Mesa Verde National Park: Preserving the Works of Man

Mesa Verde National Park is like traveling back in time. Way back in time. It’s simultaneously a history lesson and an outdoor, hiking adventure for people of all ages and fitness levels.

What makes it unique? The shockingly well preserved (and restored) cliff dwellings were built by the Ancestral Pueblo people between AD 600 and 1300 when they migrated from the area. These are some of the most famous and best preserved archeological sites in the country.

Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors may walk, drive, or take a bus tour through the park. Hiking and climbing ladders in and out of cliff dwellings is one option; hikes through less rigorous self-guided trails are also available.

These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

The park is split into a series of sub-mesas, each bearing a different name. There are thousands of archaeological sites across the park and excellent interpretive loops and scenic pullouts.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving time into the park depends on traffic and weather conditions. It is a 15 mile drive along winding, scenic roads from the park entrance to the visitor center and 21 miles from the park entrance to the sites and museum on Chapin Mesa.

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. To truly appreciate the park and to visit several of the cliff dwellings, plan to spend a minimum of two days at the park. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture.

Be sure to stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center to purchase tickets for visiting Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House. Tickets are also available at the Colorado Welcome Center in nearby Cortez. Tickets are $5 per person and must be purchased in person. Tour tickets sell out quickly but can be purchased two days in advance.

The 52,485-acre park and World Heritage Site boasts about 5,000 archaeological sites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 52,485-acre park and World Heritage Site boasts about 5,000 archaeological sites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A tour of Long House, on Wetherill Mesa, can be taken on the same day as a Cliff Palace or Balcony House tour. Tours are strenuous.
There are no height or age restrictions for tours, but children must be capable of walking the extent of the trails, climbing ladders, and negotiating steps independently. All infants must be carried in backpacks while on tours and adults carrying children in backpacks must be able to maintain mobility and balance.

Pets are not allowed on trails, in sites, or in public buildings. Please do not plan to leave your pet in the car while visiting the sites, as summer heat can be deadly in an enclosed vehicle. Several local kennels in Cortez are available.

At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bicycles are allowed on paved roadways only, and are not allowed on the road out to Wetherill Mesa. Hiking is restricted to designated trails only in order to protect the archaeological resources. Trailers are not allowed past the campground

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Mesa Verde is open year-round, but actual schedules vary with the season. The campground and some sites are closed during the winter.

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highlights include:

  • Climb down a ladder underground into an ancient kiva.
  • Take a guided bus and hiking tour through the national park to see many of the more than 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings.
  • Pick and choose between hikes into some of the more notable dwellings, such as the Cliff Palace. Pick your best fit, depending on your ability level, time available, and, well, bravery. There’s one site that requires a pretty high climb up a ladder, and then a tight squeeze through a tunnel. It’s not for everyone. But how often can you get an adrenaline rush touring a historic site?
Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The current entry fee to visit Mesa Verde National Park is $15-20 (fee is good for 7 days); all federal lands passes are accepted.

Worth Pondering…

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time

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