Blast From The Past: Trail Of The Ancients Scenic Drive Road Trip

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Trail of the Ancients is a scenic drive taking you to various sites featuring ancient Anasazi ruins and culture in Southeast Utah and Southwest Colorado. 

From Mesa Verde to Monument Valley and Ruins to petroglyphs, this Colorado and Utah road trip will help you see it all. It will also take you to some of the best places to go in Utah.

The map I’ve included doesn’t show a route, but it shows all the stops on one map.  Google Maps wasn’t letting me make a trip with all of the stops in it and it wasn’t showing the route I did have, so I decided to show each stop and where it is and you can make a route depending on where else you’ll be.

It’s also got the other cool stops listed at the bottom of this post.  The official stops are in green and the others are yellow.  These are all amazing and pretty easy additions to a Colorado road trip.

Travel Services I Recommend:
AllTrails – This is my favorite hike tracking app.
America the Beautiful – The national park pass is essential.
Booking.com – This is great for finding and booking hotels.
Get Your Guide – I recommend Get Your Guide for booking tours.
National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
Skyscanner – Skyscanner is great for finding and booking flights.
Enterprise – This is my rental car recommendation.
See all my resources here.

halls crossing ruins utah

Major towns along the Trail of the Ancients In Utah and Colorado

  • Cortez, Colorado
  • Blanding, Utah
  • Bluff, Utah
  • Mexican Hat, Utah

Important things to know about the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway

  • You will not need a permit for any of these things unless otherwise noted.
  • Any vehicle will be fine for the Trail of the Ancients.  The only part that might be difficult without 4 wheel drive is the road out to Muley Point.
  • Give yourself more time than you think you need for drives between each place.  It’s so scenic out here, you’re going to want to stop.  A lot.
  • That said, it’s very remote out here and you most likely won’t have phone service between (or at some) destinations.  Make sure you’re prepared for desert travel.
  • If you’re renting a car, make sure you’re Ok to take it on dirt roads.  That will probably vary by company and car.
  • Spring or fall might be better for this drive because it’s not as hot or as busy, but summer is still going to be great, just be prepared for the heat.
  • All elevation listed is approximate and will vary throughout the park or area and is measured as feet above sea level.
  • Make sure you have plenty of water and some snacks in the car, just in case.  Mostly extra water.
  • Cell phone service will be spotty at best outside of any of the towns, so plan for that.  Verizon has the best service out here, then AT&T.
five kiva pueblo blanding utah

How long is the Trail of the Ancients?

It’s about 180 miles, give or take. It will depend on all the stops you want too make and any side trips you may want to do.

How long do you need for a Trail of the Ancients trip?

5-10 days. Again, this depends how many places you want to stop. Some of them you can do more than one of in a day, like Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients or Edge of the Cedars and Natural Bridges.

But you may want a whole day or two for Cedar Mesa hikes if you want to see a loot of ruins and want to get off the beaten path a bit.

five kiva pueblo blanding utah

How much time do you need for each stop on a Trail of the Ancients road trip?

  • Monument Valley – one day
  • Valley of the Gods – half day
  • Goosenecks State Park – an hour or so
  • Cedar Mesa/Comb Ridge – 1+ days
  • Muley Point Overlook/Moki Dugway – 1 hour
  • Butler Wash and Mule Canyon Ruins – 2-3 hours
  • Natural Bridges National Monument – half day
  • Edge of the Cedars State Park – 2-3 hours
  • Canyons of the Ancients National Monument – 2-4 hours
  • Hovenweep National Monument – 1-3 hours
  • Four Corners National Monument – 1 hour
  • Mesa Verde National Park – one day
bears ears national monument utah

What can you see in one day on the Trail of the Ancients?

You can combine quite a few things to see in one day and I’ve added some suggested combinations below. I’m keeping it to two per day just to keep in mind any drive time while allowing stops for views along the way.

Plus, how much time you need at each place can very much depend on how much you read at museums or on signs, how fast you walk, if you stop for a lot of pictures or to look at all the lizards and stuff.

The list below is how I would likely structure a Trail of the Ancients itinerary for myself, as far as oorder and combinations go (not specific day counts).

  • Monument Valley
  • Valley of the Gods and Goosenecks State Park (Upper Sand Island Petroglyphs as a bonus)
  • Cedar Mesa/Comb Ridge
  • Muley Point/Moki Dugway and Butler Wash and Mule Canyon Roadside Ruins (Five Kiva Pueblo bonus)
  • Natural Bridges National Monument and Edge of the Cedars State Park
  • Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, and Four Corners National Monument (if you really want to see that, optional)
  • Mesa Verde
Upper sand Island petroglyphs bluff utah

Geocaching along Trail of the Ancients in Utah

This is going to be a great area for Geocaching.  There aren’t tons along every road constantly, but there are some really awesome ones in this area that will take you to some pretty cool things. 

I know one is near a petroglyph site in Blanding.  There’s a really cool RV one on the way to Monument Valley.  This would be a great place to try it for the first time if you haven’t before.  I’ll make note of any areas where I know you can find some.

Geocache near monument Valley

What to bring on a Trail of the Ancients road trip

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes, or a visor.  A baseball hat should be fine but I like my giant sun hat, too.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are, time of day, and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking, just in case. 

bears ears utah

For Camping on Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway

Kammok hammock – I have a Roo single that I love. It’s the color of mac and cheese and pretty light weight. I don’t think as light as Eno if that matters though. But it’s perfect for just regular camping.

RTIC cooler – We have one of those giant coffin sized Yetis, which is great, but this 20 can soft RTIC cooler is a lot more convenient for small trips with easy access to a fridge and ice.

REI Passage 2 Tent – Our tent isn’t available anymore but this one is similar.  We’ve used it quite a few times and it’s been great.  It’s good for two people, but can be a little cramped if you move around too much.

NEMO Viola sleeping bag – Mine isn’t available anymore but this one is similar.  It’s very good in cold weather, not freezing, but in the 40s with leggings on, I was totally fine.  It has zipper vent things on the top that are supposed to help it cool down when it’s hot.  I don’t know if it really did that.  When we camped in south Florida, I was still pretty warm with them open and it was probably in the 60s. 

LuminAID lantern – I love this lantern.  It’s great for getting around your campsite in the dark, lighting up campground bathrooms at night, and even during power outages at home.  You can plug it in to charge it or just let the sun do the work. 

REI Ruckpack 18 – This is the daypack I have and it’s awesome.  It’s lightweight, has water bottle pockets that my 40-ounce Hydro Flask fits in, and it comes in nice colors. 

REI Camp Wrap – This is totally unnecessary, but I love it.  It’s basically a blanket poncho and it doubles as a good blanket for sleeping in warmer weather.  I used it two nights in south Florida and it was perfect for when my sleeping bag was too hot.

Puffy quilt – If you’re a really warm sleeper and visiting in the summer, a puffy quilt might be a better option.  I prefer this for hotter nights.  Check out the Rumpl camp quilts here.

Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow.  This is a good non-inflatible option.  Here is a good inflatable option.

Camp chairs – If you plan on doing a lot of camping outside of this trip, and backpacking especially, the REI Flexlite chairs are great choices.  Check out the camp chairs here.

Dramamine – this is a must if you get carsick.

Trail of the Ancients Itinerary

Geocache near monument Valley

Monument Valley

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$20 per vehicle

Hours

Scenic drive hours

May 1 – September 30, 6 – 8:30
October 1 – April 30, 8 – 4:30

Visitor Center Hours

May 1 – September 30, 6 – 8
October 1 – April 30, 8 – 5

Cell phone service

Some, but it’s spotty

What to do

Do the scenic drive, for sure, and if you have time, do the Wildcat trail.  It’s the only hiking trail in the park taking you around one of the Mitten Buttes.  If you want to see more of Monument Valley, definitely do a tour.

You can do overnight tours on Hunts Mesa, scenic flights, regular tours of the main area, Mystery valley Tours, and special photography tours.  There is something for everyone.

Monument Valley tours

Monument valley without a guide
Monument Valley Arizona

Goosenecks State Park

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$5 per car

Hours

All the time

Cell phone service

Some, but most likely spotty

What to do

Admire the views, work on photography, and go stargazing if you’re camping in the area.  There are no hiking or biking trails in the park, but it’s the perfect stop if you’re visiting Monument Valley or Valley of the Gods area.

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Valley of the Gods

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

Free

Hours

All the time

Cell phone service

Possibly, but spotty or none at all

What to do

Drive the scenic road through a mini Monument Valley before (or after) visiting the full-size Monument Valley down the road.  There aren’t any hiking trails along the road, but if you’re confident enough, you can just hike out wherever.

Just keep an eye out for cryptobiotic soil (the brown crusty stuff) and don’t step on it.  There are some Geocaches along the Valley of the Gods road.

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Cedar Mesa/Comb Ridge

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

This is basically the whole area between UT 261 and Blanding/Bluff.  It includes Comb Ridge and the Grand Gulch Primitive Area.

How much

Free, but some hikes may require a permit and fee, it will depend on the hike

Hours

All the time

Cell phone service

Probably not

What to do

What not to do!?  There are so many different ruin sites in this area, you could stay busy for weeks.  Months, even.  Lime Canyon, Moon House Ruin, Kane Gulch, Road Canyon, are just a few of the notable hikes. 

You can find tons of awesome ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs out here.  You may even come across artifacts if you’re lucky, but leave them in place and just take pictures.

Grand Gulch Utah
Moon House Ruin

Muley Point Overlook/Moki Dugway

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

Free

Hours

All the time

Cell phone service

Some, but it’s spotty

What to do

Admire some of the best views of Southern Utah from Muley Point and the Moki Dugway.  You can see the San Juan River and Monument Valley from the overlook and Monument Valley and Mexican Hat from the Dugway.  I know there are a few Geocaches at both areas.

The road to Muley Point might not be suitable for regular passenger cars, depending on weather.  We had to go through some deepish sand when we went.  The Dugway is fine though, I know semi trucks take it.

I will note that the Dugway, as I so lovingly call it the Moki Deathway, may not be great if you’re very afraid of heights. I think it’s fine (I think the Burr Trail switchbacks are way worse) but I had a lot of guests tell me how scary it was.

I’ve also seen a lot of people on Facebook talk about how terrifying it is and how they’ll never do it again but really, I don’t get it.

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Moki Dugway scenic drive

Butler Wash and the Mule Canyon Ruins

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

The Mule Canyon Ruin hike starts on Texas Flat Road, not by the Mule Canyon Ruin site on Highway 95.

How much

Butler Wash is free, but Mule Canyon has a $2 per person per day fee.

Hours

All the time

Cell phone service

Not really.  There might be some at Butler Wash, but it’s spotty.

What to do

Stop at the Butler Wash Trail to see some cliff dwellings.  On The dirt road before the Butler Wash Trailhead (coming from Blanding) you can find some very easy to access dinosaur tracks not too far in. 

There is a sign for them.  I believe they’re on Butler Wash Road.  Mule Canyon is before the turnoff for Natural Bridges (coming from Blanding) on Texas Flat Road.

Less than half a mile in is the trailhead on the left side of the road.  This is where you can hike to House on Fire ruins.  If you continue down the canyon, there are eight ruins total to see.  House on Fire is one of the best easy hikes in Utah.

Some may be easy to miss, so look up a lot and keep an eye out for them.  The Mule Canyon hike will be 2-10 miles round trip or 1-6 hours depending on how far you go, how fast, and how much you stop.

Butler Wash Ruins Utah
House on fire ruins mule canyon

Natural Bridges National Monument

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$20 per vehicle

Hours

The monument is open all day every day.  The visitor center is open daily from 9-5.  In winter, it is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Cell phone service

No

What to do

If you’re camping here, definitely, make sure you get some time for stargazing.  This is one of the darkest skies and perfect for it.  Stop at all of the bridge overlooks and if you have time and want to get into the park more, at least hike down to one of the bridges.

I would recommend the Sipapu Trail, but that is also the most dfficult in the park.  Totally worth it, though.  You can hike to all three bridges in a 9.8 mile loop, Sipapu to Kachina in a 5.7 mile loop, or Kachina to Owachomo in a 6.5 mile loop.

Sipapu bridge natural bridges utah
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Edge of the Cedars State Park

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$5 per person, $3 for kids

Hours

I’ve gotten a mix of answers on hours of operation, so I’ve shared all of what I’ve found.  I would recommend calling ahead just in case.

Open 9 – 5 daily, 9 – 6 in the summer, and closed on holidays

November – March, Monday – Saturday 12 – 5
March, Monday – Saturday 9 – 5
April – October, Monday – Saturday 9 – 5, Sunday 12 – 4

March-November, Monday thru Saturday 9 – 5, Sunday 9 – 4

Cell phone service

Yes

What to do

Do a self-guided tour through the museum before heading out back to the short interpretive trail.  You can also climb down into a kiva and see ancient dwellings.  This is a great stop if you want to see tons of artifacts.  Like, literally tons.

Edge of the cedars state park blanding utah
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Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

The Anasazi Heritage Center is at located at 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colorado and is a great place to start your visit.  You can also get there from Cortez, Colorado, just drive north on Highway 491, then west on County Road BB.

How much

$3 per adult for the Anasazi Heritage Center from March – October, free the rest of the year

Hours

The Anasazi Heritage Center is open 9 -5 from March – October and 10 – 4 in the off-season.

Cell phone service

Unlikely

What to do

See some of the more than 6000 ruin sites in the park.  Some may not look like much and might not be more than an indentation in the ground, but there is still plenty to see. 

You won’t find cliff dwellings here, but you will see above ground pueblos, like Lowry Pueblo.  Visit the Anasazi Heritage Center to learn more about the culture and ways of life in the area when people actually lived in these dwellings.

Canyons of the ancients national monument
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands
Canyons of the ancients national monument
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands

Hovenweep National Monument

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

Free

Hours

Trails are open sunrise to sunset.  The visitor center is open daily from 9 – 5.  In winter, it is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Cell phone service

Some, but it’s spotty.

What to do

There aren’t tons of things to do here, but definitely do the hike around the cliff edge to see the various ruins.  Hovenweep Castle is the most impressive of the ruins, but they’re all worth seeing. 

The Square Tower Unit is the main area of the park, but there is also the Cutthroat Unit (closed at the moment for safety reasons) and the Horseshoe/Hackberry and Holly Units.

Hovenweep national monument utah

Four Corners National Monument

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$5 per person

Hours

October 1 to March 31, 8 – 4:45

April 1 to April 30, 8 – 5:45

May 1 to Thursday of Memorial Weekend, 8 – 6:45

Friday of Memorial Weekend to Aug 15, 8 – 7:45

Aug 16 to Sept 30, 8 -6:45

Cell phone service

Most likely not

What to do

Take a picture of yourself in the only place where four states meet in one spot.  You may have to wait your turn if it’s busy.  Take a little time to enjoy some fry bread then peruse the permanent stalls for some Navajo jewelry and chat with creators about their work while you look.

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Photo by Ken Lund Flickr
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Mesa Verde National Park

Where is it on the Trail of the Ancients?

How much

$15-$25 depending on time of year

Hours

Always open, but services may vary depending on season and you can find out more about those specifically here.

Cell phone service

No

What to do

There is so much to do at Mesa Verde.  I would highly recommend doing one of the tours to Cliff Palace or Balcony House.  Make sure you drive to all the different areas like Chapin Mesa and Wetherhill Mesa.  There are plenty of hiking options in the park to fill time between tours.

Check out Spruce Tree House from afar.  The trail to it is still closed due to safety concerns.  Hike down to Step House, the only cliff dwelling you can hike to on your own at this time.  The far view sites are pretty cool to see, too.

If you’re visiting Mesa Verde in the winter, try to time it for the Luminaria! But also be prepared that bad weather can cancel it.

mesa verde colorado

Other Awesome things to do in Southern Utah

If you’re in the area, you’re probably visiting other parks on your Utah road trip.  I decided to add some other places you might find interesting that aren’t part of the Trail of the Ancients Drive.  They are primarily in Southeastern Utah, as far over as Escalante.

Most are focused on ruins and Anasazi culture, but there are a few dinosaur activities, too.  These are just some of the easier to access sites.

If you have more time and the proper mode of transportation though, there are so many more cool things to see in Southern Utah. 

Books to read before visiting the Four Corners:

Mesa verde winter

Utah posts you may also like:

Have you done the Trail of the Ancients Drive?  Or been to any of the stops separately?  Which ones are your favorites?  

4 thoughts on “Blast From The Past: Trail Of The Ancients Scenic Drive Road Trip

    1. Thank you! It really is and even after almost two years here, there is still so much to see!

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog, megan!

    Having visited a lot of these sites back in the 70s and 80s I know how beautiful they are. Keep up the great work!

    Steve

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and I’ll do everything I can to keep sharing them.

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