Located in Dolores River Canyon in Montrose County, Dolores Cave was occupied by several different peoples from at least 600 BCE to 1400 CE. Subject to extensive looting in the early twentieth century, the site was professionally excavated in 1946 by Clarence T. Hurst and in 1994 by Mark Stiger. Important items recovered from the cave include a split-twig figurine from 600 BCE, much later and farther east than such figurines are typically found, and a corn cob from 1490 CE, providing evidence of agricultural activity in the area after the Pueblo III period (1150–1300 CE) of the Ancestral Puebloan tradition but before European contact.
In August 1946, Hurst led a team from the Museum of Archaeology at Western State College in Gunnison (now the Clarence T. Hurst Museum at Western State Colorado University) on a two-week field expedition to excavate Dolores Cave. He chose to work at the site because it had already been looted extensively, and he hoped to salvage what he could before pothunters disturbed all the cave’s cultural deposits. Some of the material removed by looters, including two yucca-leaf sandals and the only split-twig figurine found in Colorado, was later recovered and has ended up in collections at Colorado National Monument and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Several areas remained untouched when Hurst started his work in the large cave, which measured seventy-five feet long and thirty-five feet deep. He found clear evidence of continual use of the site for many centuries and discovered cultural deposits up to five feet deep in some places, including projectile points, woven objects, bone fragments, food refuse, and a fireplace.
The cave also contained a yucca-wrapped bundle containing horned owl feathers, a fetish stone, a wooden knife, and deer-leg skins. Hurst had discovered the same collection of objects in Tabeguache Cave as well, although there the objects were found in separate bundles throughout the cave. He believed that a prehistoric warrior may have buried the objects as a prayer for the death of an enemy.
In 1994 Western State anthropologist Mark Stiger reexamined Dolores Cave and found plenty of remaining cultural material. Radiocarbon dating showed that the cave was occupied by hunter-gatherers and late prehistoric farmers from at least 600 BCE to 1400 CE. One dated item of particular significance was a corn cob from 1490 CE, indicating that people in the region, possibly Utes, continued to grow corn between the migration of Ancestral Puebloans away from the area before 1300 CE and the arrival of Europeans several centuries later.