Traveler's Checklist: Mesa Verde National Park
Situated on the Colorado Plateau in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde offers a wonderful opportunity to experience a unique cultural and physical landscape. Here are Traveler's tips for how to explore this wonderful park.
Mesa Verde National Park, which was established in 1906 as the first national park to preserve the works of humans, offers visitors a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people ("Anasazi") who flourished for centuries over a large area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. The park’s nearly 5,000 archeological sites are some of the most notable and best-preserved in the United States.
During the period from about 550 to 1300 AD, pre-Columbian Indians established communities throughout Mesa Verde, first building pithouses, then elaborate stone villages (pueblos), and finally about 600 “cliff dwellings” situated in alcoves and caves high on the canyon walls. In the late 1200s, after occupying this area for seven centuries, the Ancestral Puebloans abruptly abandoned their homes and moved away. After decades of exploration, excavation, classification, analysis, and debate, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why. It remains one of the most perplexing and intriguing questions in American archeology.
Although there are many visitor attractions at Mesa Verde, including spectacular scenic vistas and a variety of recreational activities, the park's main attractions are its archeological sites, some of the best of which can be visited on ranger-led tours.
* Enjoy the views from the entrance road and Park Point. The 15-mile drive from the park entrance to the main visitor services hub (the Far View complex) is quite scenic, affording great views from high vantage points. Weather permitting, Park Point (elevation 8,571 feet) offers spectacular panoramic views of the Colorado Plateau. Park Point is on the North Rim about halfway between Morefield Village and the Far View Visitor Center. It is accessible via a spur road from the main entrance road, and the view is worth the extra time it takes to enjoy it.
* Stop at the Far View complex. The Far View Visitor Center is the place to get information and directions, orientation, and tickets for the ranger-led tours (not available at the sites) before proceeding to Chapin Mesa or Wetherill Mesa. The Far View complex also includes the Far View Lodge (150 rooms) and nearby Far View Terrace (full service cafeteria and gift shop).
* Visit Chapin Mesa. Located on the south edge of the park, where it borders the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, Chapin Mesa contains the park's most visited archeological sites as well as the park headquarters, food services (Spruce Tree Terrace), a fine museum, and two loop drives offering convenient access to a major cluster of ruins, including Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House.
* Consider taking a guided bus tour. During the summer, the park concessionaire (ARAMARK) offers guided half-day tours of Chapin Mesa. Tour buses depart from the Far View Lodge and Far View Terrace at 8:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
* If you drive your own vehicle to Chapin Mesa, be sure you are oriented to using the loop drives. Several loop drives on Chapin Mesa offer motorists a means to visit a number of publicly accessible archeological sites and a variety of scenic overlooks with views of pueblos, towers, prehistoric farming terraces, etc. Remember that you need to get tour tickets at the Far View Visitor Center beforehand if you want to take ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, or Balcony House.
The Mesa Top Loop Drive is a six-mile self-guiding loop that provides visitors with an excellent opportunity to see first-hand the progression of Ancestral Puebloan architecture from the pithouses and above-ground masonry houses of the Basketmaker period through the multi-storied pueblos and cliff dwellings of the Classic Pueblo period. There are five archeological site exhibits and many cliff dwellings that can be seen from canyon rim viewpoints. This drive offers views of the renowned Cliff Palace as well as Square Tower House.
Except when it is closed for winter, the Cliff Palace Loop Drive (6 miles) provides automobile access to Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and a .75-mile trail that has several excellent overlooks, including the only viewpoint from which the impressive Balcony House can be seen. In winter after heavy snowfalls, the Cliff Palace Loop is used for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
* On the drive from Far View to Chapin Mesa, you may want to stop at the Far View Ruins. This high mesa top (elevation 7,630 feet) was densely populated from about 900 to 1300. An interesting archeological; feature here is Mummy Lake, a large circular depression that was apparently a prehistoric reservoir for storing water used by villages in the Far View area. The stone-lined reservoir, which measures 90 feet wide by 12 feet deep, was capable of holding about 500,000 gallons of water that could be drained into terraced fields via a lengthy system of canals and ditches.
* Tour the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, which exhibits the chronology of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dioramas interpret the lives of the early residents and the park’s introductory video plays in the auditorium every half-hour. The museum’s Children’s Discovery Room traces the development of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. During the summer, talks just for children are offered twice a day. The park’s Junior Ranger program focuses on the cliff dwellers.
* Take a one-hour, ranger-guided tour of Cliff Palace. It begins at the Cliff Palace Overlook, an 8-mile (20-minute) drive from the Visitor Center. Even if you have to carve time out of a hectic schedule to do this, you'll never regret it. Cliff Palace is the largest and best-known cliff dwelling in the park and the country. This remarkable structure, which attracts 170,000 or so visitors a year, has about 150 rooms, 23 kivas, and various towers, terraces, balconies, and courtyards. It is thought that it supported a population of about 150, although many more could have resided there on a seasonal or periodic basis.
Some exertion is required. Total walking distance for the Cliff Palace tour is about 1/4-mile, round-trip. Upon exiting the site, you'll need to climb five short ladders (8-10 feet) while making a 100-foot vertical ascent. Most visitors would not consider this particularly difficult or scary.
* Take a one-hour, ranger-guided tour of Spruce Tree House. Named for a large tree growing in front of the ruins, Spruce Tree House has 114 rooms and 8 kivas. One of the most interesting features is a restored kiva that visitors can enter using a ladder. Spruce Tree House is open all year, making it the only ruins tour available in winter. There is a self-guided trail and tour in spring, summer, and fall. In winter, a free ranger-guided tour of Spruce Tree House is offered several times daily.
* If you are up to it, take a ranger-guided tour of Balcony House. This one-hour tour, which begins from the benches under the shade ramada at the Balcony House parking lot, is awe-inspiring but definitely not for the faint of heart.
You might want to give this one a miss if you are out of shape, afraid of heights, prone to vertigo, or claustrophobic. Balcony House visitors come down from the clifftop via a steep trail (descending 100 feet in a quarter-mile) and then access the north end of the building via a 34-foot ladder. After touring the building they exit through a narrow 12-foot tunnel that the original occupants used as an entrance. (The guide points out that “a grandmother with a club could have defended the tunnel’s opening.”) The return to the clifftop is a strenuous trip, about the equivalent to climbing a ten-story building. It involves ascending an open cliff face using two 10-foot ladders, steps cut into the stone, and hand holds (rope or metal chain). Visitors who find this inordinately difficult are reminded that the Ancestral Puebloans descended 700 feet into the canyon using nothing more than hand-carved toeholds in the rock, then returned by the same route carrying water, firewood, or other heavy loads.
* Stop to enjoy the view at the Square Tower House Overlook on the west loop of Mesa Top Loop Drive. Square Tower House, which contains the tallest Ancestral Puebloan structure in the park (26 feet), is one of Mesa Verde's most photogenic sites, not least because it is sunlit all afternoon.
* Visit Wetherill Mesa. (But not in the winter, not on a bike, and never with a vehicle that is over 25 feet long or weighs more than 8,000 pounds.) In the summer, spring, and fall, motorists can use the Wetherill Mesa Road to get to an area that has several publicly accessible cliff dwellings, plus towers and other ruins. A tram loop takes visitors to ranger-led tours of Long House and self-guided tours of Step House and the Badger House Community. Long House has a large central plaza that was used for dances and ceremonies. Step House cave contains pithouses from the Basketmaker period (ca. 600 A.D.) as well as pueblo ruins from the Classic Pueblo period (ca. 1200). The Badger House Community has four trail-connected sites -- Modified Basketmaker Pithouse, Developmental Pueblo village, Badger House, and Two Raven House -- dating from about 650 to the late 1200s. Allow 45 minutes for the trail.
* Take a hike, but heed the regulations and limitations imposed by the climate and the need to protect park resources. Most trails are closed in winter. To protect the archeological sites and natural resources, federal law essentially bans access to the backcountry. No backcountry camping is permitted, and Mesa Verde management has restricted hiking to the developed areas and certain carefully specified trails. Off-trail hiking and camping are federal crimes in Mesa Verde.
In addition to the short trails providing access to sites open for public visitation, visitors may use maintained trails in the Morefield area and the park headquarters area at Chapin Mesa.
There are three publicly accessible trails (no permit required) in the Morefield area, which is on the main park road about four miles from the entrance. The 7.8-mile Prater Ridge Trail, which begins and ends on the west side of the Morefield Campground, ascends the east side of Prater Ridge and follows a loop around the top of the ridge. The shorter (1.5-mile) Knife Edge Trail offers good views of the Montezuma Valley and fine places for watching sunsets. The 2.3-mile Point Lookout Trail provides excellent Montezuma and Mancos Valley views.
Several trails are available in the park headquarters area on Chapin Mesa. (Hikers must register at the Chief Ranger’s Office.) The 2.8-mile Petroglyph Point Trail begins from the Spruce Tree House Trail (a site access trail), follows below the edge of the plateau to the south, then climbs to the rim. It provides good views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons as well as several petroglyphs (figures carved on rocks in prehistoric times). The 2.1-mile Spruce Canyon Trail, which also begins from the Spruce Tree House Trail, offers a good look at canyon bottoms. This trail follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon, turns up Spruce Canyon, and ends at the picnic area.
* Enjoy watchable wildlife. Mesa Verde is not renowned as a “wildlife park,” but there is a surprising diversity of life in this habitat. It's a good idea to bring binoculars. Visitors can expect to see mule deer, turkeys, and various birds. Most will also see other animals such as wild turkeys, ground squirrels, marmots, rabbits (cottontail or jack), skunks, porcupines, coyotes, gray foxes, elk, rattlesnakes, the distinctive-looking Bailey’s collared lizard, or even (rarely) a black bear or mountain lion. Many visitors enjoy seeing the turkeys, which were reintroduced in 1981 (and have now become shameless beggars). They are seen most often along the park entrance road and at Morefield Campground. The Abert's (or chickory) squirrel can be seen in the vicinity of Spruce Tree House. This unusual animal is instantly recognizable by its silver color, long ears, and bushy white tail. Visitors staying at Far View Lodge or camping in Morefield may hear owls hooting in the night. Mesa Verde has great horned, spotted, long-eared, pygmy, saw whet, and flammulated owls within its boundaries.
For the best birding, visit in the spring. Mesa Verde offers decent birding, but it is not as good as in many specialized areas and the riparian area within the park is largely inaccessible. The best time for birding is late spring, since that is when migration and nesting are in progress. Among the species inhabiting or passing through Mesa Verde are jays, hummingbirds, warblers, brown creepers, canyon wrens, flycatchers, woodpeckers, flickers, woodpeckers, jays, hawks, ravens, black-billed magpie, chickadees, towhees, grouse, titmice, turkey vultures, peregrine falcons, and golden eagles.
* Don't forget the stargazing. Although stargazing is not offered as a guided activity at Mesa Verde, there are wonderful opportunities to enjoy unusually good nighttime views of the heavens. There are no large cities in the Four Corners region, so there is very little of the artificial light that permeates the sky and obscures the stars in heavily urbanized areas. Visitors overnighting at Mesa Verde typically enjoy brilliantly clear views of a star-filled night sky at Far View Lodge and the Morefield Campground. (At the latter location, rangers offer campfire programs from mid-April to late October). People staying outside the park will find the views from the Montezuma and Mancos Overlooks along the Main Road particularly enjoyable because the twinkling lights of the valley towns complement the beauty of the night sky. No overnight camping is permitted at these overlooks.
A special stargazing presentation is scheduled one night each August (August 11 in 2001) to coincide with the Perseid Meteor Showers.
* Winter visitors might find snow conditions suitable for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. When snow conditions permit, which has seldom been the case in recent years, the Cliff Palace Loop road may be used for both of these activities. Skiing and snowshoeing are not permitted in the backcountry, and you can't rent skis or snowshoes in the park.