Mesa Verde National Park is most famous for the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans found throughout. The Ancestral Puebloans were thought to have spent about 750 years in this area, the earliest dating from 550 AD to around 1300 AD. No one knows exactly why the left, but what they left behind does tell a lot about how they lived.
This whole area of Southwest Colorado is full of archaeological history. Mesa Verde National Park is a great way to see a lot of it. The park is made up of two main sections: Wetherill Mesa, and Chapin Mesa, with roads going down each.
First Time Visit
If you’re visiting the park for the first time, I suggest you give yourself at least 1 full day to explore. 2 full days will give you a more relaxing pace and chance to see everything. When me and my husband visited there last October, we only had 2 half days, which was enough time to stop at all the points along Chapin Mesa and go for a tour of Balcony House.
We arrived at the main visitor’s center in the late afternoon around 4pm. It’s located right at the entrance, and you’ll be driving a good 30-40 minutes past that to get into the main part of the park where all the really neat overlooks are. Longer if you plan to stop at viewpoints along the way. If you only have a day to see the park, plan to arrive early!
There’s so much history and archaeology to read about. Luckily, there are numerous booklets available so you can read more later on the sites you’ll see, they just ask for a small donation in return for taking them. The main Visitor’s Center is also where you need to go if you want to get tickets for any of the guided tours of the cliff dwellings. The cost when we went in 2016 was only $4 per person. You pick a time and the place you want to go and they mark your names down.
Driving up the Mesa Top
The drive up to the top of the mesa, or cuesta*, was full of views of the surrounding landscape: flat plains dotted with trees, small towns, and mountains in the distance. It was autumn when we went, so many trees and bushes had yellow or brownish orange red leaves adding some colors among all the evergreen pines.
*A mesa is a flat topped hill or mountain, a cuesta is one with a gradual slope, which is what Mesa Verde actually is. So it’s proper name should actually be Cuesta Verde, but the first Spanish explorers who came there named it Mesa Verde.
Mancos Valley & Montezuma Valley Overlooks
Mancos Valley Overlook was the first stop, and you were able to see the small town of Mancos and the La Plata Mountains in the East. Further on down the road, you’ll pass through a tunnel, then come out to Montezuma Valley Overlook. That impressive view points to the west.
Geologic & Park Point Overlook
Park Point Overlook is the highest spot off the road in the park at 8,572ft/2,613km in elevation. It’s off of a side road which can be easy to miss, so look out for it after you’ve passed Montezuma Valley Overlook. There are small trails there, and a Fire Lookout Ranger Station.
Geologic Overlook is next and offers views of sandstone slopes covered in pines. Much of the Mesa is made up out of sandstone, with layers of shale underneath.
Far View Sites & Cedar Tree Tower
After you pass Far View Lodge on Mesa Top Ruins Road, you start seeing signs for the archaeological sites. There are easy walkways here with paths among the ruins. Signage is plentiful allowing for self guided tours at your own pace. Cedar Tree Tower is another stopping point along the road where the remains of a tower are left. No one knows exactly what it was used for, possibly ceremonial in nature in conjunction with a kiva.
Mesa Top Loop
The lower part of the road on Chapin Mesa splits into 2 separate loops. Notice on the way there the scenery becomes quite desolate looking at times with hundreds of dead trees all around from fires that erupt on the mesa top.
The oldest structures found in Mesa Verde are the Pit Houses. Archaeologists date them as early as 550-600 AD! They were dug out pits in the ground with mud walls and roofs(now gone). There are several stops along the road to see these.
Navajo Canyon View
The flat top of the cuesta is broken up by rivers or streams that have formed canyons throughout the park. Don’t miss any of these view points, they’re stunning!
Square Tower House
Now this is what you come to Mesa Verde to see! My first glimpse of the ancient cliff dwellings was Square Tower House. I have to say it looks so much cooler in person! It’s amazing to think that the Ancestral Puebloans would climb down the cliffs using hand and toe holds and built these structures to live in.
Sun Point View & Sun Temple
From Sun Point View overlook you can see Cliff Palace, Oak Tree House, Fire Temple, and many other cliff dwellings including the Sun Temple on top of the mesa, which is the last stop on Mesa Top Loop Road.
Cliff Palace Loop
This 6 mile road takes you to the access points for Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours. House of Many Windows & Hemenway House Viewpoints are also worth stopping at. Soda Canyon Overlook trail is 1.2mi/1.9km long and from one of the viewpoints there you can see Balcony House.
Spruce Tree House & Museum
Lastly is the small loop where you can see the cliff dwelling of Spruce Tree House. It’s right behind the museum, which houses numerous archaeological artifacts, tons of history on the area and the people that used to live there, and also a gift shop. There is also Spruce Canyon Trail & Petroglyph Point Trail, each 2.4mi/3.9km if you’d like to go hiking.
Spruce Treehouse is unfortunately closed to any tours now due to parts of the cliff falling. A ranger there said they are trying to stabilize the rock as best they can, so who knows it may open again in the future!
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