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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

A Guide to Colorado’s National Monuments and Historic Sites

Before and during the westward expansion of the country, a lot of important and significant events occurred that helped shape the state of Colorado. A host of scenic national monuments, historic sites and trails are now protected, just like Colorado’s four great national parks, to preserve their importance and natural beauty. This is a short guide to some of those protected areas, whether for scenic or historic purposes, in the state.

35110 Rte 194
La Junta, CO 81050
(719) 383-5026

The area around Santa Fe, New Mexico was originally occupied in the 11th century by Pueblo Indians. It became the provincial capital city under the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, which now makes it the oldest state capital in the United States. Over the years, a lot of trade occurred between the United States and the Spanish in the city of Santa Fe. That trade happened along what is now known as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail; Bent’s Old Fort was a trading post along the Arkansas River and the Santa Fe Trail.

Bent’s Old Fort was built in the early 1800s by traders and trappers Ceran St. Vrain and William and Charles Bent. The fort was a prosperous trading center for sixteen years, but declined when the gold rush brought various epidemics and the white relations with the Indians became strained. A new fort was built forty miles downriver, and the old one abandoned after a failed sale to the military.

The fort that exists today is a reproduction of the old fort from archaeological finds, drawings, and various written descriptions of the old fort. Actors in period outfits help explain the fort’s importance to visitors, as well as coordinate various special events throughout the year. Some of those special events include a Santa Fe Trail Caravan, a Fourth of July and fort anniversary celebration, a fur trade encampment, and a holiday celebration. It’s best to try to plan a visit to the fort around one of these times in order to get the best experience.

Colorado National Monument

Monument Rd.
Fruita, CO 81521
(970) 858-3617

The Colorado National Monument is centered around a scenic drive that was built in the early 1900s from Fruita to Grand Junction at the edge of a great canyon on the Colorado Plateau. The thirty-two-square-mile park preserves a variety of wildlife, as well as the sandstone canyons and several mesas. They can all be discovered from the comfort of your car, but the opportunities for hiking and camping are definitely plentiful – it makes it all worthwhile to get out and explore the area a little more in depth.

One of the most well-known hikes in the Colorado National Monument, or climbs rather, is the Fourth of July 450-foot climb to the top of Independence Monument in the park. The park’s first ranger, John Otto, started the tradition in 1911, and since then it has been a popular activity among park enthusiast looking to wish the country a happy birthday in style.

Several other hiking, running, bicycling, and classic car events are held throughout the year at the monument. Each helps bring a special perspective during a visit to the Colorado National Monument, and is worth the extra time spent planning. So, if you’re looking for something more than a scenic drive or a beautiful hike in the national monument, look ahead to make arrangements for one of the several interesting events.

Dinosaur National Monument

Maybell, CO 81640
(970) 374-3000

Fourteen thousand-foot-tall mountain peaks tower above a land that was once a great sea and habitat for dozens of species of dinosaurs, including the great Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. They roamed beachfront property that is today protected by the Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the state border with Utah. Over the years, the earth’s shifting plates drastically changed the landscape so it now looks nothing like it did 100 million years ago when the inland sea stretched from the present-day Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

Dinosaurs no longer walk the earth, but they remain an integral part of the area with fossil finds popping up throughout the region – most recently in the area around Snowmass. The fossil beds of the Dinosaur National Monument were discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Earl Douglass, and soon thereafter protected by federal legislation; the monument was expanded in 1938 to 200,000 acres of protected land. Now Dinosaur National Monument attracts almost 400,000 visitors a year.

Before white settlers arrived, Native Americans lived and hunted in the area – their petroglyphs and pictographs can still be found in the surrounding canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. The remains of pioneer homesteads also remain and tell of an interesting history of the United States’ westward expansion. But, the dinosaurs definitely remain the main attraction; it’s possible to still see fossils in the rock layers where it is believed they were buried during a flood in what is now a sandstone bed. The strata of the rocks have encased the fossils in layers, and the formation of the mountains and plateaus in the area have moved the earth to expose the remains, making for a very visual experience.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

15807 Teller County Road 1
Florissant, CO 80816
(719) 748-3253

The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is a great companion visit for those interested in the Dinosaur National Monument. But, due to the distance between the two monuments, it’s unfortunately not possible to see them both in the same day. Still, though, to see samples of the 50,000 fossils found from 1,700 different species is worth a trip all its own. Most of the discovered fossils, which were buried in volcanic eruptions 35 million years ago, are small insects, some related to the present-day tsetse fly found in Africa; the massive petrified Sequoia tree stumps are certainly a highlight.

The nearby Hornbek Homestead, an example of the late 1800s homesteading that occurred in Colorado, is also a worthwhile stop when visiting the park. So are the hiking trails that connect it to the rest of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument; the trails are well maintained and present an excellent example of the mountain beauty Colorado has to offer. And, when hiking, make sure to keep your eyes peeled since wildlife encounters are certainly possible in the area.

Hovenweep National Monument

Cortez, CO 81321
(970) 562-4282

Like the Dinosaur National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument is also shared by both Colorado and Utah. The buildings which make up the six locations for the national monument are a collection of Native American ruins that date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They are a group of expanded pueblos and fortress-like towers that are excellent examples of engineering in which the people – possibly related to a branch of those who lived at Mesa Verde – built with the contours of the land, opposed to leveling it before construction. It is believed the area was abandoned due to drought, just like at Mesa Verde.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

55411 County Rd
Eads, CO 81036-9700
(719) 729-3337

On November 29, 1864, more than 650 United States troops under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a group of Cheyenne and Arapho Indians on the banks of the Sand Creek in southeast Colorado, just west of the present-day town of Sheridan Lake. An American and white flag were raised by Chief Black Kettle to indicate to the approaching soldiers that they were peaceful. They had also recently reported to Ft. Lyon, as instructed, to declare themselves as a peaceful people. Nonetheless, Chivington and his men, who were possibly drunk, attacked the encampment, which was largely occupied by women and children – many of the warriors were out hunting.

Today, a marker overlooking the Sand Creek commemorates those who died, and the repercussions from the attack are felt throughout the High Plains; numerous retaliatory battles ensued as a result of the Sand Creek Massacre. This was in part because those responsible and involved were never punished or convicted for the attacks on the Indian encampment. The most notable reprimand was the resignation of Territorial Governor John Evans, which was requested from President Andrew Jackson on July 18, 1865.

While open daily in the warmer months, access to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is restricted in the colder winter months. It is only possible to visit the site at that time with an advanced written request. A stop at the Sand Creek National Historic Site can easily be coupled with a visit to Bents Old Fort National Historic Site, which is only a ninety minute drive, or to a number of the other Plains Indians War locations in the area.

Yucca House National Monument

Cortez, CO 81321

The Yucca House National Monument is located in the far southwest corner of Colorado, not far from the Hovenweep National Monument. The un-excavated Ancestral Puebloan site was designated a national monument in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson, but it was decided it should be preserved for future excavation and research by later generations. It is believed the ten acre site dates to the same time period as around Hovenweep, but little work has been done on the cluster of ruined mounds to learn details of the site. Access fees are not collected to the Yucca House National Monument, so it is a free site to visit.

This story was originally posted on CBSDenver.com.

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