After more than a decade of wishing and dreaming, I finally made it to Mesa Verde National Park. This park has been on my bucket list for a long time. If you love history, it’s a definite must-visit. We have president Theodore Roosevelt (a favorite president of mine) to thank for establishing Mesa Verde as a National Park in 1906.
The archaeology and history at Mesa Verde can fill a lifetime of exploration. Since most people only have a day or two, or maybe a week, there are some important things you need to know about the park. There are more than five-thousand archaeological sites and three-hundred cliff dwellings at the park. Only a few are open to the public. Furthermore, with the exception of Step House at Wetherill Mesa, the cliff dwellings can be visited only through a guided tour.
Park Safety and Travel Considerations
As this post is being written during the last week of May, parts of Mesa Verde are still closed due to snow. The park’s high elevation, at 8,500ft above sea level, means that weather can be unpredictable all year-round. Secondly, the high elevation means that you will become dehydrated, even if it does not feel hot. The semi-arid steppe climate can mean blistering heat, snow, or torrential downpour. Be prepared for anything. If you visit Mesa Verde during the winter keep in mind that there are no tours to the cliff palaces, but you can still view many of them from the scenic overlook drive. During the winter, the loop road may be open, but the road to Wetherill Mesa will likely close. Other considerations for driving around Mesa Verde include watching for wildlife and rockfalls, and using caution on the winding road.
Mesa Verde History
Where to start? Mesa Verde is located on the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is in the “Four Corners” region today. The Four Corners refers to the “corners” of the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. This area is so rich in archaeological sites that it would take several lifetimes to see them all!
People have lived in and around Mesa Verde for at least ten-thousand years. The first evidence of human habitation comes from points and flakes dropped by Paleo-Indians. The Archaic people left the first evidence of permanent or semi-permanent structures.
Hundreds of years before building cliff dwellings, a new culture developed that is now called Basketmaker III (500 – 700 C.E./A.D.). Their signature pit-houses are all over the southwest. More information about this style of construction (and other time periods important to the Colorado Plateau) can be found on the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center resource page.
Around 750 C.E, the Basketmaker culture evolved into a Pueblo culture that has four distinct phases. Pueblo I (750 – 900 C.E), Pueblo II (900 – 1150 C.E.), Pueblo III (1150 – 1300 C.E.), and Pueblo IV (1300 – 1600 C.E.). The height of culture at Chaco Canyon occurred during the Pueblo II period. A major dry period from around 1130 – 1150 C.E. possibly caused the collapse of civilization at Chaco Canyon and a rapid increase in population at Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde’s high point of civilization was during the thirteenth century. Another major drought forced inhabitants to leave around the 1280’s. Most of the structures built during this time were for defensive purposes. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were times of severe unrest on the Colorado Plateau. Evidence of chronic warfare, violence, and cannibalism is present throughout the southwest.
Things to See and Do
- Visit the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
- Buy a ticket to see Balcony House, Cliff Palace, or Long House
- Take a Backcountry hike
- Visit the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
- Drive to Wetherill Mesa and visit Step House on your own
- View Spruce Tree House from a distance (now closed due to safety reasons)
- Hike the Petroglyph Trail at Spruce Tree House (still open)
- Drive the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road and stop at the overlooks and Pit Houses
- Visit the Far View Sites
Touring the Cliff Dwellings
Visiting the cliff dwellings requires the purchase of a $5.00 tour ticket. Purchase tickets at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center, the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, or the Durango Welcome Center. The best chance of getting tickets for the tour you want at the time you want is to purchase them at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center. More information about tour tickets can be found on the National Park Service Website. If you prefer not to take a tour, you will see several of the Cliff Dwellings from a distance on the Mesa Verde Loop Drive. Also, Step House at Wetherill Mesa can be seen on your own.
I had planned to tour both Cliff Palace and Long House in the same day. However, travelling with multiple sclerosis can be challenging at times. I ended up listening to my body and visiting the museum after Cliff Palace rather than attempting a back-to-back tour of two cliff dwellings. The heat at Mesa Verde at the end of June isn’t unbearable. It’s the elevation that many find challenging. I already live at 4,200ft in Arizona, so I thought I was prepared for the 7000- 8,500 ft elevation at Mesa Verde. Not quite. The sun is very intense at this altitude, even when the temperature is only in the 80’s.
Places to Sleep and Eat
If you have an unlimited budget, the best place to stay is the Far View Lodge, right inside of the park. However, there are many less expensive options in Durango (35 miles) and Cortez (11 miles). You can also camp at Morefield Campground which is located inside the park. There are many rooms available through Air BnB. Use this link for $40 off your next stay. I recommend staying the night somewhere to truly experience Mesa Verde. The park is huge and will take several days to truly experience. More information about lodging options is on the National Park Service Mesa Verde Page. You can bring your lunch or eat in the Far View Terrace restaurant in the park. There’s also a Spruce Tree cafe and the Metate Room located inside the Far View Lodge.
Mesa Verde is Two Parks
Logistically, Mesa Verde is two parks requiring two or more visits. Although you can see everything in one day, it’s going to be a lot of driving. As you can see in the Mesa Verde Visitor Guide, there’s a lot to see in the park. The guide makes several good recommendations on how to spend your time at the park. A good way to divide your time is to split the park in two. Wetherill Mesa one day, and Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, Balcony House or Cliff Palace the next. No matter which route you choose there are numerous stops for scenic overlooks, pit houses, and cliff dwellings along the way. Maps to help with planning can be found here.
Mesa Verde National Park, along with Chaco Culture National Historic Park are two of my favorite travel destinations. That’s saying a lot after travelling to twenty countries. I’m fortunate enough to live in Arizona where these two parks are just a day’s drive away. Dozens of archaeological sites are just an hour or two away from Mesa Verde. A few places to consider visiting during a trip to Mesa Verde are Canyon of the Ancients, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Salmon Ruins, Hovenweep National Monument, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Durango, Colorado, Navajo National Monument, and the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site.