A “Colorado Native” bumper sticker would have been wasted on the region’s first human inhabitants, who arrived long before the invention of the wheel. By the time European explorers made their way to the area, Native Americans including the Utes in the mountains and the Ancestral Puebloans in the southwest had flourishing cultures.

1. Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center

Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center is a museum devoted to dinosaurs and fossils. Photo Credit: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center is a museum devoted to dinosaurs and fossils. Photo Credit: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Our voyage through the state’s prehistory begins before humankind’s tenure, though, with a visit to Woodland Park’s Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (rmdrc.com). Professional fossil hunter Mike Triebold’s facility houses one of the world’s more active paleo labs, a museum and an educational center.

2. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

The "Big Stump" is the largest petrified redwood stump ound in the Florissant Fossil Beds. It measures 12 feet tall, 38 feet around and is all that remains of a tree that may have been over 230 feet tall and 750 years old when a mudflow buried its base. Photo Credit: Mark Reis Photo
The “Big Stump” is the largest petrified redwood stump ound in the Florissant Fossil Beds. It measures 12 feet tall, 38 feet around and is all that remains of a tree that may have been over 230 feet tall and 750 years old when a mudflow buried its base. Photo Credit: Mark Reis Photo

Twenty minutes west is Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (nps.gov/flfo), one of the richer and more diverse fossil deposits on the planet. Archaeological evidence shows the Florissant valley was important to early hunter-gatherer tribes and the Utes, whose connection to the area remains strong.

3. Garden Park Fossil Area

Head south to Garden Park Fossil Area (blm.gov), just north of Cañon City, where the nation’s fossil hunters and scientists began mining for paleo-gold in 1877. Among other noteworthy discoveries, the site yielded the first complete Allosaurus skeleton.

4. Ute Indian Museum

The human narrative continues a few hours to the west, in Montrose, at Ute Indian Museum (visitmontrose.com), which features one of the nation’s more complete collections of Ute artifacts.

5. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument - Bureau of Land Management - flickr
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management (flickr)

A drive southwest brings travelers to the heart of Mesa Verde Country. To the west lies Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (blm.gov), with more than 175,000 acres of protected land containing the country’s largest concentration of archaeological sites; Mesa Verde National Park (nps.gov/meve), whose cliff dwellings are among the more spectacular in North America, is 10 miles south of Cortez. While in the area, be sure to check out the Anasazi Heritage Center (mesaverdecountry.com) in Dolores.

6. Museums of Western Colorado

From there, head north to Fruita, where the Museums of Western Colorado (museumofwesternco.com) boasts a multidisciplinary complex with exhibits on paleontology and the art and culture of Native Americans.

7. Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument offers picturesque scenery, and if you keep traveling, incredible fossils. Photo Credit: nadjarider (iStock)

Continue north into Moffat County to reach Dinosaur National Monument (nps.gov/dino), a protected area straddling the border with Utah whose terrain has yielded a fossil mother lode.

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