While on a fall birthday trip to take a ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in October 2009, we took a short ride to check out Mesa Verde National Park. The park has some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we decided to visit, but it was definitely more interesting than I have envisioned.
As I said, I didn’t know much about the park, (except that its name in English meant Green Table) but I did some research and found out it was created by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 29, 1906, occupies 52,485 acres, is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S., and contains more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.
This was what I wanted to see the most, and I wasn’t disappointed. Before I share some of the cliff dwellings we saw, I want to share a little history. During the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa top for 600 years, many Ancestral Puebloans began living in pueblos they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. The structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms.
However, in the late 1270s, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended. Below is a list of 5 of the most impressive cliff dwellings:
- Balcony House is a medium-sized cliff dwelling with 40 rooms, including two kivas. Although not visible from the roadway, you can view Balcony House from the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail, a
1.25 mile (1.9 km) roundtrip hike.
- Cliff Palace is the park’s largest cliff dwelling. You will find several views from overlooks; all from different angles and all worthwhile. On the Mesa Top Loop Drive, they recommend stopping at Sun Point View to see it and several other cliff dwellings along the canyon walls.
- Long House
- Spruce Tree House is the park’s third largest and best-preserved cliff dwelling. Constructed between 1211 and 1278, it was built into a natural alcove. It contains 130 rooms, eight kivas, and may have housed 60 to 80 people. You can observe Spruce Tree House from points near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
- Step House
We had our dog Dolly (pre-Belle) so we weren’t able to take any tours, but we learned that they have half-day ranger-guided bus tours are available for visitors wishing to share up-to-date knowledge of a variety of sites. A driver-guided tour to Far View and Mesa Topsites is also available. Other tours range from independent self-guided to ranger-led walking tours and ranger-guided half-day bus tours. Ranger-led walking tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House are available on varying schedules, admission ticket purchases are required for a nominal fee.
Many sites in Mesa Verde may be visited by individuals without a ranger/guide, free of charge. Since we had Dolly with us (pre-Belle), we wondered on our own. We didn’t have to leave her in the car too long.
Here are some of the tours available:
Mesa Top Loop Road is a 6-mile (10 km) drive with short paved trails to view twelve easily-accessible archeological sites, including surface sites and cliff dwelling overlooks. Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily from 8:00 am to sunset.
Cliff Palace Loop Road is open daily from 8:00 am to sunset. Highlights include a spectacular view of Cliff Palace and the 1.2 miles (1.9 km) Soda Canyon Overlook Trail with views of Balcony House.
Petroglyph Point Trail begins near the museum. This adventurous trail winds below the edge of Chapin Mesa and leads to a large petroglyph panel
located 1.4 miles (2.3 km) from the trailhead. The trail is rugged and rocky along the canyon wall to the panel. After the panel, you’ll scramble up a
large stone staircase to the top, and enjoy an easy return through the forest to complete the loop. Register at the trailhead. Bring plenty of water!
Spruce Canyon Trail starts from the top of Chapin Mesa and follows along the bottom of Spruce Canyon. This scenic trail winds through interesting wildlife habitats. A steep climb leads out of the canyon and then passes through the picnic area before returning to the museum. Register at the
trailhead. Bring plenty of water!
Far View Sites Complex is a mesa top community that was a place of modest homes interspersed with small farm fields between 900 and 1300. Follow the woodland trail among six sites to learn about Ancestral Pueblo life in
the surrounding landscape. The level, unpaved ¾-mile trail (1.2 km) is open from 8:00 am to sunset. Parking is limited to vehicles under 25 feet.
After running around the park for a few hours we took a break and stopped to eat some sandwiches we had packed while enjoying the beauty surrounding Mesa Verde. We wish we had more time, and maybe one day we can spend a couple of days exploring the park more. In the meantime, it was great to see and learn some history of the Ancestral Puebloans. Here is a link to their website with more info, hours, directions, etc.
Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Information
PO Box 8
Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
Jan 2 to Apr 11, 9 am – 4:30 pm
Apr 12 – Sept 6, 8 am – 6:30 pm
Sept 7 to Oct 17, 8 am – 5 pm
Oct 18 to Dec 31, 9 am – 4:30 pm.
Car $20-$30 depending on the time of year
Motorcycle $15-$25 depending on the time of year
Bicyclist $10-$15 depending on the time of year
The fee is good for entrance for 7 days. They also have an annual pass for $55 and they accept America the Beautiful passes.
Mesa Verde National Park is in Southwestern Colorado. The park entrance is along Highway 160 between the towns of Mancos and Cortez, Colorado, and about 35 miles west of Durango, Colorado. Once you enter the park, the first view of a cliff dwelling is 21 miles (approximately 45 minutes) along a steep, narrow, and winding road.
Mesa Verde National Park has accessibility limitations for people with vision, hearing, or mobility impairments. Visitors encounter rugged terrain at an elevation of 7,000 to 8,500 feet. Steep cliffs, deep canyons, and narrow trails can be a danger to all visitors. Persons with heart or respiratory ailments may have breathing problems at this altitude. Wheelchairs with wide-rim wheels are recommended on trails.
Archeological structures are fragile. Take care not to touch, sit, stand, climb, or lean on walls.
Leashed pets can be walked along paved roads and in parking lots. Pets are not allowed on trails, in archeological sites, or in buildings. Do not leave
Help keep wildlife wild. It is illegal to feed, stalk, capture, or tease wildlife.
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