Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience a unique cultural and physical landscape. The culture represented at Mesa Verde reflects more than 700 years of pre-Colombian history. From approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300 people lived and flourished in communities throughout the area, eventually building elaborate stone villages in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Today most people call these sheltered villages "cliff dwellings". The cliff dwellings represent the last 75 to 100 years of occupation at Mesa Verde. In the late 1200s, within the span of one or two generations these people left their homes and moved away.
The archaeological sites found in Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Mesa Verde National Park offers visitors a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Scientists study the ancient dwellings of Mesa Verde, in part, by making comparisons between the Ancestral Pueblo people and their contemporary indigenous descendants who still live in the Southwest today. Twenty-four Native American tribes in the southwest have an ancestral affiliation with the sites at Mesa Verde. To fully enjoy Mesa Verde National Park, plan to spend a day or two exploring its world-class archaeological sites as well as its beautiful landscape. The entrance to the park is 9 miles east of Cortez and 35 miles west of Durango in Southwestern Colorado on US Highway 160 (part of the San Juan Skyway).
It is 21 miles from the entrance to park headquarters and the open-to-the-public archaeological sites on Chapin Mesa. Morefield Campground is located 4 miles from the entrance. The Far View Visitor Center is found 15 miles into the park. Allow at least 45 minutes for the drive from the entrance to Chapin Mesa. Park roads are scenic drives with sharp curves, steep grades and reduced speed limits.
To get the most out of your visit, go first to either the Far View Visitor Center (open from April to October) or to the Chapin Mesa Museum (open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year). Rangers there will help you plan your visit. Exhibits at Far View and Chapin Mesa illustrate the arts and crafts of the cultures of the region. Guided tours and evening campfire programs are given in summer. Wayside exhibits throughout the park interpret the cliff dwellings and other archeological sites. You can also see the sequence of Ancestral Puebloan architectural development in Mesa Verde at sites along the Mesa Top Loop Road on Chapin Mesa.
Food, gasoline and lodging are available only from early spring through late fall. No services are available the rest of the year. Interpretive services are available year-round although not all sites are open during the slower months. See the Park Schedule for specifics. Morefield campground, open early spring through late fall, has single and group campsites. Campsites for the physically impaired are available. All campsites have a table, benches, and grill. Some utility hookups are available, and there is a dump station for RVs.
Near the park entrance are several commercial campgrounds. Services at the campgrounds include groceries, carryout food, gasoline, firewood, showers, and a laundromat.
Some Points of Interest within the Park
The fire lookout station at Attractions Park Point offers superb views of the entire Four Corners region and is staffed during the fire season. A brochure describes the natural features of the area.
The Far View Visitor Center is a major center of visitor service. The visitor center, open from mid-April through mid-October, displays contemporary Native American arts and crafts and orients visitors to what can be done on a visit to Mesa Verde National Park. The visitor center is also the only location where tickets for ranger-guided tours may be purchased.
Commercial tours of the Chapin Mesa sites leave from Far View Motor Lodge. The motor lodge is open from mid-April through October. For reservations, write ARAMark Mesa Verde, Box 277, Mancos, Colorado 81328. Telephone: 970-529-4421 or 1-800-449-2288. There is a restaurant at the lodge and a cafeteria nearby.
Wetherill Mesa is accessible during the summer by private vehicle between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Vehicles over 8,000 pounds GVW and/or over 25 feet in length are prohibited. The 12-mile mountain road to Wetherill has sharp curves and steep grades. Please obey the posted speed limits. Roadside pullouts offer spectacular views of the Four Corners region. Two cliff dwellings: Step House and Long House are open to the public on Wetherill Mesa. Long House requires a ticket to enter. Purchase Long House tickets at the Far View Visitor Center before heading out to Wetherill Mesa. Badger House Community, a mesa top complex near Long House, is accessible via a 3/4 mile trail. Rangers are on duty to interpret the sites. You can buy snacks and cold drinks at Wetherill Mesa.
Chapin Mesa has three major cliff dwellings--Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House--open in season for close-up visits. Many others dwellings are visible from overlooks on the Mesa Top Loop Roads. An archaeological museum with dioramas interprets the life of the Ancestral Puebloan people who once lived in the area. In summer, rangers conduct tours through some of the cliff dwellings. Current schedules are available at the museum or Far View Visitor Center.
Two hiking trails lead into Spruce Canyon: The Petroglyph Point Trail (2.8 miles) and Spruce Canyon Trail (2.1 miles) begin at points on the Spruce Tree House Trail. Hikers must register at the Museum or the trail head before embarking on these trails.
Other cliff dwellings can be seen from canyon-rim vantage points by taking either the self-guiding Mesa Top Loop Road or the Cliff Palace Loop Road. Wayside exhibits interpret the development of the Ancestral Puebloan culture from the Basketmakers through the Classic period. These roads are open from 8 a.m. until sunset. During winter, the mesa top loops are open as weather permits. When snow conditions permit, visitors may snowshoe or cross-country ski on roadways. Cliff dwellings are closed and cannot be entered. Check at the museum for information and conditions. In winter, rangers lead guided tours (three a day) of Spruce Tree House, weather and trail conditions permitting.
Spruce Tree Terrace, selling light snacks, gifts, and souvenirs, is open year-round. A guidebook for disabled visitors is available at all ranger stations, the visitor center and the museum.
For Your Safety
Visits to cliff dwellings are strenuous. Altitudes in the park may vary from 6,000 to 8,500 feet. Trails may be uneven; steps and ladders must frequently be climbed. Hiking or touring cliff dwellings is not recommended for persons with heart or respiratory ailments. You can view most of the major cliff dwellings from overlooks. Parents should be alert for their children's safety when near the canyon rims. Do not throw rocks or other objects into the canyons, there may be people below. Bicycling is permitted on all park roads except those on Wetherill Mesa, but lanes are not designated. Organized bicycle groups are not permitted due to the narrowness of most park roads.
Emergency first aid is provided at the Chapin Mesa and Morefield ranger stations. Park roads and trails may be hazardous in winter. Stop at the entrance gate for current information on road conditions and tour schedules. Trailers and towed vehicles are prohibited beyond Morefield Campground. All towed vehicles must be parked at the entrance parking area or at Morefield Village parking area.
Park visitors can be the target of professional thieves who rob campsites and locked vehicles. Take your valuables with you or leave them in a secure place. Locked cars and trunks are not completely safe. Report all thefts immediately to the nearest ranger station.
A typical canyon in the area. There are several cliff dwellings hidden behind the bushes in the above photo
Mesa Verde National Park map
Photos courtesy of TheArmchairExplorer, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License
Map courtesy of the National Park Service