National Park Guides

Mesa Verde National Park: A Forgotten Ancient Masterpiece

POSTED ON April 2, 2020 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to Mesa Verde National Park, the ancient masterpiece of America. This majestic park is located in the southwestern corner of Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park is a sacred place that preserves the rich history of the ancestral Puebloans. Nestled among breathtaking scenery and towering cliffs, Mesa Verde offers visitors a chance to step back in time and explore the mysteries of ancient America.

As you enter the park through its main entrance near the town of Cortez, you will be greeted by a stunning landscape of rugged mesas and canyons. But that’s just the beginning. As you travel deeper into the park, you’ll discover spectacular rock formations and see some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in existence.

In this blog post, we’ll take you on a journey through this stunning park and uncover the mysteries that have been preserved for thousands of years. From Mexico to Arizona, visitors from all over the world come to Mesa Verde to witness its beauty and learn about its rich history.

History of Mesa Verde National Park

Step House trail, Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park has a rich and fascinating history that dates back over 700 years. It was established on June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the exceptional archaeological relevance of the ancestral Pueblo people, who once lived in this area.

The park is home to over 5,000 archaeological sites, including some of the most well-preserved cliff dwellings in existence. These sites offer us a glimpse into the past and allow us to learn about the lives, culture, and villages of the ancestral Puebloan people.

The earliest Mesa top sites were built around 500 AD and are located on Chapin Mesa. These sites include pit houses, storage structures, and small villages that were used by nomadic people. However, around 750 AD, the ancestral Puebloan people began constructing elaborate cliff dwellings, such as Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Mesa Verde was occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people until approximately 1300 AD, when they left the area and moved south to New Mexico and Arizona. Despite their departure, Mesa Verde remained a notable place for the Puebloan people, as they continued to visit the area for spiritual and cultural purposes.

In the late 19th century, Mesa Verde caught the attention of two notable individuals: rancher Richard Wetherill and photographer William H. Jackson. Together, they discovered and documented many of the ruins in Mesa Verde, leading to its designation as a national park years later.

The park was also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, further cementing its importance and significance.

Today, visitors to Mesa Verde can explore the fascinating cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites while learning about the heritage of the ancestral Puebloans. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offers insights into their past through exhibits and artifacts found within the park.

The park also offers visitors the opportunity to witness the impressive masonry towers and other structures built by the ancestral Pueblos, showcasing their advanced building techniques and architectural skills. These ruins are a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of this ancient civilization.

In the present day, Mesa Verde National Park continues to be a notable destination for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and anyone seeking to connect with the past.

So why not plan your visit today and experience the mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park for yourself?  Whether you’re interested in hiking, camping, or simply admiring the stunning views, this park has something for everyone.

Visit Mesa Verde Visitor Information for more information and to plan your visit today!

Key Facts about Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace - 11th Century Stone Village, Mesa Verde National Park in Southwest Colorado

  • Size: approximately 52,485 acres (210.4 km2)
  • Number of Visitors: over 500,000 visitors annually.
  • Establishment Date: June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Number of Hiking Trails: 11
  • Length of Hiking Trails: approximately 30 miles (48 km)
  • Lowest Point: Soda Canyon, at approximately 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) above sea level, and accessible via the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (jpg trail map)
  • Highest Point: Park Point (Google map location) at approximately 8,572 feet (2,612 meters) above sea level.

Other interesting facts about Mesa Verde National Park:

  • Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde is home to the largest collection of archaeological sites in the United States, with over 5,000 sites preserved within its boundaries.
  • The Cliff Palace is the largest awe-inspiring cliff dwelling in North America and one of the most famous structures in Mesa Verde. It contains approximately 150 rooms and was once home to an estimated 100 people.
  • Balcony House, another well-known cliff dwelling in the park, is known for its impressive masonry work and unique layout, which includes a balcony overlooking the canyon.
  • The Mesa Verde Reservoir, located within the park, was created by ancestral pueblos over 1,000 years ago to store and manage water for their crops.
  • In addition to the cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde also has numerous surface sites, such as pit houses and petroglyphs, providing a diverse look into the lives of the ancestral Puebloan people.
  • Mesa Verde saw continuous human habitation for over 700 years, making it one of the longest-occupied areas in the United States. The park’s archaeological sites span different periods, showcasing the evolution of Puebloan architecture and lifestyle.
  • The park protects over 200 species of birds that have been recorded within its boundaries, making it a popular destination for bird watching.
  • The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum houses over 3 million artifacts and provides interactive exhibits and educational programs about the ancestral Puebloans.
  • Mesa Verde is also home to numerous plant species, including Pinyon Pine trees and Yucca plants, which were utilized by the ancestral Puebloans for food, tools, and building materials.
  • The park is home to numerous kivas (ceremonial structures) and petroglyphs (rock carvings), offering insights into the spiritual and cultural practices of the ancient Puebloan people. Visitors can explore these sites to gain a deeper understanding of the region’s rich history.
  • Mesa Verde is not only significant for its archaeological sites but also for its scenic views, including stunning sunsets over the cliffs and canyons.
  • The park is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, offering visitors the opportunity to stargaze and appreciate the natural beauty of the night sky without light pollution.

Note: The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center serves as a hub for information, exhibits, and educational programs. Check the current hours of operation here.

Climate and Weather

Mesa Verde National Park

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park experiences a semi-arid climate with four distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The park’s high elevation of over 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) also contributes to its unique weather patterns.

Here’s what you can expect during each season in the park:

Spring (March-May)

During the spring months, temperatures can range from 50-70°F (10-21°C), making it an ideal time to visit the park for those who enjoy mild weather. However, you should prepare for sudden changes in weather and occasional snowfall, especially at higher elevations.

One of the highlights of spring in Mesa Verde is the reopening of guided Mesa Verde tours to popular sites such as Cliff Palace and Balcony House. These adventurous cliff palace tours allow visitors to explore these spectacular ruins up close while also learning about their significance from knowledgeable guides.

Check out spring at Mesa Verde.

Summer (June-August)

Summer in Mesa Verde brings warmer temperatures, with highs reaching 80-90°F (27-32°C) during the day. The park’s high elevation means temperatures can drop significantly at night, making it important for visitors to bring layers of clothing.

As one of the peak seasons, summer is a popular time to visit Mesa Verde National Park. Visitors can expect longer park entrance lines and crowded trails. It is recommended to book guided Mesa Verde tours or make campground reservations in advance during this time.

Fall (September-November)

The fall season in Mesa Verde is characterized by cooler temperatures, with highs averaging around 60-70°F (15-21°C). The changing foliage of the park’s trees, including the iconic spruce tree house, adds a vibrant touch to the landscape and makes for a spectacular vacation experience.

Visitors can also take advantage of the quieter atmosphere in the park during this time, with fewer crowds and shorter lines for guided tours. However, it is important to note that autumn weather can be unpredictable, so visitors should come prepared with warm layers.

Check out the fall season in Mesa Verde.

Winter (December-February)

Winter in Mesa Verde brings cold temperatures and occasional snowfall, with average highs ranging from 30 to 40°F (-1 to 4°C). Despite the chilly weather, the park remains open and offers unique experiences for visitors.

The stone ruins of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are especially stunning against the snowy backdrop, making winter a great time for photography enthusiasts. However, be aware that some roads and trails may be closed due to snow accumulation.

Get More Weather Information on Weather.gov

Recommended Gear

Exploring the Step House trail in Mesa Verde

When embarking on a journey to Mesa Verde National Park, it’s essential to be well-prepared with the right gear to fully enjoy the awe-inspiring cliff dwellings, adventurous sites like the Cliff Palace and Balcony House, and the rich cultural history preserved in this archaeological wonder. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the recommended gear for your Mesa Verde adventure:

  • Footwear: Sturdy and comfortable hiking boots are a must for exploring the rocky terrain around cliff dwellings and mesa tops. Ensure your footwear provides good traction for climbing ladders and navigating uneven surfaces..
  • Hiking Socks: Good hiking socks, such as Silverlight socks can prevent blisters and even bad odor:
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  • Clothing: Dress in layers to accommodate Mesa Verde’s varying temperatures. A lightweight, moisture-wicking base layer is essential for comfort during hikes, while a durable outer layer provides protection against sun exposure. Check out our post about hiking clothes for more recommendations for clothing suitable for archaeological exploration.
  • Daypack: Carry a daypack to store essentials such as water, snacks, sunscreen, and a camera. Look for a pack with compartments for organized storage.
  • Water and Hydration: Stay hydrated during your exploration. Mesa Verde’s high altitude and arid climate demand extra water intake. Bring a reusable water bottle or hydration system.
  • Navigation Tools: While guided tours are available, having a map or GPS device can enhance your self-guided exploration. Familiarize yourself with the park’s layout, including the location of the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, the park entrance, and Morefield Campground. Check out Silverlight hiking tips for navigation tips.
  • Backpacking Gear (for Camping): If planning an extended stay, especially at the Morefield Campground, consider backpacking gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment.
  • Camera and Binoculars: Capture the breathtaking views of overhanging cliffs, masonry towers, and open mesa tops with a good camera. Binoculars can enhance your experience when observing distant sites.
  • Comfortable Day Outfit: For guided Mesa Verde tours or visits to the park’s attractions, like the Spruce Tree House or Balcony House, wear a comfortable outfit suitable for walking and climbing.
  • Snacks and Food: Pack energy-boosting snacks for your trip. Whether exploring the earliest Mesa Verde sites or enjoying a leisurely visit to Chapin Mesa, having convenient snacks on hand is essential. Check out 25 delicious backpacking food ideas for portable food options.
  • Sun Protection: Protect yourself from the sun’s rays with sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen. The park’s open year-round status means you’ll encounter varying sunlight conditions throughout the seasons.
  • Hiking Shorts: Combined with sun protection, hiking shorts are one of the best ways to explore national parks during the summer season:
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Remember to check the trip planning and visit page for additional information on guided tours and park regulations.

What to Do in Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is a must-visit destination for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and adventure seekers. With its ancient cliff dwellings, stunning landscapes, and diverse wildlife, there is plenty to see and do in this natural wonder.

From guided tours to self-exploration hikes, here are some of the top activities to add to your itinerary:

Hiking and Backpacking

Mesa Verde National Park offers a variety of hiking trails, ranging from easy walks to more strenuous treks. Some popular hikes and backpacking routes include the Cliff Palace Loop Trail, which takes you to the iconic Cliff Palace, one of the largest cliff dwellings in North America; the Knife Edge Trail, a moderately challenging trek that offers stunning views of the park’s mesa tops; and the Long House Loop Trail, a popular hike that takes you to Long House, the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park.

For those looking for a challenging adventure, consider backpacking in the park’s backcountry.

Step House trail, Mesa Verde

Best Hikes in Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park offers a wide range of hiking trails suitable for all levels of experience. Here are some of the best hikes to explore while visiting:

1. Morefield Canyon:

  • Knife Edge Trail: This easy 2-mile (3.2 km) roundtrip hike takes you through a scenic canyon filled with diverse plant and animal life. Along the way, you’ll also find petroglyphs and cliff dwellings carved into the rock walls. This is a great hike for families and those looking for a leisurely stroll. Check out the Trail map and profile (jpg, 2 MB)
  • Point Overlook Trail: For a more adventurous experience, try the moderate 2.2-mile (3.5 km) roundtrip Point Overlook Trail. This trail takes you through narrow passages and steep drop-offs, leading to panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Check out the Trail map and profile (jpg, 2 MB)

2. Chapin Mesa:

  • Petroglyph Point Trail: Another moderate hike, the 2.4-mile (3.9 km) roundtrip Petroglyph Point Trail offers stunning views of the park’s most iconic sites, including Cliff Palace, Mesa Top, and Balcony House. This trail also features interpretive signs that provide information about the history and significance of these cliff dwellings. Check out the Trail map and profile (jpg, 2 MB)
  • Spruce Canyon Trail: For a longer and more strenuous hike, try the 2.4-mile Spruce Canyon Trail on Chapin Mesa. This trail takes you through a beautiful canyon filled with Puebloan ruins, including the awe-inspiring Spruce Tree House. Check out the Trail map and profile (jpg, 2 MB)
  • Soda Canyon Overlook Trail: This short and easy 1.2-mile (1.9 km) roundtrip hike on Chapin Mesa offers panoramic views of Soda Canyon and the Green Table, a large mesa in the park. This is a great trail for those looking to take short walks and enjoy the scenery. Check out the Trail map and profile (jpg, 2 MB)

3. Wetherill Mesa:

  • Step House Trail (Moderate): This short and moderate 1-mile (1.6 km) roundtrip on paved and gravel trail features well-preserved cliff dwellings. You will discover the history of the earliest Mesa Verde inhabitants through a guided tour or self-exploration. Please check the current hours of operation before visiting.
  • Badger House Community Trail: Located on Wetherill Mesa, this moderate 2.25-mile (3.6 km) roundtrip hike leads you to multiple cliff dwellings and provides insight into how the ancestral Pueblo people lived in this area. Along the way, you’ll see rock art and structures made of stone and mud.

All these hikes offer unique perspectives on the park’s history and natural features. Check out the park’s official website for other exciting trails.

Camping at Mesa Verde

For those looking to fully immerse themselves in the park, Mesa Verde National Park offers one main campground: the Morefield Campground.

Morefield Campground

Located approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) from the park’s entrance on Chapin Mesa, this campground features 267 sites for 85 tents and 15 RVs. Each site has a table, grill, and bench.

Morefield Campground is open from mid-May to mid-October (spring to fall), offering 15 electric hookups and 17 group sites.

Guided Mesa Verde Tours

Guided Mesa Verde National Park Tour

Mesa Verde National Park offers a variety of tours led by park rangers and volunteers for those who prefer a more guided experience. These tours are a great way to learn about the park’s history and get an in-depth look at its top sites, including Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Some guided tour options include:

  • Mesa Verde Visitor Center Tour: This 30-minute tour is perfect for first-time visitors and provides an overview of the park’s history and preservation efforts. It is offered daily from mid-May to early September.
  • Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum Tour: This 45-minute tour takes you through the museum’s exhibits, providing insights into the Pueblo people’s cultural resources and artifacts found in the park. Tours are available daily from late May to mid-September.
  • Cliff Palace Tour: This 1-hour tour is the only way to access the largest and most well-known cliff dwelling in the park. Led by a ranger, it includes a steep descent and climbs on ladders and stone steps. Tours are offered daily from early April to late October. Tour tickets can be purchased only on recreation.gov 
  • Cliff Dwellings Tour: This 5.5-hour tour is perfect for those looking to explore multiple cliff dwellings in one day. It includes visits to Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House, along with a picnic lunch. Tours are available daily from mid-May to early September.
  • Balcony House Tour: This 1-hour tour is another popular option for exploring the awe-inspiring cliff dwelling. Visitors must climb a 32-foot (10 m) ladder and crawl through an 18-inch-wide (46 cm) tunnel to access the site. Tours are available daily from early April to late October.

These are just a few of the many guided tours offered at Mesa Verde National Park. Be sure to check the park’s tour schedule and fees before planning your visit. Also, advanced reservations are highly recommended for all guided tours, as they can fill up quickly during peak season.

Exploring the Mesa Verde Visitor Center

Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado

Located near the park entrance on Chapin Mesa, the Mesa Verde Visitor Center is a great starting point for your visit. Here, you can pick up maps and brochures, purchase tickets for guided tours, and get information from park rangers.

The visitor center also features a museum with exhibits about the Pueblo people and their way of life, as well as a gift shop. This is a great place to learn more about the park’s history and culture before heading out to explore.

Stargazing

In addition to its rich history and stunning landscapes, Mesa Verde National Park is also a designated Dark Sky Park. This means that the park has minimal light pollution, making it an ideal location for stargazing.

Visitors can enjoy the night sky on their own or attend one of the park’s ranger-led astronomy programs. These programs take place on select dates in the summer and offer a unique opportunity to view celestial objects through telescopes.

NASA’s Night Sky Planner page has helpful links and tips.

Where to Stay near Mesa Verde National Park

Morefield Campground, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

While camping at Morefield Campground is a popular option for staying within the park, there are also accommodations available nearby.

Some options include:

Camping inside Mesa Verde National Park

For those looking to fully immerse themselves in the park, Mesa Verde National Park offers only one main campground: the Morefield Campground. In summer, it is often difficult to get a spot there, so you might want to look for other options.

Camping in Nearby Towns

If you prefer to stay in a nearby town, there are several campgrounds located within a short driving distance from Mesa Verde National Park. These include:

  • Cortez: (location)
    • La Mesa RV Park: Located in Cortez, La Mesa RV Park offers a convenient base for exploring Mesa Verde. Its proximity to the park and essential amenities make it a popular choice.
    • Bright Star Campground: Another option in Cortez, Bright Star Campground provides a comfortable setting for campers. Its strategic location allows for easy access to both Mesa Verde and the town’s services.
  • Mancos: (location)
    • Ancient Cedars: Mesa Verde RV Park: Situated in Mancos, this RV park is known for its serene environment. It provides a relaxing atmosphere after a day of exploration in Mesa Verde.
    • Mesa Verde RV Resort: The Mesa Verde RV Resort in Mancos offers a range of amenities, making it suitable for travelers seeking a comfortable stay while being close to the park.
  • Towaoc: (location)
    • Sleeping Ute RV Park: Located near Towaoc, Sleeping Ute RV Park provides an option for those wanting to stay closer to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. It offers RV sites and amenities for a comfortable camping experience.

Lodging Options Within and Outside the Park

For those who prefer traditional lodging options, there are plenty of choices near Mesa Verde National Park. Some popular options include hotels, motels, and lodges in the nearby towns of Cortez and Mancos. These provide easy access to the park while also offering various amenities.

The most popular option is the Far View Lodge, located inside the park.

  • Far View Lodge: Perched on the Mesa Top, this lodge offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes. It’s an excellent choice for visitors seeking both comfort and proximity to top attractions. Check the park’s nearby lodging page for more information.
  • Quality Inn: Located in Cortez, CO, this inn offers budget-friendly rooms and easy access to Mesa Verde National Park. Check availability here
  • Mancos Inn & Hostel (location): This rustic lodge is located in Mancos, CO, and features cozy rooms, an on-site cafe, and a gift shop.

For those looking for more luxurious accommodations, the nearby cities of Durango and Telluride offer a variety of options.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Embarking on a journey to Mesa Verde National Park is an exciting adventure filled with rich history, stunning landscapes, and archaeological wonders.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to get to the park and navigate its captivating surroundings.

Nearest Airports

Cortez Municipal Airport

The nearest airports to Mesa Verde National Park are located in Cortez, Colorado; Durango; Farmington; and New Mexico.

  • Cortez Municipal Airport (CEZ): Situated approximately 15 miles (24 km) from the park, Cortez Municipal Airport offers convenient access to southwestern Colorado and Mesa Verde.

From the Airport to the Park:

  • Upon arriving at Cortez Municipal Airport, travelers can easily access Mesa Verde National Park by rental car, shuttle services, or taxis available at the airport.
  • Rental cars provide flexibility for exploring the region, especially if you plan to venture beyond the park boundaries.

Getting Around Mesa Verde National Park

Once you’ve arrived at the park, getting around to explore the various attractions, such as Spruce Tree House, Mesa Top, and the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, is straightforward.

  • Comfortable Coaches and Shuttles: For those who prefer a guided experience, comfortable coaches and shuttle services are available within the park. These services offer convenient transportation to key points, allowing you to relax and absorb the breathtaking scenery.

Exploring Mesa Verde on Foot

Mesa Verde National Park is a hiker’s paradise, offering a variety of trails suitable for different fitness levels. For those seeking simple trails and short walks, options abound, such as the Mesa Top Loop and easy hikes around the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.

  • Hiking to the Earliest Mesa Top Sites: Explore the earliest Mesa Top sites with hiking trails that lead to archaeological wonders. These simple trails provide glimpses into the lives of the ancient Pueblo people who inhabited the region.

Check out the park’s Getting Around page for additional information on driving and bicycling within the park.

Conclusion

Mesa Verde National Park is a truly remarkable place that preserves the rich history of the ancestral pueblos. From its humble beginnings as a rancher’s discovery to its present-day form as a national park, the park has captivated the hearts and minds of visitors from all over the world.

As you wander through the ruins and explore the cliff dwellings, take a moment to appreciate the culture and lives that once thrived in this magnificent place. With so much to see and learn, Mesa Verde National Park is a must-visit for anyone interested in history and nature.

Whether you’re planning a short walk or a longer vacation, the park has something for everyone.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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