We can’t very well discuss Colorado’s true roots without remembering our earliest inhabitants. The following sites and museums will have your imagination floating back in time to the first and most fascinating human experiences in Colorado.
1. Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez
Inside this national treasure are over 600 dwellings carved out of rock thousands of years ago by the area’s Ancestral Puebloans. They sit abandoned by their creators beneath protective cliffs. Come see the Southwestern landscape through new eyes: climb ancient staircases, marvel at the sandstone masonry and peer through rock-carved windows into the past.
2. Ute Indian Museum, Montrose
The lives and ways of the Utes — the indigenous inhabitants of western Colorado — are commemorated in this museum, one of the few in the country devoted to a single tribe. Be sure to watch the video on the traditional bear dance, visit the memorial to Chief Ouray and see the grave of his wife Chipeta. Surrounding walking trails provide a peaceful place to reflect after your visit.
3. Ute Council Tree, Delta
Once a 200-plus-year-old cottonwood where it's been claimed that Chief Ouray, his wife Chipeta and Ouray’s braves met with white settlers to smoke the pipe of peace and settle their differences, what remains of the Ute Council Tree is a 23-foot stump. Chipeta was said to have been the only American Indian woman ever permitted to sit in council meetings. The site, still considered a cultural landmark, is accompanied by a sign placed by the Delta County Historical Society.
4. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Dolores
There are more than 6,000 documented archaeological sites in this “outdoor museum,” but most are not marked or obvious to the untrained eye. Read: Fewer crowds, but a find-it-yourself approach. A great starting point is the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum, which provides information on exploring the monument, as well as exhibits on archaeology and local history, two 12th-century archaeological sites and a nature trail.
5. Hovenweep National Monument
Near Canyons of the Ancients, Hovenweep’s six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages are spread over a 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons. Explore the Square Tower Group to get a first glimpse of the Puebloans’ expert masonry. Still-standing circular towers, walls with pictographs, kivas (ceremonial underground rooms), stone dams and more can be found along several short hiking trails.
6. Plains Conservation Center, Aurora
See how two contrasting cultures converged on the Colorado prairie by examining the re-created tepee camps of the nomadic Cheyenne tribe and visiting Wells Crossing, a 1887 pioneer outpost with two homesteads, a school house, a blacksmith shop, an heirloom garden and a chicken coop.
7. Sand Creek Massacre Site, Eads
A visit to this site (the only Civil War site in Colorado) uncovers the seldom-told story of a unprovoked attack on a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. In 1864, a group of 675 U.S. volunteer cavalry slaughtered over 160 men, women and children who were camped under the protection of the American flag. Learn about how the horrific incident forever changed the course of history for the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations and the country.
8. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez
Founded on the principle of the general public playing a role in archaeology, this living history area provides everyone in the family with the opportunity to discover something. Learn the history of the Ancient Puebloans on a research program as a citizen scientist at an excavation site.
Merging the past and present of the Ute Tribe, this museum, with its metal cone tower, sticks out of the landscape like a beacon. Taking the visitor from prehistory to modern day through photo panels, audio-visual presentations and interactive exhibits, the space celebrates traditions and accomplishments of this tribe. Make sure to see the KSUT Public Radio permanent exhibit — what began as a small tribal radio station has become a regional favorite.
A Powwow Revived
A small but devoted group of participants gathers in September each year for the Annual Saguache Community Powwow, an intertribal celebration that has successfully revived a powwow tradition dating back more than two decades. Come enjoy dancing, music, food and festivities in this small town located at the north edge of the beautiful San Luis Valley.
Time Travel by Car
Driving the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway, one of 25 Colorado byways, is an excellent way to visit several of the sites listed here — plus a few more — in one fell swoop.