Visiting Mesa Verde National Park: 8 Top Things to See & Do
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This national park is home to some of the most outstanding cliff dwellings in America. Mesa Verde ("Green Table") is a forest-covered mesa in the extreme southwest of Colorado, and the main attractions are dramatic cliffside Indian ruins. An estimated 4,000 protected archaeological sites are found in the park.
Some 2.000 years ago, the river valleys in this region were occupied by nomadic Indians who later took to a settled life. In the 6th century, for reasons that are not completely understood, they moved back to the densely forested plateau and its gorges, where they found fertile soils and a good water supply. The site was abandoned in the 14th century.
The well-preserved remains at Mesa Verde consist of rock habitations of the Anasazi Indians. These include pit houses on the plateau and cliff dwellings on the sides of the canyons, multi-story houses of adobe or stone built round a central square (pueblos), and cult sites (kivas).
Mesa Verde National Park is set on a high plateau that reaches a height of 8,573 feet, rising abruptly to 2,000 feet above the semi-desert foreland of the Rockies.
Cliff dwellings can only be visited on a ranger-led guided tour. Tickets can be purchased for the same day of your visit; however, this is on a first-come, first-served basis. It is strongly recommended that you reserve and purchase your tickets in advance through the park's reservation system. One important note: tickets must be picked up in person 2.5 hours prior to the tour.
Official site: http://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm
1. Cliff Palace
The 150-room Cliff Palace, in a large cave on the east side of Cliff Canyon, is the largest cave settlement in the park and the first to be discovered in 1888.
The Cliff Palace was thought to be an administrative and ceremonial center and home to about 100 people.
This is one of the more accessible tours of the cliff dwellings. Be prepared to descend on uneven steps and ascend four ladders for a total height gain of 100 feet. The tour takes approximately one hour and is limited to 55 people.
2. Balcony House
The Balcony House, with its 40 rooms, is built into a wide, low recess on the wall of Soda Canyon. The cliff dwellings found here are estimated to be 800 years old.
Touring this ancient site is an adventure but worth the effort. You'll climb three ladders, including one that is 32 feet high; squeeze through an 18-inch-wide tunnel that extends for 12 feet; and ascend an uneven walkway for 60 feet. Tours run on a regular basis and are limited to 43 participants.
3. Long House
The Long House is the second largest ruin in the park, with a large open space where dances and ceremonies were performed. It is well worth visiting for its remote location. Many people tend to overlook this site, and you'll likely have a good chance to experience the dwelling without crowds.
Long House is located in the western region of the park on the Wetherill Mesa. To get here, follow the main road until mile marker 15, turn off and follow a steep, winding road downward for 12 miles. A tour here takes approximately 2.5 hours. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
It is important to note that to reach the actual cliff dwelling, a 2.5-mile round-trip hike is required. Vehicles longer than 25 feet and heavier than 8,000 pounds are not permitted on this road.
4. Spruce Tree House
To the southeast of the Park Headquarters area, on the edge of Spruce Canyon, is Spruce Tree House, the best preserved settlement in the park and the 3rd largest. It contains 130 rooms and eight kivas. Approximately 60 to 80 people lived here in the early 13th century.
Due to the unstable sandstone arch above the site, the Spruce Tree House was closed in 2015 and will remain this way for the foreseeable future. However, you can still see the site from a distance from the lookout near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
5. Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde
Hiking in Mesa Verde is a great way to experience the unique ecosystems of the mesas and the canyon floors. Hiking trails are located in two areas: Chapin Mesa and Morefield.
Petroglyph Point Trail:The Petroglyph Point hike is a 2.4-mile loop trail that provides stunning views of the Spruce and Navajo canyons.
Along the way to the lookout, at approximately 1.4 miles, you'll come upon a large panel of rock covered with petroglyphs from the Anasazi people.
The trail is gated, and registration is required either at the Chapin Mesa Museum or at the trailhead.
Spruce Canyon Trail: If you are wondering what it is like down at the bottom of all the canyons you've been peering into, consider the Spruce Canyon hike.
Beginning at the Chapin Mesa Museum, the Spruce Canyon Trail takes you down 500 feet to the canyon floor. The trail then follows the canyon floor before ascending back up to the mesa edge. The total distance is 2.4 miles.
The canyon floor, with its abundant greenery, is a pleasant change from the mesa top area.
The trail is gated, and registration is required either at the Chapin Mesa Museum or at the trailhead
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail: For those looking for a short trail that overlooks an impressive canyon and also provides a great view of the Balcony House, the Soda Canyon Overlook is worth checking out.
The trail is 1.2 miles round trip and traverses level ground.
Knife Edge Trail: For the perfect sunset experience or to snap a great picture, take the Knife Edge trail. This easy, two-mile round-trip trail follows an old road along a narrow ridge. This trail is a good alternative to the Prater Edge trail.
Prater Edge Trail: More adventurous hikers and those camping at Morefield campground may want to try the Prater Edge Trail. This 7.8-mile loop trail takes you along the top of Prater Ridge and provides great views over Montezuma Canyon and Prater Canyon.
The trail is rarely busy, and it's a great spot to see wildlife and wildflowers in the spring.
The elevation gain is 675 feet, so bear this in mind since you'll be hiking at around 7,800 feet. A cutoff halway through provides an escape and makes the trail five miles long.
Point Lookout Trail: One of the most impressive viewpoints in the park is from the Point Lookout trail. Be prepared for a relatively tough slog uphill; the trail rises 500 feet over 2.3 miles. There are 25 switchbacks on the way up.
From the top, you'll have 360-degree views out over the Montezuma and Mancos valleys. Sleeping Ute Mountain and La Plata mountain range are off in the distance.
6. Chapin Mesa Museum
The Chapin Mesa Museum has archaeological remains and Indian arts and crafts. In addition, displays provide in-depth information on what life was like in the pueblos.
The building itself is worth checking out. Dating from 1925, it's constructed of rocks and sandstone from the surrounding area.
Every half hour, on the hour, a 25-minute-long film is shown highlighting the history of the park.
Washrooms and water are available here as well. The lookout to Spruce House is a short walk away.
7. Far View Ruins
The Far View Ruins were occupied between the 10th and 14th centuries.
An access road leads to a parking area, from which a walking trail leads to the Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Mummy Lake, Megalith House, Far View Tower, and Far View Ditch.
The Far View Visitor Center features exhibits of Native American jewelry, pottery, and basket displays.
8. Scenic Drives at Mesa Verde
The Chapin Mesa Museum is the starting point of Ruins Road Drive, which takes in the main features of the Mesa Verde in two long loops: Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace loop. Each loop is six miles long. Mesa Top Loop has more things to see, but Cliff Palace has the two most spectacular attractions.
Mesa Top Loop: The highlights in the western loop are the Square Tower House, the Sun Point Pueblo, and the unfinished Sun Temple.
The Square Tower House is a four-story structure built against the rock wall of the Navajo Canyon.
The Sun Point Pueblo has the remains of a village, which was pulled down by its inhabitants in the 13th century to provide material for new dwellings in a cave in nearby Cliff Canyon.
The unfinished Sun Temple is a large cult building on a D-shaped plan.
Also on this loop is the overlook of Navajo Canyon.
Cliff Palace Loop: On the eastern loop of the road are the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House. You can also access the Soda Canyon hiking trail on this loop.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is the best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park?
The best time to visit the park is from May to October. The park is located at an elevation between 7,000 and 5,500 feet and in the winter, roads can be closed due to snowfall.
Where is the best place to stay near Mesa Verde?
The best place to stay near Mesa Verde is Cortez. Here, you'll find a wide variety of accommodation and dining options. The only option in the park is the Far View Lodge.
Camping is available at the Morefield campground, where you'll find 267 sites. The campground is at an elevation of 7,815 feet, so it will be cold at night.
What about trailers in Mesa Verde National Park?
Trailers are prohibited beyond the Wetherill campground area. If you are just visiting for the day, a large trailer parking lot is available near the entrance gates.