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The mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

In an area of the southwest USA that’s crammed with National Parks, Mesa Verde is the odd one out. Why? Because the environment being preserved here isn’t a natural one dating back millions of years, but a man-made one which only dates back a few hundred years. Located on a mesa – a high ‘table’ or plateau of land – this area was home to a group of Native American people called the Ancestral Puebloans. They moved here 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 into the solid sandstone rocks. Over 4000 different archaeological sites have been found spread over the 80 square mile park, some of them amazingly well-preserved. Unique in the US, it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a National Park.

One of the cliff houses ar Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

One of Mesa Verde’s cliff houses

With just a few hours to see the park, 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. From the top there were spectacular views of four states – the park is near to the Four Corners area, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona all meet at one spot.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Views out across the 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 first, following a six-mile driving route that takes you through some of the early sites. They start off with primitive pit-houses then move on to more elaborate mud-brick adobe buildings. But the 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 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

One of the early pit-houses

You can do a self guided tour of the Spruce Tree House, which is one of the best-preserved cliff houses. It starts from the museum on Chaplin Mesa, where get your first glimpse of it tucked beneath an overhang on the other side of a canyon. After following a steep path into the gorge you emerge among the buildings. This was the equivalent of a block of flats when it was built in 1210, home to between 60 and 80 people all packed in close together. It’s hard to imagine that it was built so long ago, but the dry climate and the shelter given by the rocks above helped preserve it from damage by the elements over the years.

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

The ruins of Spruce Tree House

Most of the site is roped off to protect it, but you can climb down inside one of the kivas. These are circular underground chambers where religious ceremonies were performed that were the centre of the community. To visit the other cliff houses you need to take a guided tour. This includes the Cliff Palace, the biggest with 300 people in 217 rooms and 23 kivas. The most adventurous tour though is at Balcony House, where you have to climb a 32-foot-high wooden ladder and crawl through a tunnel to get there.

Kiva at Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Going down into one of the kivas at Spruce Tree House

After building a whole civilisation in Mesa Verde, around 1300 the Puebloans just upped and left. No one’s sure why, but it’s thought a combination of drought, deforestation and overhunting meant there was nothing left for them. The site was abandoned and lost for the next 700 years until cowboys looking for their lost cattle came across some of the cliff houses. After that word got out an explorers raided the site for pottery and jewellery left behind by the Pueobloans. So in 1906 Mesa Verde was made a National Park by President Roosevelt to preserve this amazing insight into the 800-year-old world of the Puebloans.

Cliff House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

Looking across to Cliff Palace, the biggest of the cliff houses

The details

Mesa Verde National Park is in Colorado, one-hour east of Cortez or 1.5 hours west of Durango. You need a car to get around the park. Entry costs $10 per car ($15 between 27 May–5 September 2016) or it’s free if you have a National Parks Pass. You need to book ranger-guided tours in advance at the visitor’s centre – the new centre is right by the turning off Highway 160 and easy to miss.

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The mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado – On the Luce travel blog

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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
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    […] 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
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    […] 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! Check out our blog to read about our adventure:

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