holds the distinction of having the highest density of archaeological sites in the country. Come for the Ancestral Puebloan history and stay for the unspoiled land of Colorado’s high desert. It’s not everywhere that culture, history and pure nature can mingle so well. This monument is perfect if you want to get away from it all and be enveloped in the quiet of the outdoors.
Don't Miss: The Lowry Pueblo is the only developed recreation site within the monument. With interpretive signs and brochures on-site, you can take a self-guided tour of a historic Ancestral Puebloan structure.
Around the Park: Drive the areas that Ancestral Puebloans once explored on foot, on the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway that circles Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Make sure to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center, a nearby stop that will help shed light on the history and legend of the people who once settled the area. Full of informative displays and cultural facts, a visit here gives people a greater respect for those who came centuries before.
Nearby City: Cortez
Why Go? Colorado's newest national monument (as of Sept. 2012), Chimney Rock, once home to the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, is of great spiritual significance. More than 200 homes and ceremonial structures built by the Chaco people 1,000 years ago near the twin rock structures that give the monument its name. From mid-May through September, guide walking tours are available of the 4,100-acre archaeological site. Starting at the visitor center, you'll head to Great House Trail to learn about the site, its excavation and the people who settled there so long ago.
Don't Miss: This one's easy to miss. Every 18.6 years, a lunar standstill takes place at Chimney Rock. During the winter solstice, the moon rises perfectly between the rocks, framing an amazing scene that can only be seen from the Great House Pueblo. Researchers suggest the pueblo's builders constructed it where they did for this reason. The next predicted alignment is in 2022.
Around the Park: Chimney Rock is located west of Pagosa Springs in the San Juan National Forest. Navajo State Park, with its beautiful boating and fishing waters is located just 40 minutes south of the archaeological area.
Nearby Cities: Pagosa Springs, Bayfield
Why Go?: Tourists have been visiting the fossil beds here since the 1870s. Groves of petrified redwood forests and thousands of fossilized insects populate this national monument. Although the Florissant Fossil Beds are lush and green today, roughly 35 millions years ago, volcanic eruptions covered this area in ash and lava, encasing plants and animals in preserving stone. Up to 1,500 different kinds of fossil insects have been found here, making it one of the most diverse insect fossil sites in the world.
Don't Miss: Easy hikes to petrified forests are great for the whole family. Take the Walk Through Time (1/2 mile) and Petrified Forest (1 mile) trails to see some of the largest petrified sequoias in the world.
Around the Park: The Gold Belt Tour Scenic and Historic Byway begins near the park. Take this 135-mile route through areas that were once integral to Colorado’s gold rush. To the east, just outside of Colorado Springs, is the Garden of the Gods, where paved hiking paths weave through a giant natural rock garden.
Nearby Cities: Cripple Creek, Colorado Springs
Why Go?: Images of dinosaurs feed the imaginations of children of all ages, and Dinosaur National Monument is where our dreams of unearthing these goliaths become real. The Green River also flows through this area, and wildlife abounds along its banks. You can even drop a line in and tease a trout out of the river with a perfectly placed cast. An isnpiring look at the monument can be found on a drive along Harper's Corner Road, a scenic tour that leads travelers to a grand overlook above the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers.
Don't Miss: While the fossils themselves are the big draw, don’t let the name of the park dissuade you from other “must do” activities in the area. In fact, a novel way to see the monument is aboard a raft. Companies take visitors through the park's two river systems, the Yampa and the Green. Watch for wildlife along the banks and marvel at the canyon walls as you float down the oxbowed rivers.
Around the Park: To the south of the monument is the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic Byway. This scenic highway showcases Fremont Indian rock art and is spotted with dinosaur dig sites.
Nearby City: Dinosaur
Why Go?: Remote and often uncrowded, Hovenweep National Monument includes a bevy of structures, namely a series of stone towers built by the Ancestral Puebloan people. The site is famous for its square, oval, circular and “D”-shaped towers. Square Tower site is easily accessible, with a nice hiking trail and visitor center.
Don't Miss: Head out to one of the remote outlying sites, including Cajon, Cutthroat Castle, Goodman Point, Holly and Horseshoe/Hackberry. Each is reached by a half-mile or less hike and offers quiet reflection at the structures built so many years ago.
Around the Park: For a completely different experience, take a tour of the Ute Tribal Park. Full-day tours of this primitive area are led by Ute Indian guides who share their knowledge of both Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures, sites and rock art.
Nearby City: Cortez
Colorado's sixth national monument is another Ancestral Puebloan valley pueblo near Towaoc, but it has not yet been excavated and there are no facilities. Hopefully in years to come, it will yield many exciting discoveries.
Check out the Quick Guide to Colorado's National Parks and the Quick Guide to Colorado's Scenic and Historic Byways.
Photos: Colorado National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument (photo courtesy of Craig Pierce), Dinosaur National Monument, fossils at Florissant Fossilbeds National Monument.