Brick by Brick: Exploring Mesa Verde National Park

In 2015, I made a brief visit to Mesa Verde National Park at the tail end of a Four Corners road trip. I didn’t know much about the park in southwestern Colorado, but since it was in the area, we decided to check it out.

The park was established in 1906 to preserve archaeological sites and artifacts, primarily those left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the area from 600 AD to 1300 AD. However, there is evidence that humans have lived in the area as far back as 7500 BCE. Nearly 5,000 sites have been identified within the park, including nearly 600 cliff dwellings.

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Typical scene at Mesa Verde, which sits on top of a massive plateau. Views like this one are common and cliff dwellings dot the rocky sides of the canyons.

Despite the biting November wind and the fact that half of the park was closed for the winter, something drew me to the vast mesas. Covered in pinyon pine and juniper trees, speckled with prickly pear cacti and broad-leafed yucca, the vast stillness urged me to explore further.

This quiet glimpse of the park inspired my boyfriend and I to return in the summer, when all the park roads are open and tours of several ruins are offered by park staff. We ended up visiting again in July 2016 and were able to participate in all three ranger-led tours as well as a couple of hikes.

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Fires are common inside Mesa Verde, caused by the high number of lightening strikes. Due to the area’s dry atmosphere, hardy trees such as junipers take decades to decompose and re-grow. It will take another 100 years for the mesa to look as it did before this forest fire.

The Lay of the Land

Mesa Verde is located just outside the town of Cortez, in southwestern Colorado. While the park entrance is close to town, keep in mind that all of the sites are a bit of a drive, so plan for extra time after arriving at the Visitor’s Center. The steep, winding roads to Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, the two main areas in the park, are 20 and 27 miles long, respectively.

In order to tour the sites, you will need to purchase tickets. They aren’t expensive (at the time I visited, each tour was $8 per person), but they can sell out, so I’d recommend getting to the visitor center early to reserve your spot. Tickets can be purchased up to three days in advance but the purchase must be done in person.

This park’s primary purpose is preservation, so there isn’t a ton of hiking to do here. A couple short trails depart from the campground, and there are one or two walking-tour type trails that wind around various archaeological sites, but don’t arrive expecting to do miles of trekking. This visit is more about history than communing with nature on long hikes.

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A kiva structure that has been uncovered at Step House. This rounded room was likely ceremonial in nature and would have been covered with a thatched roof. It was built in a way to hold a fire, vent the room, and block incoming wind from putting out the fire.

Chapin Mesa: Cliff Palace and Balcony House

This mesa is open year-round and is the most popular spot for visitors. It features a small visitor center with a museum and two loop roads that contain various sites along the way. It also serves as access to Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

One other large cliff dwelling site, Spruce Tree House, is visible from the visitor center and used to be open to the public. However, rockfall in 2015 led to an assessment which determined the alcove above the site is unstable, and the site has remained closed due to safety concerns.

Along the loop roads, there are opportunities for you to stop and view the remains of various sites, from pit houses to kivas to overlooks that reveal far-off cliff dwellings. Each site has informational placards that teach you more about the purpose of each area.

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View of Cliff Palace before entering the site. The ruins look whiter than those at Long House and Balcony House due to the materials used to reconstruct the rooms. Cliff Palace was reconstructed much earlier than the other sites and the technique has evolved over time.

We first toured Cliff Palace, which you can also view from an overlook. This is the most accessible tour, as it doesn’t require any climbing or walking long distances. As we walked among the ruins, from kiva to kiva, our guide provided information about what each room was likely used for and how the native peoples survived in this harsh environment.

As a climber, I was amazed to learn that the Ancestral Puebloans seemed to climb the steep cliffs with ease, though sometimes they’d chip small indentations into the rock for their hands and feet at the steepest parts. I suppose when you’re raised climbing these steps, it’s more natural, but I was quite impressed!

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Wall paintings on the inside of a tower in Cliff Palace. These paintings have survived over 700 years inside of this structure and offer a glimpse into how the Ancestral Puebloans decorated their living spaces.

After our tour of Cliff Palace, we headed down the road for our Balcony House tour. While Cliff Palace was impressive for its sheer size, Balcony House had a bit more adventure thrown in, and we got to climb ladders and squeeze through tunnels while exploring the ruin.

This was my favorite tour of the day, due to the outstanding views from the balcony as well as the well-preserved nature of the site: the wooden beams present in the structure had survived over 700 years! (The area is so dry that dead trees can hang around for quite a long time before decomposing.) There’s a great video of the tour here if you want to experience it for yourself.

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The view over the mesa from Balcony House. Notice the wooden beams that are over seven centuries old!

Wetherill Mesa: Long House and Step House

After visiting Chapin Mesa, we drove over to Wetherill Mesa, which is much quieter than its neighbor and is closed during the winter. This remote mesa holds Long House, Step House, and a number of paved and unpaved trails. There are no services here aside from bathrooms and a small waiting area for the Long House tour, so make sure you have plenty of food and water for your visit.

Step House is visited through a self-guided tour and is just a short walk from the main parking area. The mesa also has several covered sites that you can stop at along paved walking paths. Make sure you bring a hat if you’re visiting in the summer, as the sun is brutal at over 6,000 feet and there is no shade. (I forgot mine and was so desperate I bought a new one at the campground store!)

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View from inside Long House looking out onto the mesas.

Long House is the only cliff dwelling tour that requires some walking to get to, and the structure is at the end of a trail just over a mile long. For those who don’t mind the mellow hike, this site is great because it feels a bit more remote than the others yet is just as large as Cliff Palace.

On this tour, you’re allowed to walk around the ruins, climb some ladders, and glimpse the seep spring at the back of the cave. The natives used this water source to their full advantage, diverting water from the moss-covered rock into tiny channels to be more easily collected.

The three tours can easily be done within a day if you plan properly, but keep in mind the time it takes to drive from one mesa to another. While each dwelling is incredible in varying ways, I think touring just one or two would be sufficient if you’re pressed for time or want a more relaxing day. I recommend checking out the video tours of each site (linked to throughout this page) if you’re debating which one to visit.

Bottom Line

If you’re already planning to be in the Four Corners area, visit Mesa Verde! While there are many hikes in the region that take you to smaller ruins, the size and number of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings is impressive. I also really appreciated the guided tours and the guides were all extremely knowledgeable. While it can be great to visit smaller ruins on your own, getting the story behind these crumbling walls gives new meaning to what you’re seeing.

Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? Do you have any other tips for prospective visitors?

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