Discover Durango area National Monuments, each a hidden gem filled to the brim with hidden gems of their own. Durango and its surrounding areas host an awesome plethora of national monuments, all of which are well worth your time to explore. In addition to the ruins at Mesa Verde, the Ancient Puebloans who were native to the Four Corners region centuries ago left behind many extraordinary structures now designated as national monuments. In this guide, we’ve listed the best of the best for you to visit while in Durango along with a few of our insider’s tips to maximize the fun for your visit.
Although most of the structures standing at Hovenweep were built between 1200-1300 A.D., human habitation in the area dates as far back as 10,000 years ago. Take a stroll through ancient history to see notable sites such as the Cajon Group, Cutthroat Castle, and the Square Tower Group. Along with all that ancient goodness, Hovenweep is also recognized as a Dark Sky Park. If you’ve ever wanted to embark on a scenic stargazing adventure (100% would recommend), Hovenweep is the place for you.
Getting to Hovenweep and Things to Do
There are a few different routes to get to Hovenweep, all of which are just under a two-hour drive west from Durango. Once you get there, we recommend stopping first at the visitor’s center near Little Ruin Canyon. There you can get a lay of the land and get any questions you have about the sites answered. If you’re short on time, make the most of your quick visit by walking west along the path to Hovenweep Tower and Square Tower. If you can spend a full day at Hovenweep, hike the trails to even more notable sites such as the Cajon Group and Cutthroat Castle.
Weather at Hovenweep
During Spring and Fall, the most popular seasons at Hovenweep, daytime highs average between 60-80 degrees and lows between 30-50 degrees.
Summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees during the day. Late summer monsoons also sometimes bring afternoon thunderstorms and flash floods.
Winters are cold with highs averaging between 30-50 degrees and lows between 0-20 degrees. Although large snowfalls are uncommon, small amounts of snow and ice can make some roads and trails impassable.
Since Hovenweep is located in a “high desert” environment, the area sometimes experiences temperature fluctuations – as much as 40 degrees in one day. With that information in mind, you will want to be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions during your visit. You might feel like a weirdo at first by sporting a beanie and shorts together, but honestly you’ll just look like a local, and be happy to have the extra layers.
Camping at Hovenweep
Hovenweep features a 31-site campground that is open year-round. This site is first-come, first-served with no reservations available. Each site includes tent pads, fire rings, and picnic tables with shade structures, which are limited to groups of up to eight people and two vehicles. Sites are designed for tents, but some will accommodate RVs up to 36 feet long.
Bird-Watching – Over 100 bird species either call Hovenweep home or migrate through the area during certain seasons. Listen carefully and keep a close eye out for rare species like Western Tanagers, Greater Roadrunners, and Golden Eagles.
Stargazing – As a recognized dark sky park, Hovenweep offers exceptional opportunities for stargazing. During summer nights, the sky becomes its own form of entertainment as shooting stars, rings of the Milky Way and constellations light up the zenith.
Chimney Rock National Monument
With 200 preserved ancient homes and ceremonial buildings across seven square miles, Chimney Rock is one of Colorado’s more intimate national monuments. The monument, which does actually look like a massive smokestack, is open to visitors from May 15th to September 30th. Self-guided tours or with volunteer interpretive guides are welcome along primitive trails that haven’t changed in 1,000 years. The ancient structures, abundant wildlife, and breathtaking scenery of Chimney Rock make it a must-see site for anyone traveling through Southwest Colorado. Also, Chimney Rock is just a lovely and inviting name for a national monument. Just saying.
Getting to Chimney Rock and Things to Do
From Durango, Chimney Rock is an hour-long drive east along the US-160 E. Gates to the national monument are open from 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM except for special programs. If you’re taking a guided or self-guided tour, first head to the visitor’s cabin to pay your tour fee. From there, you’ll drive up to the high mesa.
We highly recommend going on one of the tour options since that is the only way to visit the ancient structures. The sites are not viewable from the main road, and you are only allowed access the high mesa if on a tour.
Weather at Chimney Rock
Since Chimney Rock is only open for visitors from May 15th through September 30th, you probably won’t be dealing with much snow. Then again, this is Colorado, so pretty much anything is possible when it comes to the weather. Here are the average highs and lows for each month Chimney Rock is open:
May – High: 68 degrees. Low: 31 degrees.
June – High: 78 degrees. Low: 37 degrees.
July – High: 83 degrees. Low: 45 degrees.
August – High: 80 degrees. Low: 45 degrees.
September – High: 73 degrees. Low: 37 degrees.
Also, no matter what month you visit, bring plenty of water. The high altitude and dry climate of the area in which Chimney Rock resides can cause dehydration to set in quickly. Play it smart and be prepared to drink up!
Camping at Chimney Rock
Although you can’t actually camp within Chimney Rock, there are several campground options to choose from just a few miles away. The two closest are the Capote and Ute campgrounds. Both are less than five miles away from Chimney Rock, and both have excellent reviews.
Archaeoastronomy Programs – Chimney Rock offers special programs at dusk and after nightfall with fascinating lectures about the Ancestral Pueblans’ beliefs associated with the night sky. The Full Moon program takes you on a hike to the Great House Pueblo where you watch the full moon rise over twin spires while listening to the soothing sounds of Native American flute. Or sign up for a Night Sky program, where you can see a fully illuminated night sky stretching out endlessly in every direction.
Junior Archaeologist Program – Bringing your kids along for the tour? Chimney Rock offers a fantastic Junior Archaeologist Program to keep kids engaged and enhance their learning experience on tours. Simply pick up or print out a Junior Archaeologist booklet for your kids to complete throughout the day, and once they’re done they can exchange the booklet for an official Junior Archaeologist button.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
First things first, early settlers of the region did mistakenly designate these ruins as a part of the Aztec Empire in Mexico. At the time, Europeans weren’t aware that these structures were built by the Ancestral Puebloans. Nevertheless, Aztec Ruins National Monument is a beautiful site of well-preserved ruins, a heritage garden, and Spanish trails leading to downtown Aztec, New Mexico. The highlight of the monument is the 900-year old Ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms.
Getting to Aztec Ruins and Things to Do
From Durango, the Aztec Ruins National Monument is 36.1 miles south along the US-550 S towards Aztec, NM. Total travel time clocks is around 45 minutes.
Once you get to the park, you’ll want to head straight to the visitor’s center. There you can pay any entrance fees, pick up your trail guide, and check out the 900-years old artifacts showcased at the museum. You can also watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past, to see different perspectives on the site from Pueblo people, Navajo tribe members, and archaeologists.
Then take to the Aztec West Self-Guided Trail. This half-mile walk winds through the original rooms in the Ancestral Pueblo “Great House.” Along the way, you’ll enter the ceremonial Great Kiva, a semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter, which is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its time.
Weather at Aztec Ruins
Spring typically has typical, unpredictable southwestern weather. Temperatures can range as low as 32 degrees and as high as 78 degrees. During this time it’s equally likely to be windy, raining, or clear and sunny.
Summers are quite warm at Aztec Ruins, with temperatures occasionally exceeding 100 degrees. From mid to late summer, however, days often cool off with regular afternoon thunderstorms.
Fall features fairly mild weather. Daytime highs average in the high 70s to low 80s, and lows at night drop to anywhere between 50 and 35 degrees.
Winters are usually mild for the most part, aside from those charming New Mexico winds. On the coldest nights, temperatures can drop to 0 degrees, but during the day the temperature rises anywhere between 20 and 60 degrees. Snow also falls throughout this season but typically accumulates no more than 1-2 inches.
Camping at Aztec Ruins
Since Aztec Ruins National Monument sits just outside the city of Aztec, NM, there are several lodging options including hotels, motels, and campgrounds. For a list of the closest lodging options, check out this link.
Old Spanish National Historic Trail – The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe, NM, and went all the way to Los Angeles, CA. It’s unclear as to how close the caravan actually came to the national monument, but you can follow the designated trail today from the Aztec Ruins picnic area, across a bridge over the Animas River, and into historic downtown Aztec.
Aztec Ruins Junior Ranger Program – Just as with Chimney Rock National Monument, Aztec Ruins offers a fun and educational Junior Ranger Program for kids. There are six activities set up at various locations around the national monument, and once a child completes at least four of them, they will be eligible to receive their own junior ranger patch.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Located about 50 miles west of Durango, Canyons of the Ancients contains the highest archaeological site density in the United States. The more than 6,355 recorded sites include villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs, and sweat lodges. The real kicker is that those are just the recorded sites and that there could be upwards of 30,000 sites at the Canyons of the Ancients. Truly, this is a national monument you don’t want to miss.
Getting to Canyons of the Ancients and Things to Do
As it covers over 170,000 acres, Canyons of the Ancients is definitely the largest national monument on this list, even eclipsing Mesa Verde National Park in size. There are also multiple points of entry into the national monument between Colorado and Utah. Since it can be a little overwhelming trying to decipher where to go first in the monument, we recommend checking out the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum for your stop. This is a great spot to start at, not only because you can pick up trail guides here and ask for staff recommendations for visiting the monument, but also because of the fascinating exhibits and wealth of information contained in the museum.
From Durango, the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor’s Center and Museum is 51 miles Northwest. Follow US-160 W for 27.5 miles where you’ll enter into Mancos, CO. Then take a right onto CO-184 W and follow that road for 19.6 miles all the way to the visitor’s center.
Depending on where you choose to start your visit at Canyons of the Ancients, your drive from the visitor’s center will vary. Expect at least a 20-mile drive to which spot you head to first. Once there, you’ll have opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, and horseback riding along with getting up close and personal with beautifully preserved ruins scattered across the landscape.
Weather at Canyons of the Ancients
Spring temperatures at Canyons of the Ancients typically average between 25 and 30 degrees for lows, and between 50 to 65 degrees for highs. The unpaved roads going through the national monument are also often muddy and difficult to get through without a reliable vehicle.
Summer is one of the busier seasons, but it’s also quite hot with 90-degree days a common occurrence in mid to late summer. At night, temperatures rarely drop below 40 degrees.
Fall is a fairly mild season at Canyons of the Ancients. Highs range between the mid-60s and high 70s, and lows typically don’t go below 45 degrees.
During Winter, temperatures can drop to as low as 14 degrees, and it rarely exceeds 50 degrees. Just as with most places in this region of Colorado, it’s common to find Canyons of the Ancients covered in snow throughout the winter months.
Camping at Canyons of the Ancients
Although there are no designated campgrounds, you can camp for free in most areas within the park. The only places you can’t camp at are at developed sites, near water sources or right beside ruins. So yeah, sorry to have to say this if it’s something you wanted to do, but no, you cannot seek shelter in the ruins to live out your ancient lifestyle immersion fantasies. We know it sounds cool, but it’s incredibly bad for the preservation of the ruins and also very disrespectful for descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans. As previously mentioned, Canyons of the Ancients covers approximately 176,000 acres of land, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a suitable spot to make your own campsite for the night.
Mountain Biking Over Hiking – Although it’s certainly fun hiking at Canyons of the Ancients to check out the ruins, we’d argue that it’s even more fun to ride a mountain bike on the trails. Check out the Sand Canyon and Rock Creek Trails for some great opportunities for both riding your bike and seeing a ton of archaeological sites. Some sections of these trails are a little technical to ride, but they’re simple to walk if need be. Just a quick heads up for the Sand Canyon trail, when you reach the sign that reads “Recommended for Foot Travel Only,” be prepared for a lot of walking your bike if you plan to press on past that point.
Visit the Visitor’s Center – Yes, we know we discussed this already, but the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum is just such a great resource for first-time visitors, especially the museum. There is a fascinating collection of well-preserved artifacts and records from excavations at the national monument that you can learn about. There are also interactive exhibits and films to check out inside the museum as well as two 12th century archaeological sites just outside the museum.