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The mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

In an area of the southwest USA that’s crammed with National Parks, Mesa Verde is the odd one out. Why? Because the environment that’s being preserved here isn’t a natural one which dates back millions of years. Instead it’s a man-made landscape that only dates back less than a thousand years. Mesa Verde National Park is located on a mesa – a high ‘table’ or plateau of land – which was home to a group of Native American people known as the Ancestral Puebloans. They moved into the area around 600 AD and set up pit houses and farms on top of the plateau. But within a few hundred years they’d moved down into the cliffs themselves, building houses and even whole villages carved into the solid sandstone rock faces.

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Cliff houses at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Mesa Verde’s cliff houses

It’s a unique place, and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a National Park. The park covers 80 square miles and almost 5000 archaeological sites have been discovered so far, including 600 cliff dwellings. So with less than a day to explore, we had to pick the sights we most wanted to see.

But first we had to get up there. The Mesa Verde plateau is around 8000 feet high, so from the main highway the road winds its way upwards and upwards for 20 miles, through switchback turns and past sheer drops. Once you reach the top you get a spectacular view of four states – the park is near to the Four Corners area, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona all come together at one spot.

Views from Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Views across four states from Mesa Verde

The Mesa Verde site is split into sections, with the Chaplin Mesa area having the greatest concentration of archaeological sites. We took the Mesa Top Loop road first, following a six-mile driving route that takes you through some of the early Puebloan sites. The 12 sites and lookouts along the way start with primitive pit-houses then move on to more elaborate mud-brick adobe buildings. But most impressive are the cliff houses.

These were built around 1200 AD and the theory is that as the mesa got drier as the climate got warmer, the Puebloans moved further down into the canyons to be nearer the water. As the area’s so high and exposed, it also helped shelter them from cold winter winds and gave protection from wildfires.

Pit houses at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

One of the early pit-houses

The Spruce Tree House is the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in the park. When we visited Mesa Verde you could take a self-guided tour of the house. But since then it’s been closed off to visitors due to a rockfall at the site. You can still get a view of it from the overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum though, tucked beneath an overhang on the opposite side of the canyon.

Spruce Tree House was the equivalent of an Puebloan block of flats when it was built in 1210, and was home to between 60 and 80 people packed in tightly. It’s hard to imagine that it was built so long ago, but the dry climate and shelter from the rocks above has preserved it from damage by the elements over the years.

Cliff houses at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Looking down

When Spruce Tree House is open you can climb down inside one of the kivas. These underground chambers were where the Puebloans used to perform the religious ceremonies and political meetings that were at the centre of the community. To visit Mesa Verde’s other cliff houses, you need to take a ranger guided tour, which you can book at the visitors centre. There’s the Cliff Palace, which is biggest house with 150 rooms and 23 kivas and was where over 100 people lived. Or the most adventurous tour is at Balcony House, where you have to climb a 32-foot-high wooden ladder and crawl through a tunnel to get there.

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The ruins of Spruce Tree House

The Puebloans lived in Mesa Verde until around 1300. But after building a whole civilisation there, they just upped and left one day. No one’s really sure why, but it’s thought that a mix of droughts, deforestation and overhunting meant there was nothing left there for them any more. The site was abandoned and lost for the next 700 years until cowboys looking for lost cattle came across some of the cliff houses.

After that word got out and explorers raided the site for Pueobloan pottery and jewellery. So in 1906 Mesa Verde was made a National Park by President Roosevelt. Now it’s preserved as an amazing insight into this lost, 800-year-old world – thought the Puebloans still keep a few of their mysteries to themselves.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Cliff Palace, the biggest of the cliff houses

The details

How to get to Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is located in Colorado, around one hour east of Cortez or 90 minutes west of Durango. It’s easiest to get to and explore the park if you have a car. If you don’t want to drive then there’s a full-day tour from Durango which includes travel, entrance fees, lunch and a guided tour of the main sites like Cliff Palace and Balcony House – check current prices.

How much is the Mesa Verde entrance fee?

Admission to Mesa Verde costs $15 per car ($20 between May and October), or it’s free with an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House can only be visited on a ranger-guided tour. You can book these up to two days in advance at the visitor’s centre (which is right by the turning off Highway 160 and easy to miss) or at the Durango Welcome Centre. Tours cost $5 per person and only run between April/May and October.

Where can you stay near Mesa Verde?

You can camp inside the park at Morefield Campground, with plenty of sites for tents and RVs (you need to reserve in advance for RV sites with full hookup) as well as a café, gas station, shower block, grocery and gift shops. There’s also a Mesa Verde hotel called the Far View Lodge 15 miles inside the park. It’s designed in Western style, with a restaurant and balconies looking over the park. Also recommended outside the park are vintage-style Retro Inn at Mesa Verde in Cortez as well as the gorgeous O Bar O luxury cabins out in the forest near to Durango.

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Exploring the mysteries of the Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA, with cliff houses built into the rocks dating back to 600 AD. #Colorado #MesaVerde #NationalPark #USA #SouthwestUSA #roadtrip

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  • Reply
    Jessica of HolaYessica
    May 20, 2013 at 8:56 am

    This is such a cool and interesting place! It’s amazing how well-preserved it is.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      It was so different to the others parks I went to, you could really picture people living there as you wandered around.

  • Reply
    May 20, 2013 at 10:33 am

    It’s one of my very favorite parks in the whole National Park System. I’ve been a few times and it never fails to induce a sense of wonder.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      I can see why you go back, we only saw a fraction of it and could’ve spent days there exploring all the different sites.

  • Reply
    May 20, 2013 at 10:36 am

    One of my favourite stops when in this area- and that’s a long list as there is so much to take in for the first timer. It is so well organised and wonderful that we can still clamber all over the site! Wonder how long that will last.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm

      Yes it’s really unusual to be able to get right into some of the houses and climb down into the kivas, brings it so much more to life than if you are just stuck behind a barrier.

  • Reply
    Lauren @ Peaks and Passports
    May 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Great post and photos! This is on my list too and I’m hopefully visiting this Fall… You’ve shamed me a bit by making it there first while I live only a day’s drive away – thanks for the motivation 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      It’s often the way that you end up seeing your own backyard last – I’m always embarrassed by how little of the UK I’ve seen compared to a lot of visitors!

  • Reply
    May 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    That was awesome!!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks, really enjoyed visiting and learnt a lot, I knew almost nothing about the Puebloans before!

  • Reply
    f-stop mama
    May 21, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Nice photos! I especially like the one looking out over the 4 states. Breathtaking view!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      We got some amazing views on this trip, but this was one of my favourites.

  • Reply
    Reviewed: O Bar O Cabins, Durango | On the Luce
    May 23, 2013 at 9:31 am

    […] incredibly peaceful location. In the summer the area is great for mountain biking and hiking, and Mesa Verde National Park is only about 40 minutes away. In winter there’s a ski area nearby and you can go […]

  • Reply
    May 23, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Very interesting :)!!

  • Reply
    May 24, 2013 at 12:18 am

    Beautiful pic, and beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing. Was this your first trip to the Southwest?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks. I’ve been wanting to visit this part of the world for years but yes this was my first trip – saw a lot for two weeks but only scratched the surface and came back with a big list of things to see next time!

  • Reply
    May 30, 2013 at 10:51 am

    We were too early for most of Mesa Verde (closed because of snow) but I do aim to get there one day, soon I hope! Your lovely post will be a good planning resource.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 31, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      It’s funny, you don’t tend to think of this area as having a lot of snow as it always seems so sunny but they do get a lot, we had a few flakes in mid April and it there was still a lot lying on the ground in some places.

  • Reply
    June 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Gorgeous photos ! I have never been to Mesa Verde NP but it looks wonderful

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      It was one of my favourite places on my trip, so different to the other things we saw and so well preserved.

  • Reply
    Does a US National Parks Pass save you money? | On the Luce
    June 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

    […] route took in Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. The total entry costs would have been $105 without the pass, so it […]

  • Reply
    June 10, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Amazing photos. It’s a shame a sight like this is almost completely overshadowing by tourist traps like the Grand Canyon. It looks incredible.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 10, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      It is strange that it’s not better known, but as you say I think the big names in the region (Grand Canyon, Zion etc) overshadow it a bit. Though the bonus to that is at least its not mobbed by crowds!

  • Reply
    August 25, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    We went there in March and it was amazing!!! Unfortunately, the Spruce Tree House area was closed due to some rock falls, bummer!

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