Mesa Verde National Park was the twenty-third US national park we visited. Unlike the other fifty-eight national parks, Mesa Verde is not known for its natural scenery, but rather for its historic value. In this park, there are over six hundred, well-preserved cliff dwellings, once inhabited by thousands of Puebloan people over eight hundred years ago. Their design and architectural innovation are completely astounding, and thousands of people from all over the world visit the park each year to marvel at these ancient homes.
Brendan and I visited Mesa Verde National Park on a day trip from Durango, Colorado, in late June 2018, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Being history and science nerds, we are fascinated by learning about the past, and such early north American history is even more interesting to us. Touring these 800+ year old structures and seeing them up close was especially amazing, and we highly recommend doing the following activities if you make it to this park.
Every national park trip should begin at the visitor’s center. Packed with history, information, tips, and more, they are essentially your key to the park you are visiting. Here, we learned how Coloradan settlers “discovered” Mesa Verde, the derivation of its name, how it was constructed in 1200 A.D., the history of the people who once inhabited this area, and much, much more.
At the visitor’s center, you can also purchase tickets to tour the various dwellings. There are a few self-guided tours, but the best sections of the park require a ranger-guided tour to see, and these tickets can be purchased in person one to two days ahead of time. Luckily, we were able to reserve two slots for the Cliff Palace tour at the Visit Durango tourism office. In addition to Cliff Palace, you can also tour Balcony House and Long House. We didn’t see these two sections of dwellings, but we have heard that they are extremely worthwhile and hope to see them on a future visit.
Since there are a limited number of tickets available per day, in the peak season (late spring, summer, and early fall), we highly recommend purchasing tour tickets a day ahead of time (at the park or at the Durango tourism office), or at the visitor center’s on the day you plan to visit. If you purchase tickets day of, it is best to arrive early to ensure you are able to gain a ticket. They cost five dollars per person.
Within Mesa Verde National Park, there are two main area. The first is Chapin Mesa, where the most popular hikes, drives, and tours are located. Chapin Mesa is located about forty-five minutes from the park’s visitor’s center. Wetherill Mesa is located almost directly across from Chapin Mesa, but is about a forty-minute drive from it, as it requires backtracking and an additional descent down a long road. This section will highlight all that there is to do in the Chapin Mesa section of the park.
Tour Cliff Palace
This was easily the most memorable part of the day. Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwelling “cities,” and it is estimated to have been home to about one-hundred-fifty people. If you are not able to gain a ticket to tour this dwelling, you can view it from the overlook above, or from several other overlooks throughout the park (Sun Point and Sun Temple each include great but faraway views of Cliff Palace).
However, there is nothing quite like seeing it up close and having a ranger guide for questions and additional information. Our guide was so friendly, and she told us many facts about the dwelling that we would not have otherwise known. We were also able to get a close-up look inside a kiva and one of the homes, which included a painting on the wall. Tours cost five dollars per person and are about an hour long. Keep in mind that they do include a one hundred foot descent down to the dwelling and a one hundred foot ascent back up to the main road. Proper footwear is also recommended, as you must down-climb one ladder and up-climb three ladders.
Drive Cliff Palace Loop
If you are already planning to tour Cliff House, you should also plan to drive the Cliff Palace Loop. Along this short loop, there are several various pull-offs where you can see dwellings across the canyon on another mesa. These dwellings are all closed to the public, so the only way to see them is to stop at the overlooks. On this loop, you can also hike the Soda Canyon Trail, which is the only way to overlook Balcony House (about 1.2 miles out-and-back). In addition, the Balcony House tour begins on this loop. Keep in mind that this loop closes at sunset.
Mesa Top Loop Road
This was my favorite driving area in the park. Along this six-mile loop, there are twelve stops, each featuring various historical sites. Along this loop, we saw the remains of a few pithouses, which were the initial homes of the Puebloans of Mesa Verde. We also saw a few far away dwellings, including Square Tower House, the tallest structure in the park at four stories high. Highlights also include Sun Point Overlook, Pueblo Village, Navajo Canyon View, and the Sun Temple, which is a large, above-ground structure thought to be a sort of shared religious commune available for use by all the inhabitants of Mesa Verde.
Spruce Tree House
Unfortunately, the hike to this section of dwellings is currently closed due to safety concerns caused by various rock falls. However, you can hike about a quarter of a mile down to a great viewpoint of the dwellings. This mini hike starts at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and offers a pretty decent view of Spruce Tree House, which is said to be the best-preserved section of dwellings within the park. This one was particularly interesting to me, as it includes one complex that is three units high by four units wide, almost like an ancient apartment building.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is located along the Spruce Tree House loop and is well worth a quick stop. Here, there are many original artifacts excavated from the original dwellings. These include pottery, tools, baskets, and much more, all excellently preserved. You can also view a short film here, packed full of even more information about the park. We only spent about forty minutes here and still managed to garner even more information about this fascinating park.
Cedar Tree Tower
Cedar Tree Tower is an ancient Puebloan tower and kiva that are fairly well-preserved. These can both be viewed directly from the road and are open from 8am until sunset. This is located about two miles north of the main Chapin Mesa area.
Far View Sites Complex
This area is located about four miles north of the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. Along this .75-mile paved trail, you can view four separate villages, a dry reservoir, and Far View House across the canyon. It is also open from 8am to sunset.
We missed this on our initial visit to Mesa Verde National Park, but if you have the time, there are a few sites worth seeing at Wetherill Mesa. This is about a forty minute drive from Chapin Mesa, and we have heard that it is considerably quieter than Chapin Mesa due to its further distance. Here, you will find the Step House, Long House, and the Badger House Community Trails, as well as Norgenskold Overlook trail, Kodak House Overlook trail and Long House overlook trail. This mesa’s features are open from 8am until sunset.
The Step House is a self-guided tour that is about one miles round trip. Keep in mind that this trail is only partially paved and involves a 100-foot ascent and a 100-foot descent. It includes some petroglyphs, and the remains of both a cliff dwelling and a pit house. It is open from 8am to sunset during the summer months only.
The Badger House Trail is a 2.25-mile long trail that takes visitors to an ancient community surface area. The trail is only partially paved and is available from May to October. Additional trails along this mesa lead to overlooks of various cliff dwellings and are moderately-rated.
Tips and Tricks
After our visit to Mesa Verde National Park, we can offer a few tips that will make your visit smoother and easier.
- Plan at least one full day if you can, but two days would be even better. Although we saw quite a bit on our day trip, we could have seen just about everything in the park if we had planned an additional day. However, this just gives us more of a reason to return.
- Wear proper footwear. Many of the guided tours (and even some of the self-guided tours) require some minor ladder climbing and some walking on loose gravel. Sneakers, hiking boots, or hiking sandals (I wore my Tevas and saw several others in Chacos) are best for the trails and tours at Mesa Verde.
- Bring lunch and/or snacks! This park is fairly far removed from nearby towns, and there is not much food available, besides some granola bars at the visitors center. There are picnic tables scattered throughout the park, and we packed lunch and enjoyed it with a nice view. Nearby towns are Cortez and Durango, which are each about forty minutes from the visitor’s center and about an hour and a half from Chapin and Wetherill Mesas, but in opposite directions of each other.
- Keep in mind that this park has an opening and closing time. Most trails, drives, and overlooks are available from 8am until sunset.
- I mentioned this before, but purchase ranger-guided tour tickets either ahead of time or early the day of the tour. You do not want to miss getting a ticket to tour at least one section of the dwellings.
In short, Mesa Verde is a fascinating national park that we thoroughly enjoyed. Learning the ancient history of the Puebloan people who once lived here was fascinating, and it was even more interesting to learn of the mystery surrounding their departure from their cliff homes. Yes, it’s true, historians, scientists, and archeologists alike still have yet to determine the exact reason the Puebloan people migrated from their essentially perfect homes. Perhaps there was a drought, a food shortage, overpopulation, or any other number of issues, but the exact cause is unknown, and I kind of like it that way. And if you’re lucky enough, you will visit one day as well and determine your own theories surrounding this amazing and magical place.
Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? What were your thoughts? Feel free to share in the comments below!