Mesa Verde National Park

Location: Colorado

Park tally: 6/59

Orientation: Mesa Verde National Park is a place of cultural heritage in Colorado’s Southwest. The area boasts nearly 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, built by the ancestral Puebloan people between 550-1300 A.D. These ancient villages are constructed upon sandstone ledges on steep cliffs, nestled 2,000 feet above the Montezuma Valley. The sites vary greatly, with some containing only one-room units and others consisting of multi-stories and up to 200 rooms.

The archeological sites can be found on two mesas – Wetherill & Chapin Mesas, which are separated by the Navajo Canyon. Understandably, Mesa Verde is one of the most restricted parks, and walking off established trails is strictly prohibited.

Visitors are required to take a ranger-led tour in order to experience the best-known cliff dwellings. These tours can be reserved in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. These tours are some-what strenuous and involve ascending and descending ladders and stone-made steps.

Most iconic view: Cliff Palace is probably the most well-known cliff dwelling in the park, being the largest and most elaborate. Cliff Palace boasts 200 rooms, 23 kivas, a 36-foot Square Tower House, and is estimated to have housed 100 people. A one-house ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace must be reserved in advance at the park Visitor and Research Center. Note – the Cliff Palace tours operate late May to mid-September.

Accessible activity: Many of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings can be viewed from park roads and overlooks. The popular 6-mile route along Mesa Top Loop Road offers stops at numerous views and overlooks. One of the stops is Sun Point Overlook, popular for its views of Cliff Palace in the distance.

There are numerous short hikes in the park for those wanting to get out and stretch their legs. The Far View Sites Complex (0.75-miles) allows visitors to stroll among archeological sites, including well-preserved kivas.

For the adventurous: Balcony House is considered the Park’s most adventurous tour, requiring visitors to climb a 32-foot ladder and crawl through a 12-foot tunnel. The one-hour tour is ranger led and must be reserved in advanced at the visitor center.

Another more strenuous activity in the park is the 2.4-mile round-trip hike along the Petroglyph Point Trail. The hike provides views of the Spruce and Navajo Canyons and is the only trail in the park that petroglyphs can be viewed. Note – visitors must register with a park ranger prior to commencing the hike.

Best photo opportunities: Photography can be challenging at Mesa Verde National Park due to the position and nature of the cliff dwellings. The Park runs a ranger-led sunrise Balcony House tour four times a year (2017 – June 19th, June 20th, September 22nd, September 23rd). The lighting would be absolutely superb for those lucky enough to experience one of these tours. They can be booked via the Recreation.gov website.

Quick facts

  • Mesa Verde National Park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Interestingly, it’s the only park out of all 59 that was created purely to safeguard the history of a people and culture.
  • The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
  • Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table”, referring to the pinyon pine and juniper forests that exist on the mesa top.
  • The ancestral Puebloans thrived for seven centuries until they abandoned their homes around 1300 A.D. It is estimated that 30,000 people once lived in the area.
  • Ancestral Puebloan people were known to be hunter and gatherers. They were proficient at basket weaving, farming, crafting pottery, and tool making.
  • The Park’s main water source is from seeping rocks.
  • A variety of wildlife can be found within Mesa Verde National Park, including deer, elk, bobcat, mountain lion, skunk, and badger.
  • In 2015 the park had 547,325 visitors. Data is not available for 2016 though the visitor count was thought to exceed 600,000.