NPU #1: Mesa Verde National Park
Every journey has a beginning, you just may not recognize it at the time. In our case, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was the beginning of our journey to visit all of the 423 national park units. We just didn’t realize it.
Our first visit to Mesa Verde National Park was over 30 years ago, newly married with a tent and probably not much in the way of camping gear. Our memory of this place was of the fun we had camping. It rained and we had a picnic in our tent, complete with a red checked tablecloth! We also had a great time bicycling along the loop road, stopping at all of the overlooks to see the cliff dwellings.
Being our first national park and the first visit to a ruin we were awed at the size of the cliff dwellings and how preserved they were. It is hard to think of it now, after visiting so many historical sites and park units, but at the time this was pretty amazing!
We were fortunate enough to be able to revisit Mesa Verde National Park this past summer and it was just as special. The campground was still nice – this time with more deer than people – and the cliff dwellings were just as magnificent. It is really wonderful that the National Park Service is able to maintain and protect these special places.
About Mesa Verde National Park
Said to be the largest collection of cliff dwellings in North America, this area is home to some of the most impressive ruins of ancestral culture. It is also extremely accessible. You can view most of the main sites from overlooks along the side of the road.
There are two main roads that take you out on to Chapin Mesa and Weatherill Mesa. Each of these roads have loops that take you past some of the most impressive ruins.
On Chapin Mesa, the Cliff Palace loop road takes you to the largest dwelling in Mesa Verde – Cliff Palace. This multi-story complex is located in the largest alcove and has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. They say it was once home to 125 people. Cliff Palace is easily viewed from the overlook. You can visit it, but only via a ranger-led tour.
Also on Cliff Palace loop is Balcony House, another impressive structure with 45 rooms and 2 kivas. This one is also accessible via a ranger led tour, but beware – you’ll be climbing a 32 foot ladder to access the ruin!
A nice place to stretch your legs on the Cliff Palace loop road is the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. It is just over a mile, ending at overlooks to more dwellings in Soda Canyon.
Another loop road on Chapin Mesa is Mesa Top Loop. This 6 mile loop road is also nice to bicycle. From there you can see the tallest structure in the National Park – Square Tower House. That’s pretty impressive.
There are also several stops where you can visit even older pit houses and walk around the Sun Temple, a ceremonial structure said to be over 800 years old.
A few other stops on Chapin Mesa are the archeological museum and the Spruce Tree Terrace – the third largest village and best preserved cliff dwelling with 130 rooms and 8 kivas, once home to 80 plus. There are some trails leading from there – the Spruce Canyon Trail (2.4 miles) and the Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles). Another trail on the mesa highlights the farming culture – the Farming Terrace Trail (.5 miles).
When open, the road up Wetherill Mesa offers access to Long House. This is the second largest cliff dwelling in the park with 150 rooms. They say it was built in the early 1200’s and occupied through 1280. You can’t drive to see this dwelling. The only way to get there is to park you car and hop on a bike (or walk) the 5 mile Long House Loop paved trail. Access into the house is only via a ranger-led tour.
These are just the main highlights, but there are lots of other overlooks and short walks you can enjoy in the park and in nearby areas. Established in 1906, Mesa Verde National Park includes over 52,000 acres of some of the prettiest canyon lands in southwestern Colorado. Along with being one of the first national parks in the US, Mesa Verde is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The only place to stay in the park is at Morefield Campground. It is pretty big campground run by a concessionaire. There are a few hikes leading from there, but when we recently visited they closed due to fire damage. This area was pretty hard hit by multiple wildfires in the late 90’s, but it is interesting that as a result of these fires areas that had been covered with brush were cleared. Over 500 previously undiscovered structures were found.
Getting to Mesa Verde National Park
Located just 10 miles east of Cortez and only 50 miles from Four Corners, Mesa Verde is just one of the many archaelogical sites to see in this area. Other must sees include Hovenweep National Monument and Canyon of the Ancients (a BLM National Monument). If you have the time, it is also well worth the visit to go to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and World Heritage Site in New Mexico – about 150 miles to the southeast. And, if you too are on a journey to see all 423 National Park Units, be sure to visit Yucca House National Monument while you are in the area.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.
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