My 4 Favorite Small Towns in Colorado near National Parks and Landmarks


When people think of Colorado, they think of skiing. The towns bordering the national parks have a different flavor; one worth sampling. One of America’s oldest mysteries surrounds the ancestral publeons, ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes, and explains why they built elaborate dwellings on the cliffs and then abandoned them. During an organized press trip, our anthropologist / guide, Jim Colleran, told us that in Montezuma County, Colorado, there are over 20,000 sites.

Cortez Cultural Center (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

1. Cortez

We started at the Cortez Cultural Center, located in a building from 1909. It is filled with art and artefacts on Native American history. The exterior walls are painted like a cliff dwelling. Samuel Kills-In-Sight, Lakota dancer and storyteller, shared his tribal story with us and performed an indigenous dance.

Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best place to start is the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum in the park. (Note: the museum is temporarily closed due to COVID.)

We took the “700 Years Tour”. It gets its name from the fact that it begins with the earliest pit houses dated to around 600 AD and ends with Cliff Palace, one of the last sites. We have traveled 700 years in four hours.

At the ruins of the pit house there are remains of walls. Pit houses were round holes dug in the earth and surrounded by stones a few feet high. Inside were two rooms, one for everyday living with a fireplace in the kitchen area and a smaller room for storage and private moments. People descended a ladder from the roof.

Kivas, used for ceremonial purposes, developed after pit houses. The Kivas had small holes in the ground called “sipapus” that would have allowed tribal ancestors to emerge from Middle-earth.

The Far View complex was built around 900 AD. Far View House, Far View Tower Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, and Megalithic House are all accessible from a short trail off the main park road.

The locals believed that the Sun Temple was an astrological observatory. Our guide, Paul, showed us where the sun aligns at a specific point in the winter solstice.

Falaise Palace.
Cliff Palace (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

Cliff Palace is one of the most interesting sites in the park. You climb steps carved into the cliff and several ladders to the top of a 100 foot cliff. Cliff Palace, built between 1190 and 1260 AD, has 23 kivas and 150 rooms.

Balcony House is another must-see if you are physically able. You have to descend steps approximately 100 feet into the canyon, then climb a nearly vertical 32-foot entry ladder on the cliff wall. Then you navigate through a narrow tunnel and passage. It is worth fighting for. You reach a masonry accommodation with 40 rooms and two floors. The second floor has a balcony, so residents can have a bird’s eye view of 600 feet into Soda Canyon. The double kivas here tell how important religion was to these people. In cave dwellings, the doors are small and shaped like a keyhole. In 1300 AD, Cliff Palace and Balcony House were abandoned.

The rangers told us why. A drought that lasted for about 20 years and an increase in the population that had cut down most of the trees needed for firewood and driven out the surrounding area. Residents only took what they could carry as they had no horses, beasts of burden or wheels.

Pro tip: The park is open year round, but many sites are open from April to October due to weather conditions.

Cajon ruins in Mexico.
Ruins of the cajon (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

2. Dolores

Next stop was the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, near Dolores. It contains over 3,000,000 artifacts, a library and a theater.

The timeline along the wall puts the Canyon of the Ancients in perspective. Another exhibit showed how weapons advanced from the ancient atlatl, who threw a spear, bow and arrow. The Dolores archaeological program found most of the artifacts in the center between 1978 and 1986.

When the government decided to build the McPhee Dam reservoir. Scientists have undertaken the largest archeology project in the United States. They discovered 1600 homes and prehistoric villages. An exhibition tells about the project.

McPhee Dam Reservoir is a 10-minute drive from the center. It is ideal for kayaking, boating, water skiing, fishing, hiking and has a campground.

It is about 25 miles in a straight line from the Visitor Center to the Canyon of the Ancients sites. As we were in the mountains, nothing was straight, especially the roads. Lowry Pueblo, with its Great House and Great Kiva, is the most famous site of the Canyon of the Ancients. The pueblo is unique in that it is built on top of an old colony of pit houses. The Grande Maison is on several levels and has around 40 rooms and several kivas. There are picnic tables and restrooms.

Visitor center in Hovenweep.
Hovensweep Visitor Center (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

Hovenweep Visitor Center is just across the border from Utah. It offers exhibitions and an interpretive film. Square Tower Group, the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan structures in Hovenweep, is a short hike from the center. You will see Stronghold House, named after its fortress appearance. The Twin Towers, considered one of the best-built ruins in the southwest, are a unique pair of almost touching structures, with one tower oval and the other in the shape of a horseshoe. Eroded Boulder House has a boulder for the roof and part of its walls.

A little further on are the ruins of Cajon. A pueblo sits on the edge of a cliff with several oddly placed small holes that let in rays of sunlight, marking a stain on the wall at the summer solstice.

Pro tip: Some places may be difficult to access for people with physical disabilities.

Lodging: Retro Inn takes you back to the 1950s. Elvis sits on a bench outside the office. A vintage camper van parked in front is surrounded by flamingos.

Dining: The Farm Bistro, in Cortez, and Absolute Bakery for breakfast or lunch in Mancos, a little east of Cortez.

Looking over Grand Lake in the morning.
Grand Lac (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

3. Grand Lake

I visited Grand Lake, the western entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, on a recent press trip.

Kauffman House Museum tells the story of Grand Lake. The log building, dating from 1892, is one of the oldest in Grand Lake.

The Kauffman House was a house and a hotel. It is furnished as at the turn of the century. The dining room table is set with authentic family dishes. The kitchen is equipped with a wood-burning stove and plenty of cast-iron pots and pans. Guests paid $ 12 for a room, meals, and laundry.

East Troublesome Fire Tribute is a small museum that tells a sad story about Colorado’s second largest fire. It started on October 20, 2020 and favorable conditions caused it to spread. In 3 days, it covered over 10,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of most of Grand County. Susan Lawson, museum guide, says, “We had 15 minutes to go out. “

A great way to get a different perspective is on a Trail Ridge Marina pontoon boat tour of Great Glacier Lake, Colorado’s largest natural lake. It is framed on three sides by the Rocky Mountain National Park. James, our boat captain, took us from Grand Lake to Shadow Lake.

The Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater offers Broadway musicals in the mountains.

The Kawuneeche Visitor Center, the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, adjoins Grand Lake. From the center, drive on Trail Ridge Road, known as the Highway to the Sky, into the park. The road stretches 48 miles from Grand Lake to Estes, the eastern entrance.

Cabins at Holzwalch Ranch.
Holzwarth Cabins (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

There are a lot of interesting stops along the route. The historic Holzwarth site, one of the country’s first dude ranches, was the home of German immigrants, John and Sophia Holzwarth, who took advantage of Homestead Law. They settled on 160 acres in the Kawuneeche Valley on the banks of the Colorado River in 1917. They built cabins and guests came for fly fishing. We saw many of the original cabins, but could only see most of them from the outside. One is open and has exhibits on how people in the early 20th century worked in the Rockies.

Continental Divide is the next stop and the highlight of the country. All the waters that make up our rivers and streams begin here. The waters to the east flow into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic. Those from the west flow into the Pacific. The National Continental Divide Trail runs 3,100 miles across the United States.

We continued to the Alpine Visitor Center, which stands at 11,796 feet, the highest visitor center in the national park system.

The museum explains how plants and wildlife survive at this altitude. There’s a restaurant.

Conestoga Wagon, you can stay at River Run.
Conestoga Wagon at River Run (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

4. Granby

River Run Resort in Granby, 20 minutes southwest of Grand Lake, offers not only RV sites, but also cabins, glamping in an Airstream park and Conestoga wagons, a lodge, a drop-in center. fit with yoga, massage and spa, and everything for the perfect vacation. The pool has three hot tubs and The Tiny Tap serves cocktails by the pool. There is a large dog park for your furry friends. The Summit Bar and Grill and the Headwaters Tavern feed you well. They offer entertainment on Saturdays with camping concerts on the summit terrace. There is an arcade, a bowling alley, a dock on the lake with paddle boards and kayaks. If you are bored, you can explore the nearby Arapaho National Forest.

The Fraser River flows through Granby, and Colorado’s third largest lake, Lake Granby, makes water sports popular. In winter, it is possible to ski or snowboard at the Granby Ranch ski resort.

Dining & Shopping: Downtown Grand Lake has unique boutiques, art galleries, accommodations and restaurants. Blue Water Bakery, Rockies, Sagebrush BBQ & Grill are good choices. The Grand Lake Lodge restaurant is perfect for upscale dining and unique accommodations. Almost all restaurants in Grand County allow dogs.

Coopers Creek Square, approximately 15-17 miles south of Granby, offers unique wine choices, dining and shopping. Visit Adventure Decanted there.

There are other interesting places to explore in Colorado:

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