The Great Sage Plain, which encompasses southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, was settled between 500 and 1300 AD. In its heyday, it was the most densely-crowded part of the Ancestral Puebloan world. Today, a large portion of the area is part of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which is home to a staggering thousands of individual ruins! But in this guide, we’ll be covering the three most popular and accessible sites.

Planning trips to and through National Monuments in the US can be confusing. Designated by the federal government as a way to protect the natural and historical sites within them, these monuments can sometimes be massive, yet Google Maps might only show you a random pin in the middle of nowhere. That’s where this guide comes in.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which was designated in the year 2000, encompasses no less than 174,000 acres in southwest Colorado. While different national monuments are managed by different federal agencies, this one happens to be controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), meaning it’s free to enter and even camp at.

During my trip, I’d spent the previous night in Cortez, Colorado after a visit to Mesa Verde National Park. The next morning, I made the quick fifteen-minute drive to the town of Dolores, which is home to the ruins of Escalante Pueblo, not to mention the official Canyons of the Ancients museum.

From there, I headed west to Lowry Pueblo and Painted Hand Pueblo, and you can read more about the somewhat tricky transportation details throughout the following guide. While not covered below, you can then easily head to Hovenweep National Monument in Utah after a visit to these sites.

For more information on accommodation in the area, be sure to check the end of the article.

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo

Escalante Pueblo

The official museum and headquarters of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located at the ruins of Escalante Pueblo in the town of Dolores, Colorado, which is just twelve miles north of Cortez.

The museum, also known as the Anasazi Heritage Center, is home to a variety of artifacts discovered during excavations of the ruins featured in this guide.

But having arrived early due to my packed schedule ahead, the museum hadn’t opened yet. Ordinarily, it’s open from 9:00-17:00 on Tues.-Sat. and access is free. The ruins, meanwhile, are both free and accessible at all hours.

Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo

While Escalante Pueblo is located atop the adjacent hill, just in front of the museum lie the ruins of Dominguez Pueblo, a four-room structure that may have housed up to eight people. This is only one of as many as eighteen similar residences around the hill, though it’s not clear where the others are located.

(On that note, it’s likely that lots of smaller dwellings have been counted individually which is why the national monument has ‘thousands of ruins.’)

Based on tree ring dating, archaeologists believe that the house was built in 1123 AD. It also once contained a kiva, which has since been backfilled to help preserve it.

Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo

As you ascend the hill, you’ll be able to admire clear views of Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. According to legend, the Warrior God was fighting off the Evil Ones when he was injured in battle. He laid down to rest, eventually turning into this large mountain.

You’ll soon reach the top of the hill where you’ll encounter Escalante Pueblo, which was first rediscovered in 1776 by Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez.

It was during the colonial era when the region was controlled by Spain, and the party had been trying to scout out a route between Santa Fe and California.

Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo

Father Escalante, who was already familiar with some of the Ancestral Puebloan ruins of New Mexico, noted the similarities in his journal.

Years later, this site would be named after him, and the small set of ruins at the bottom would be named after his superior, Francisco Dominguez.

Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo

Escalante Pueblo was built as a rectangular building complex surrounding a circular kiva. Kivas are prevalent at all ancient Puebloan sites, and they were used for both religious ceremonies and communal events. This one originally contained eight pillars to support its now-lost roof, which would’ve served as the main entrance.

Based on its architectural style, it’s clear that Escalante Pueblo was heavily influenced by Chaco Canyon. But it was first built in 1129 when Chaco Canyon had already begun its decline. 

Based on pottery samples, archaeologists believe it was later occupied by Puebloans from the northern San Juan area. In total, Escalante Pueblo would be inhabited for just around a century.

Aside from the ruins themselves, visitors can also enjoy beautiful views of the McPhee Reservoir.

Canyons of the Ancients Escalante Pueblo

FROM ESCALANTE TO LOWRY PUEBLO: The drive from the town of Dolores to Lowery Pueblo takes about 35 minutes. 

First, head to Highway 491 and go north. Eventually, you’ll want to turn left (west) at a road simply named ‘CC.’ You should see a sign that says ‘Pleasant View and Lowry.’ 

Keep heading straight, and the last bit of the journey to Lowry Pueblo will be along an unpaved road. But it’s relatively smooth and short.

Lowry Pueblo

Lowry Pueblo has no official entrance, though donations are appreciated. While it’s completely unstaffed and has little infrastructure, you will find a public restroom and some picnic tables.

As you’ll notice upon entry, the site is centered around a large main building complex, or ‘great house.’ Similar to the great houses of Chaco Canyon, it was originally multistoried. And today, some of its former tall walls remain in an excellent state of preservation.

Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo

Lowry Pueblo contained eight kivas in total, some of which can be found inside the surviving covered portion.

Amazingly, when these kivas were discovered in the 1930s, some of their original murals could still be seen. One kiva’s interior, for example, was covered in black stripes with white dots in the middle.

While the original plaster and paint has faded away since its discovery in the 1930s, you should be able to see a preserved fragment if you can make it to the Anasazi Heritage Museum in Dolores.

Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo

Stepping outside, you’ll find more remnants of the large building complex which, aside from the kivas, contained around forty rooms in total. Archaeologists believe the complex was heavily modified and remodeled over the generations.

Largely occupied in the 11th century, it was likely home to around several dozen inhabitants for much of its history.

Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo

Before leaving, don’t miss the separate trail that leads to the east of the great house. Here you’ll find the ‘great kiva,’ which was an especially large kiva used for communal gatherings and rituals.

Its diameter stretches out to fifty feet, while archaeologists believe it would’ve been big enough to host around a hundred people – more than Lowry’s entire population! 

This suggests that residents of neighboring pueblos would occasionally come to gather here as well. And notably, this kiva likely predates the rest of Lowry Pueblo.

Interestingly, the kivas and other architecture at Lowery Pueblo suggest it functioned as an outpost of Chaco Canyon, despite it being no less than 100 miles (160 km) away.

Canyons of the Ancients Lowry Pueblo

FROM LOWRY TO PAINTED HAND PUEBLO: When finished with Lowry Pueblo, backtrack for a little bit and then turn right (south) on CR 10.

Eventually, you should see a Bureau of Land Management sign indicating where to turn for Painted Hand Pueblo. Unfortunately, this road was in terrible condition at the time of my visit, and it would be wise to rent a high-clearance vehicle for the journey (though conditions may improve soon).

When traveling along these unmarked dirt roads, it would be wise to navigate with instead of Google Maps, as it contains much more accurate maps.

Painted Hand Pueblo

Painted Hand Pueblo is by far the most remote site of the three featured here, and it’s also the smallest. But if you can brave the terrible road over, it’s a unique and rewarding experience.

Not far from the dirt parking lot, you’ll find a viewpoint overlooking the wide canyon. Look closely and you’ll be able to spot a round tower in the distance. That will be your main and final destination.

The tower is much like those of nearby Hovenweep. But unlike Hovenweep, which gets relatively crowded, Painted Hand Pueblo is an obscure site you’ll have mostly to yourself.

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo

While you will find an official sign indicating the start of the trail, actually making it to the tower was a lot trickier than I could’ve anticipated. After walking along the edge of the canyon for a little while, I eventually encountered the structure from above, but saw no clear way to get down.

I started wondering whether the tower was supposed to be accessible at all, as the only way down seemed to involve dangerous scrambling over large boulders.

Needless to say, this is one of the last places you’d want to get injured, and I certainly wasn’t going to take such a risk. And so I decided to keep walking along the main trail to see what I could find.

And finally, I eventually did see a simple marker indicating the correct path down! 

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo

In short, what you’re supposed to do is walk well past the tower until you see the marker. Coming down the steps, you should then walk back toward the tower along the lower level.

While not very complicated once you know what to do, there was unfortunately no proper signage at the time of my visit to make any of this clear.

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo

Anyway, once you’re on the lower path, you’ll immediately spot some ruins (not yet the tower). Information on Painted Hand Pueblo is hard to come by, but the village was built in the late 1200s and featured twenty rooms.

Based on our knowledge of Lowry Pueblo, we can guess that it was home to no more than a couple dozen inhabitants.

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo

Before long, I made it to the round tower. Interestingly, it was built on top of a large rock, though surviving masonry suggests something was built on the side of the small alcove below it.

It’s here that you can find the ‘painted hands’ after which the pueblo was named. But they’re so faint that I missed them the first time around.

Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients Painted Hand Pueblo
The incredibly faint painted hands

It was around here, of all places, that I ran into another traveler. He had been visiting as many Ancient Puebloan sites as he could throughout the region, and he pointed out some details to me that I’d initially missed.

Back in the car, it was time to cross state borders into Utah and head to Hovenweep National Monument. But more on that in a future guide.

ONWARD FROM PAINTED HAND PUEBLO: As mentioned, I headed straight from Painted Hand Pueblo to Hovenweep, just over the border in Utah. To do so, one must return down the dirt road toward CR 10 and then turn left, heading southwest.

This road will take you all the way to the Hovenweep Visitor Center, though the road’s name will change to CR 213 once you enter Utah.

There are, however, several other archaeological sites in between Painted Hand Pueblo and Hovenweep. One of them is called Cutthroat, which you’ll likely see a sign for at the Painted Hand parking lot. While I was considering going, the visitor I’d met had heard at Hovenweep that the site was officially closed for the time being.

Aside from that, there are a few additional sites off of CR10, such as Horseshoe Pueblo, which was originally an outpost of Hovenweep. As I wasn’t aware of them in advance and eventually had to make it to Monument Valley for a sunset tour, I stuck with my original itinerary and kept moving. But I can confirm that there are indeed BLM signs indicating where to turn.

Additional Info

As mentioned above, I spent the previous night in Cortez, Colorado before beginning my journey west through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

In Cortez, some of the top-rated accommodations include the Hampton Inn and the more budget-friendly Retro Inn. Finding a local Airbnb is another good option.

After Canyons of the Ancients, I proceeded further west to Hovenweep National Monument and then onto the Monument Valley area in Utah/Arizona. Of course, one could also visit Canyons of the Ancients in the reverse order, starting from Monument Valley.

Considering how many ruins there are within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument that weren’t mentioned above, you may want to take things more slowly and camp. Fortunately, dispersed camping is allowed on Bureau of Land Management land as long as you’re not too close to an archaeological site (learn more here).

This also includes spending the night in your RV. If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.

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