Historic downtown in Durango, Colorado. Image credit Alizada Studios via Shutterstock

8 Most Inviting Towns in the Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau is a large, high desert region in the southwestern United States, covering parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is famous for its stunning geological formations, including towering sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, gulches, mesas, and buttes. Encompassing an expansive basin of about 150,580 square miles, the Plateau was named by John Wesley Powell, who led the 1869 expedition on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and is one of the most influential figures in American exploration. Hidden in the Plateau's rich history are eight small towns inviting visitors to explore the area, put up their feet, and stay awhile.

Bluff, Utah

Reconstruction of utensils and patio of the Mormon pioneers of San Juan region in Bluff, Utah.
Reconstruction of the Mormon pioneers of San Juan region in Bluff, Utah. Image credit Victoria via stock.adobe.com

The inviting town of Bluff, part of the stunning landscape of southeastern Utah, offers visitors a gateway to adventure amidst rugged red rock canyons and the serene San Juan River. The historic town is along the Trail of the Ancients—a National Scenic Byway located in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States—which highlights the rich heritage of the Native American civilizations, including the Ancestral Puebloans, Navajo, Ute, and Hopi peoples.

Amateur archaeologists flock to Bluff to explore sites like Bears Ears National Monument, named after two buttes that resemble the top of a bear’s head. Despite recent presidential spats over the size of the monument's boundaries, it presently encompasses 1.36 million acres and is one of the most extensive archaeological areas on earth. Another spectacular area to discover near Bluff is the Hovenweep National Monument, which contains six prehistoric Puebloan villages built between 1200 and 1300. The monument is also a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, where visitors can stargaze from the onsite campground. On a clear night, visitors can spot the International Space Station as it flies overhead.

Not surprisingly, outdoor enthusiasts love Bluff for its opportunities to hike, camp, and see the iconic Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and Natural Bridges National Monument, a series of magnificent stone bridges carved by water over a million years ago.

Williams, Arizona

Street scene with classic car in front of souvenir shops in Williams, Arizona.
Street scene with a classic car in front of souvenir shops in Williams, Arizona. Image credit jcg_oida via stock.adobe.com

Williams is a historic town at the base of Bill Williams Mountain. It is named in honor of Bill Williams, a legendary fur trapper and explorer who played a significant role in the settlement of the region and who, along with the Bill Williams Mountain Men, are primarily credited with mapping the American Southwest. The town is also called “The Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” thanks to its proximity to the national park. Visitors can take “The Grand Canyon Railway” from town to the Southern edge of the Grand Canyon on a one-of-a-kind train ride featuring Western musicians and cowboys on vintage rail cars.

Just a few miles outside Williams is the 160-acre Bearizona Wildlife Park, a neat wildlife attraction where visitors can drive through more than three miles of Ponderosa Pine Forest to view North American animals such as bears, wolves, bison, and elk. The park also features Fort Bearizona, a beautiful 20-acre walk-through area along winding paths, which is more of a “zoo” typesetting.

Durango, Colorado

A view of Main Avenue in Durango, featuring Strater Hotel.
Main Avenue in Durango, featuring Strater Hotel. Image credit WorldPictures via Shutterstock

The largest town in southwestern Colorado, Durango, with about 19,500 residents, is a popular spot for outdoor adventurers. The historic downtown area is full of welcoming boutique hotels, one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, and relaxed brewpubs. Main Street is definitely the go-to area for small-batch coffees at the 81310 Coffee House, a Picnic Charcuterie from Laura’s Artisan Café, ice cream at Cream Bean Berry, not to mention Ska Brewing.

Durango is on the shores of the beautiful Animas River, and there are so many ways to spend time enjoying the great outdoors, including hiking the 7.1-mile Animas River Trail, mountain biking in nearby Purgatory Resort, or horseback riding at former-dude-ranch Colorado Trails Ranch. Popular attractions in the area include the Four Corners Monument, famous long before the scene in Breaking Bad, the San Juan National Forest, and the Chimney Rock National Monument, where visitors can walk in the footsteps of the fascinating Ancestral Puebloans on paths that haven’t changed for over the years. Chimney Rock is seven square miles and is home to 200 ancient and ceremonial buildings, some of which have been excavated: a Great Kiva, a Pit House, a Multi-Family Dwelling, and a Chacoan-style Great House Pueblo.

Trainspotters will want to see the iconic Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge, which has operated between Durango and Silverton since 1882. The scenic round-trip Silverton train departs from the Durango Depot through the Rocky Mountains with views of the San Juan National Forest as visitors travel alongside the beautiful Animas River to the historic mining town of Silverton.

Sedona, Arizona

Downtown Sedona, Arizona.
Downtown Sedona, Arizona. Image credit Red Lemon via Shutterstock

Sedona, or “Red Rock Country,” is a beautiful town of around 9,200 residents, surrounded by stunning red sandstone formations that have become iconic symbols of Sedona’s natural beauty. Also called the “Spiritual Mecca” or the “New Age Capital,” Sedona has a reputation for being a spiritual and artistic center with many activities centered on wellness, including “vortex” sites believed to emit energy. Visitors seeking an enriching experience in Sedona may want to visit one of the most well-known vortex sites, Bell Rock, where many claim to report feeling a strong energy presence at its base. Other vortex sites include Cathedral Rocks, Airport Mesa, and Boynton Canyon.

In downtown Sedona, visitors can tap into their creative energy with a visit to one of over 80 galleries in this small town. Or drive along the Red Rock Scenic Byway or Gallery Row, renowned for its arts scene and diverse artwork, including pottery, paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. Gallery Row is also home to cafés, restaurants, and eclectic shops. The Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village has been a Sedona landmark since 1970. It includes a collection of galleries and restaurants like the Oak Creek Brewery & Grill, where visitors can enjoy craft beer brewed on the premises with a Tlaquepaque burger or Huevos Rancheros with a Sedona Sunrise at The Secret Garden Café.

Gallup, New Mexico

Native Americans & Navajo at 98th Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, New Mexico
98th Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, in Gallup, New Mexico. Image credit Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock

Tucked in the state's northwestern corner, near the Arizona border, Gallup blends rugged beauty, vibrant colors, and ancient geological formations, perfect for outdoor adventure and exploration. A hiker’s paradise, Gallup’s Red Rock Park is a 640-acre park featuring 280 million-year-old red sandstone cliffs. The park has two hiking trails: the 2.2-mile Church Rock Trail that leads hikers to the spectacular Church Rock and the 3-mile Pyramid Rock Trail that ends at the highest point in the park at an elevation of 7,487 feet where from the summit, visitors can view historic bunkers of Fort Wingate and the Zuni Mountains. Red Rock Park also features the Red Rock Museum, which is full of incredible Anasazi and Navajo artifacts.

Along famed Route 66, visitors can get their kicks in downtown Gallup with a visit to the Gallup Cultural Center or the Rex Museum. The museum, a one-time brothel and later a grocery store, now hosts local and traveling exhibits. Visitors can immerse themselves in the thriving arts scene by taking the Downtown Mural Walking Tour, which showcases the community's history and culture. Discover authentic jewelry, pottery, arts, Kachina dolls, and more by visiting one of Gallup’s local trading posts, like the Gallup Trading Company or the Perry Null Trading Company. Every Saturday, the town hosts the Gallup 9th Street Flea Market, where over 500 vendors and talented artists sell their crafts.

Cortez, Colorado

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado.
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado.

The small town of Cortez is often overshadowed in favor of its more touristy neighbors like Durango, Telluride, and Utah’s spectacular National Parks—Arches and Canyonlands. It’s only eight miles from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the state's most revered treasures. Still, perhaps the best way to see Cortez and the surrounding areas is to drive the 114-mile Trail of the Ancients scenic byway through Mesa Verde National Park, home to well-preserved cliffing dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived there between 600 and 1300. Some of the most famous cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde include Balcony House, Long House, and Cliff Palace—the largest cliff dwelling in North America with 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round, subterranean rooms used for rituals and ceremonies).

Just outside of Cortez, the 176,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a breathtaking landscape containing the highest concentration of archaeological sites in the United States. Take the time to explore 6,000 ancient sites, including cliff dwellings, villages, and rock art, on a self-guided tour with miles of trails ideal for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Back in town, visitors can discover Colorado wineries like Sutcliffe Vineyards, enjoy a tasting flight of small-batch wines at Yellow Car Country Wines, and sample local cuisine at Main Street Brewery and Restaurant, the Farm Bistro, and Stonefish Sushi.

Kayenta, Arizona

Church Rock near Kayenta, Arizona.
Church Rock near Kayenta, Arizona.

Kayenta is a culturally rich destination that offers a glimpse into the traditions, history, and natural beauty of the Navajo Nation. The gateway to the iconic 91,696-acre Monument Valley, Kayenta is one of the closest town to the Navajo Tribal Park. Visitors can explore the park by car, taking a 17-mile loop drive to view the scenic beauty and magnificent rock formations, by booking a guided tour, or by purchasing a hiking permit. Most of the hikes through this sacred Navajo land are strenuous hikes, designed for physically fit visitors. Other areas to explore in the park include Canyon de Chelly and Antelope Canyon, but these are only available through guided tours led by Navajo guides, who can offer a unique perspective not typically found in national park experiences.

After a day of soaking in the area’s breathtaking sites, stop at a Kayenta landmark, Amigo Café, for a lemonata and a plate of chalupas, or visit the popular Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant. For authentic Native American Arts and Crafts, visit the Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise. It sells jewelry from local vendors, pottery, moccasins, Navajo cradleboards, Navajo rugs, Native American Church instruments, and peyote fans.

Torrey, Utah

The historic Torrey Log Church-Schoolhouse in Torrey, Utah
The historic Torrey Log Church-Schoolhouse in Torrey, Utah. Image credit A.E. Crane, https://www.byways.org via Wikimedia Commons

This inviting town of 274 residents sits at an elevation of 6,830 feet and spans only a few blocks along State Route 24, but it still manages to offer tourists plenty to see and do. While it might be considered a quick stop on the way in or out of Capitol Reef National Park, there are quite a few eateries in town, including The Wild Rabbit Café, which serves coffee for local Shooke Coffee Roasters and Dark Sky Coffee, or Hunt & Gather Restaurant featuring beer from Utah’s Red Rock Brewery, tempting visitors to stay a while.

Capital Reef National Park is considered the center of “Utah’s Mighty Five” National Parks, along with Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Arches, but is the less crowded park of the five. An excellent place to start exploring the park is by driving the 8-mile paved road known as the Capital Reef Scenic Drive, leading to two dirt spur roads, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. Outdoor enthusiasts will love camping, hiking, and canyoneering or slot canyon hikes, best accomplished with the help of a local guide. Be sure to stop in the tiny turn-of-the-century town of Fruita to, what else, pick fruit. Historic attractions include the Fruita Schoolhouse, the old Blacksmith Shop, the Fremont petroglyphs, and the Gifford Homestead.

In the heart of the American Southwest, these eight towns offer a blend of natural wonders and cultural richness. Bluff, Utah, invites exploration amidst red rock canyons and ancient civilizations along the Trail of the Ancients. Williams, Arizona, stands as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, while Durango, Colorado, charms visitors with its historic downtown. Spiritual Sedona, Arizona, invites visitors to re-energize, while Gallup, New Mexico, rewards hikers with its highest peak. Cortez, Colorado, serves as a portal to Mesa Verde's ancient cliff dwellings, and Kayenta, Arizona, showcases Navajo traditions against the backdrop of Monument Valley. Finally, Torrey, Utah, offers a serene escape amid Capitol Reef's red rock landscapes.

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