Epic mysteries and lost civilizations. That’s what you’ll find in the southwestern corner of Colorado, on the Trail of the Ancients.
On December 18, 1888, two cowboys trotted up to a stone city built inside of a cliff. Labyrinthine and built with stunning attention to detail, the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde has fascinated and confounded visitors ever since.
It’s one of the key attractions on Colorado’s Trail of the Ancients, which takes you to the palaces, kivas and residences left by the Ancient Pueblans when they mysteriously abandoned their homes en masse in the late 1200s.
On the Trail of the Ancients, backstory is everything. Nobody to this day can figure out exactly why the ancestral Pueblans abandoned their homes. Maybe everyone ran out of food or water. Maybe there was a war. Some believe in a conspiracy. In any case, they disappeared within a generation or two. Moved onto better pastures.
An oral culture, these first Pueblans didn’t leave archives describing how they lived, either. Anthropologists have learned the most from the trash they threw away outside of their cliff dwellings.
We know that a group of hunters first settled in the area around 550 A.D. Dubbed the Basketmakers for their woven craft, these former nomads cultivated farms and found rich hunting grounds. Over hundreds of years and generations, their dwellings, farming methods and craftsmanship evolved. The roofed kiva, which stays 50 degrees year-round and only needs a fire to heat it in winter, is an example of their architectural ingenuity.
In the late 1200s, something happened, and it was time to go. Their legacy is in their architecture, which fuses beautifully with the surrounding desert. Dozens of books have been written about the ancients—how they lived, what they did, theories about their disappearance. But no written text can depict the majesty and visceral intrigue of visiting these places yourself.
For a mile-by-mile journey into the all that the Trail of the Ancients has to offer, including a little-known, but equally majestic, alternative to Mesa Verde, grab a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.