Historic Sites In Colorado. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In Colorado that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as well as national parks.
Now if you’re planning a trip to the Centennial State then one book that I highly recommend is: Colorado Bucket List Adventure Guide: Explore 100 Offbeat Destinations You Must Visit!
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
Historic Sites In Colorado
10. Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel No. 6
We begin our list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In Colorado with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel No. 6.
I consider this site to be the most unusual one on the list.
Elitch Gardens Carousel, also known as Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #6 or as the Kit Carson County Carousel, is a Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel located in Burlington, Colorado.
Built in 1905, it’s the oldest working carousel in Colorado. It features a 1909 Wurlitzer organ which is one of only three of its kind still in operation.
Just Who Was Kit Carson?
As a retired history teacher and lifelong history buff, I enjoy filling in the blanks, so to speak, by giving readers more information than they bargained for especially when it comes to historical figures. Since the carousel is named in honor of Kit Carson perhaps you would like to know a little bit more about him.
Kit Carson was perhaps the most famous trapper and guide in the West.
His accomplishments included: creating the Oregon Trial, fighting in the Mexican-American War, creating settlements in the West, and fighting in the Civil War.
Carson traveled with the expeditions of John C. Fremont in the 1840s, leading Fremont through the Great Basin.
Later, Carson guided Stephen Watts Kearney to New Mexico during the Mexican-American War.
Waging War Against The Navajos
Kit Carson is also known, however, for waging a destructive war against the Navajo that resulted in their removal from the Four Corners area to southeastern New Mexico.
When bands of Navajo refused to accept confinement on reservations, Carson terrorized the Navajo lands—burning crops, destroying villages and slaughtering livestock.
Carson rounded up some 8,000 Navajo and marched them across New Mexico for imprisonment on the Bosque Redondo Reservation, over 300 miles from their homes, where they remained for the duration of the war. (Source: History)
If you’re interested in learning more about Carson then I recommend: Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides.
A Carousel Like No Other
The carousel has a fascinating history of its own. It’s the only antique carousel in the country with original paint on both its animals and the paintings on its central core, making it valuable for illustrating the appearance of early American carousels as they were originally produced.
This amazing carousel features forty-six hand-carved animals, supposedly based on the animals that were in the Elitch Gardens zoo.
The animals were also hand-painted with gold-leaf decorations. Arranged in three rows, they move counterclockwise around a platform forty-five feet in diameter.
The carousel is stationary, meaning the animals do not move up and down.
In addition to the animals, the carousel features four chariots. The two red chariots have detailed carvings, while the two blue chariots are painted to look carved. Each chariot has two seats and can carry six passengers.
9. Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Coming in at #9 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.
According to the National Park Service, this site features a reconstructed 1840s adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travelers, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes came together in peaceful terms for trade.
William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain, built the original adobe fort on this site in 1833 to trade with Plains Indians and trappers.
The fort quickly became the center of the expanding holdings of Bent, St. Vrain & Company, including Fort St. Vrain to the north and Fort Adobe to the south, along with company stores in Taos and Santa Fe. The primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians for buffalo robes.
The Only Major Permanent Settlement On The Santa Fe Trail
For much of its 16-year history, the fort was the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements.
The fort provided explorers, adventurers, and the U.S. Army a place to get needed supplies, wagon repairs, livestock, good food, water and company, rest and protection in this vast “Great American Desert.”
During the war with Mexico in 1846, the fort became a staging area for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West.” Disasters and disease caused the fort’s abandonment in 1849. (Source: NPS)
Step Back In Time
Today visitors can step back in time and take a self-guided tour of the fort and discover the role the fort played in opening the west.
Archeological excavations and original sketches, paintings, and diaries were used to replicate the features of the fort, which was reconstructed during the country’s bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial in 1976.
The architecturally accurate, reconstructed fort and its historic setting allow visitors to “step back” in time to learn about and reflect on the westward expansion of the United States.
Interpreters dressed in period clothing are available to answer any questions.
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8. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
At #8 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Beneath a grassy mountain valley in central Colorado lies one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world.
Petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide and thousands of detailed fossils of insects and plants reveal the story of a very different, prehistoric Colorado.
This incredible site features some amazing self guided hikes. Three of my favorites are:
- Petrified Forest Loop: This 1.1 mile self-guided trail leads through the beds of ancient Lake Florissant. It passes numerous giant petrified redwood tree stumps, including the colorful “Big Stump”. This trail starts behind the outdoor exhibit area.
- Geologic Trail: This .6 mile (one way) self-guided trail highlights over a billion years of geologic history in the Florissant Valley. It passes over the ancient lake bed, crosses Teller County Rd. 1, then ascends past the remnants of a massive pyroclastic flow and ends at a scenic overview of the Florissant valley.
- Ponderosa Loop: This is a .4 mile wheelchair accessible trail which starts behind the exhibit area. It’s self-guided and enters the modern forest of ponderosa pines, aspen, douglas fir, and spruce trees. (Source: NPS)
If you’re looking for a longer hike there are over 14 miles of hiking trails in the Monument.
Most of the trails wind through pine covered hills with patches of Aspen and Douglas Fir. Some of the trails pass wet meadows or through riparian areas.
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Historic Sites In Colorado
7. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
At #7 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
I spent almost thirty years teaching history because I believe that, as Robert Heinlein once said, “A generation which ignores history has no past – and no future.”
The Sand Creek Massacre is a case in point.
In 1864, the U. S. Army carried out a surprise attack on a non-combatant encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along the Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado, killing about 160 men, women, and children, including elderly or infirm.
One Of The Most Emotionally Charged & Controversial Events In American History
As the National Park Service notes, since the barbarism of November 29, 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre maintains its status as one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history, a tragedy reflective of its time and place. The Sand Creek Massacre lay in a whirlwind of events and issues exacerbated by the ongoing Civil War.
Critically, the Sand Creek Massacre stands as a testament to a brutality that should be learned from and never repeated, a lesson of what the rejection of conscience in the face of fear and hysteria can lead to, and the suffering that this betrayal has imparted on generations of Arapaho and Cheyenne people.
To learn more, I recommend Sand Creek Massacre by Stan Hoig. This account of the massacre investigates the historical events leading to the battle, tracing the growth of the Indian-white conflict in Colorado Territory.
The author has shown the way in which the discontent stemming from the treaty of Fort Wise, the depredations committed by the Cheyennes and Arapahoes prior to the massacre, and the desire of some of the commanding officers for a bloody victory against the Indians laid the groundwork for the battle at Sand Creek.
What To See At Sand Creek
The site is on the grassland plains of southeast Colorado and remains largely undeveloped, but offers a visitor picnic area and visitor contact station with bookstore. Visitors can access the national historic site via a county road off Colorado State Highway 96.
The Monument Hill area includes an overlook above Big Sandy Creek, a shade structure, and the Repatriation Area. A primitive trail continues along the bluff beyond the Monument Hill overlook, overlooking the creek bed and following the course of the massacre as tribal members fled along the creek with soldiers in pursuit.
A number of interim interpretive wayside exhibits provide visitors with information about the massacre. Visitor information is also provided by a ranger-led interpretive program, a park brochure, site bulletins, and other printed material.
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6. Dinosaur National Monument
Coming in at #6 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is Dinosaur National Monument.
What a hidden gem straddling the remote northern corners of two states, Colorado and Utah. The common refrain here is that if you’re interested in dinosaurs you’ll love this monument – which is true, but it vastly undersells this sprawling and immensely beautiful monument.
In addition to the famous dinosaur quarry and countless immaculately preserved dinosaur bones and skulls from various species, the park is home to over 200,000 acres of outdoor grandeur.
Here you can peer into the depths of stunning red rock canyons, whitewater raft the world-class Green or Yampa rivers, explore historic cabins and ponder ancient petroglyphs, camp out under a star-studded sky, and of course hike numerous trails venturing into the rugged and beautiful surroundings.
And while you’re there be sure to check out the Quarry Exhibit Hall which allows visitors to view the wall of approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones in a refurbished, comfortable space.
Here, you can gaze upon the remains of numerous different species of dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic period, including Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus along with several others.
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Top 5 Historic Sites In Utah
5. Granada War Relocation Center
We’re on to the Top 5 Historic Sites In Colorado. At #5 we have the Granada War Relocation Center.
To set the stage for this important site, a brief history lesson is in order. Have no fear! The History Teacher is here! And besides, I never assign homework.
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, led to the United States’ entry into World War Two, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.
The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”
This allowed for the removal from these areas of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry, out of fear that they might support Japan in the war.
Executive Order #9102
In March 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency responsible for the evacuation, relocation, and internment of Japanese Americans and the construction and administration of relocation centers throughout the United States.
In 1942, an area in southeastern Colorado was selected as a relocation center camp site by the WRA.
Governor Ralph L. Carr of Colorado had been the only western governor to welcome evacuees in his state, volunteering Colorado for a relocation center and urging acceptance and understanding for Japanese Americans.
Camp Amache had been under construction for only two months when it received its first 212 evacuees on August 27, 1942. Even though the center was not complete, 15 groups of evacuees moved into Amache over a three month period.
By the end of October, Camp Amache had over 7,300 internees. The first winter at the center was particularly hard as most of the internees were from California and had no heavy clothing. A family consisting of seven or fewer members was assigned to one cramped room measuring 20 by 24 feet.
The internees were allowed to decorate the rooms and attempted to make them as homelike as possible with shelves, partitions, and crude furniture made from scrap wood.
While Camp Amache was the smallest of the 10 relocation centers, it was the tenth largest city in Colorado, and more than 10,000 people eventually passed through the center before it closed in 1945.
Take A Deeper Dive
To learn more about this tragic chapter of American history I recommend: Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II.
Acclaimed historian Richard Reeves has interviewed survivors, read numerous private letters and memoirs, and combed through archives to deliver a sweeping narrative of this atrocity.
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4. United States Air Force Academy
We’re on to the final four. At #4 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is the United States Air Force Academy.
The U.S Air Force Academy was established April 1, 1954, the culmination of an idea years in the making.
Long before the Air Force was a separate service, its leaders argued that they needed a school dedicated to war in the air, to train Airmen.
On March 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-276, authorizing both the Air Force Academy and West Point to expand to the Naval Academy’s strength of 4,417.
The Most Controversial Event
The most controversial event in the Academy’s history was the admission of women.
President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation Oct. 7, 1975, permitting women to enter the military academies. Women first entered the Air Force Academy June 28, 1976.
The first class including women graduated in 1980 and included the Academy’s first woman to be superintendent, retired Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson.
The Top 6 Attractions At The Air Force Academy
A visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy is truly worth it. There are so many wonderful things to see and do. Here’s our Pick Six:
- Cadet Chapel: It encompasses the beauty of midcentury-modern architecture with inspiration from Air Force vessels. With stained glass symbols and historical accents, each congregation center has its own beauty.
- Chapel Overlook: It offers visitors great view of the Cadet Area. For a special treat, arrive just before noon and watch the orchestrated cadet lunch formation.
- The B-52 Display: All visitors must access the base through the north gate, this display will be hard to miss. This authentic B-52 bomber is truly awe inspiring.
- Cadet Field House & Falcon Athletic Center: It’s a mega-sized sports arena is home to Clune Arena (basketball), ice rink and indoor track.
- Barry Goldwater Visitor Center: The visitor center hosts exhibits of the campus and a mock cadet dorm room. The visitor center also has a short movie showing everyday cadet life, complete with a snippet of the graduation hat toss and Thunderbird flyover.
- USAFA Planetarium: It’s a state-of-the-art facility with reclining seats, inter-connectivity with planetariums around the world and a live feed from the largest publicly accessed telescope in Colorado, also accessible at the Academy’s Observatory.
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Historic Sites In Colorado
3. Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
At #3 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park.
When people think about a national park they don’t always thing about its history. Often, it’s nature and recreational activities which are uppermost on peoples minds.
I plan to leave the “things to do” list to the friendly folks at the National Park Service, however, and focus on the park’s history instead.
A Short History Of The Black Canyon Of The Gunnison
John Williams Gunnison was a West Point graduate. In 1853, he would lead an expedition into the canyon which became his claim to fame.
Gunnison spent much of his life exploring new lands. He and his survey crew mapped much of the border land and the shores of Lake Michigan. Later he explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake region and gathered scientific information about their surroundings.
According to the National Park Service, Lieutenant Gunnison was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853 largely due to his successes in Utah and the Great Lakes region. Gunnison longed to begin a new adventure and to return to the Western United States that he had come to love. He would get his chance.
On September 7th, 1853, the Gunnison Expedition first glimpsed the relatively tame section of the Black Canyon at Lake Fork. The report of the expedition described the area as “a stream imbedded in [a] narrow and sinuous canyon, resembling a huge snake in motion.”
The report continues, “To look down over…the canyon below, it seems easy to construct a railroad; but immense amounts of cutting, filling and masonry would be required.”
Gunnison Made The Ultimate Sacrifice
Gunnison and his men continued their explorations through the canyon. According to the National Park Service, they decided to navigate around what is now known as the Black Canyon and follow an easier route west through the present day town of Montrose.
When the expedition finally reached Utah, Gunnison witnessed the destruction left by Paiute Indian raids on Mormon settlements.
Local residents told the expedition that the attacks were not a serious threat because peace talks had just taken place. After a trip for provisions to the town of Fillmore, Gunnison divided the troops to make up for lost time.
He went ahead with a crew of soldiers and guides on October 25. His party camped along the bank of the Sevier River. The attack came during the early hours of the next morning. Only four men of his party survived.
John W. Gunnison never returned home to his family.
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2. Pikes Peak
In the runner-up spot at #2 on our list of the best historic sites in Colorado is Pikes Peak.
This historic mountain was named for explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who discovered the existence of the mountain in 1806.
Long before Pike arrived, however, the Ute Indians followed trails along the mountain during their hunting and gathering expeditions.
The Utes called Pikes Peak “Sun Mountain Sitting Big” and believed that it was here that the Great Spirit created the world.
Older Than The Rockies
The mountain’s rocks and stones may be over 2.3 billion years old. This would make them older than the Rockies!
Pikes Peak is the 31st highest peak out of 54 Colorado peaks.
It is the farthest east of the big peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain, which contributed to its early fame among explorers, pioneers and immigrants and made it the symbol of the 1859 Gold Rush to Colorado with the slogan, “Pikes Peak or Bust”.
On July 14, 1820, Edwin James recorded the first ascent to the summit of Pikes Peak. It was also the first recorded ascent of a 14er in North America.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zebulon Pike and the Peak that is named after him then I recommend: Zebulon Pike: The Life and Legacy of One of Early America’s Most Important Explorers by Charles River Editors.
Things To Do At Pikes Peak
Visitors to the area have several options for experiencing the iconic 14,115-foot peak’s soaring heights. They include:
- Pikes Peak Train: This cherry red train takes you up 9 miles of track — pass thick conifer forests, aspen groves and more — to the top of America’s Mountain, while conductors delight with history and lore about the peak and local area.
- Pikes Peak Highway: You can travel 19 miles past the North Pole Home of Santa’s Workshop Amusement Park, a handful of reservoirs, Glen Cove Inn, picnic areas, visitors centers, scenic overlooks and interpretive areas and peekaboo moments with Pikes Peak itself.
- Cycle To The Summit: Biking the highway is also an option. Find regulations and safety tips. Worried about the uphill climb? Opt for a trip with an outfitter like Bike Pikes Peak, who will shuttle you and your bike (or provide you with one) to the top of the summit so you can enjoy the easy 7,000-foot descent.
- Hiking Trails: The most popular route for climbing to the summit is Barr Trail, a 13-mile trek with a gain of 8,000 feet in elevation that starts in Manitou Springs. Its length, high altitude, many switchbacks and unpredictable weather in any season mean only experienced and well-prepared hikers (warm clothing, plenty of water and food) should attempt the full route to the summit.
- Garden Of The Gods: The view of Pikes Peak from the balcony of the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center in Colorado Springs is one of the best. The free attraction’s red-sandstone formations frame the peak spectacularly, surely one of the reasons the park has been named a National Natural Landmark. (Source: Come To Life Colorado)
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The #1 Historic Site In Colorado
1. Mesa Verde National Park
At the #1 Historic Site In Colorado, we have selected Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde is a sacred place. As the National Park Service notes, for over 700 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people built thriving communities on the mesas and in the cliffs of Mesa Verde.
Today, the park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 Pueblos and Tribes and offers visitors a spectacular window into the past.
This World Heritage Site and International Dark Sky Park is home to over a thousand species, including several that live nowhere else on earth.
The Cliff Dwellings At Mesa Verde
The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best preserved in North America.
Sometime during the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa tops for 600 years, many Ancestral Pueblo people began moving into pueblos they built into natural cliff alcoves.
The structures ranged in size from one-room granaries to villages of more than 150 rooms.
While still farming the mesa tops, they lived in cliff dwellings, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century.
In the mid-1200s, the population began migrating to the south, into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By the end of the 1200s, most everyone had migrated away. (Source: NPS)
Spruce Tree House is the best preserved cliff dwelling in the Mesa Verde National Park. It is the third largest cliff dwelling behind Cliff Palace and Long House and was constructed sometime between 1211 and 1278. The dwelling has around 130 rooms and 8 kivas and was estimated to be the home to around 60 to 80 people.
The cliff dwelling was first discovered in 1888, when two local ranchers chanced upon it while searching for stray cattle.
A large tree, which they identified as a Douglas Spruce (later called Douglas Fir), was found growing from the front of the dwelling to the mesa top. It is said that the men first entered the dwelling by climbing down this tree, which was later cut down by another early explorer.
Map Of Historic Sites In Colorado
List Of Historic Sites In Colorado
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Pikes Peak
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- United States Air Force Academy
- Granada War Relocation Center
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
- Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
- Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel No. 6
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and proud dad of these two guys hopelessly obsessed with the national parks.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested joining the adventure, sign up below!
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