While I was staying in the Durango, Colorado area I made a visit to Mesa Verde National Park which was about an hour to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center near the park’s entrance station.
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located near the small city of Cortez in the southwest corner of Colorado. The park established in 1906 is home to some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States. It is the largest archaeological preserve in America with more than 5,000 sites and is best known for structures such as Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It is thought that starting 7,500 BC Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians and then sometime after 650 AD the first Puebloans. By the end of the 12th century, it is thought that they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known.
The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. By 1285 AD, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south. The area’s first Spanish explorers named the area Mesa Verde (Spanish for ‘green table’). However, the term is a misnomer as true mesas are almost perfectly flat and Mesa Verde is slanted to the south contributed to the formation of the alcoves that have preserved the area’s cliff dwellings.
A visit to Mesa Verde National Park will require a bit of driving as the park’s road twists and turns as it climbs the hills of Mesa Verde along a high ridge (the North Rim) running approximately east-west with many long thin, wooded mesas extending southwards. There are a number of overlooks the highest of which is Park Point Overlook at 8,572ft that provides for fantastic panoramic views of the park and nearby communities in the distance. The overlooks also offer restrooms and picnic areas to stop and rest awhile. There is great information and guidance from Park Rangers at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum that are a great place to spot before exploring the park.
The main cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House are only accessible by guided tours. Tickets for guided tours must be purchased in person at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Currently, Spruce Tree House is closed for the foreseeable future due to safety concerns relating to rock falls. However, overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offer fantastic views of the cliff dwelling. Visiting the cliff dwellings can be strenuous as they are at 7,000ft elevation with steep and uneven trails with steps and ladders. Mesa Verde National Park does have lodging, camping and a handful of restaurants for an extended stay at the park.