Mesa Verde National Park

When we drove into Southwest CO for our most recent farmstay, we drove right past Mesa Verde National Park. We hadn’t really done much research on the area to know what would be around for us to visit, but as soon as we saw the sign, we knew we had to go. (Had we consulted our copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List, by Patricia Schultz before heading to this area, we would have known in advance that Mesa Verde was a must-see!)

So one Sunday, we left Knox at the ranch (dogs aren’t allowed on trails in Mesa Verde) and headed over to see the ruins and take a hike. It was different visiting a National Park on a weekend – there were so many more people there than on our typical weekday visits!

Museum

Our first stop was the museum. First and foremost, we wanted to see if the superintendent was around so we could meet him. Aside from just visiting the parks, we’re now making a point of trying to get in touch with the superintendents to learn more about the actual workings of the National Park System and try to get some inside scoop on the particular park we’re visiting.

The museum has some interesting information on the history of the area, from the early hunter-gatherer tribes to later civilizations of pueblo dwelling people. It’s not a huge museum, but it is worth a visit to see the very detailed dioramas of the mesas throughout the era of its settlement and civilization.

Mesa Verde is actually the only National Park set aside to preserve man-made structures. The ruins of the cliff dwellings here are beautiful and pervasive.

Spruce Tree House

The only cliff dwelling that we visited was the Spruce Tree House, just out back of the museum. Most of the others were closed while we were there, plus they also require ranger-led tours. Spruce Tree House allows you to do a self-guided tour, though you can’t actually access most of the dwelling due to it being blocked off. Rangers are available to answer any questions you have.

What you can do though is drop through a square hole that’s about 2 feet on each side into a kiva, an underground ceremonial chamber. You’re also free to walk around the outside and up to most of the dwellings. You can look in and see how the Anasazi lived in this area. Just don’t walk or sit on the walls. We heard the ranger warn people several times that they are only held together with mud and are quite fragile.

Much like the Gila Cliff Dwellings, it’s very interesting to walk through these dwellings that are hundreds upon hundreds of years old and imagine actually living in a rather barren and rough area.

The Petroglyph Point Loop Trail

Hike Info

Nearest City/Town: Cortez, CO
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Length: 2.4 miles (Loop)
Elevation: 174 ft
Time: 1-2 hours

Our main goal was to get outside and hike at least a little part of Mesa Verde. Due to the snow pack, our options were limited to the Petroglyph Point Loop Trail and the Spruce Canyon Loop Trail. We were told that Spruce Canyon would be very muddy from the snow run-off, so we opted for the Petroglyph Point Trail, which hikes out and past the largest petroglyph panel in the park’s 52,000 acres.

Mesa Verde calls this a moderate hike and we agree…sort of. As far as hikes go, there’s little in the way of elevation change and overall, the actual hiking part isn’t very difficult. Most of that elevation change is centered at the turnaround point where you move from a trail running southward below the canyon rim up to the canyon rim for the north-bound return to the museum.

The kicker is that some agility is required at various points. Some of the rock staircases are narrow, requiring most adults to turn sideways just to get shoulder clearance. Some are steep. The turnaround point actually requires using foot holds carved into a rock for a couple of steps. Beyond that though, this is an easy-to-moderate hike for most people of average fitness.

Here is a list of the other hikes available in the park, assuming you get there when they’re all open.

Scenic Drives

Since we’d driven the 20 miles in from the highway to get to the museum (a scenic 20 miles, to be sure!), we decided to drive an extra 6 miles to tour the scenic Mesa Top Loop Road. There are numerous stops on this road to park your car and walk out to an overlook for a view of a cliff dwelling. There are also several mesa-top dwellings that have been preserved in large metal buildings.

You should definitely drive the loop road. After the first few dwellings, it can become “just another cliff dwelling” for the non-archaeologists like us, but it’s well worth seeing 3 or 4 of them to see the variations in architecture and get a good sense of how the Anasazi carved out a civilization in this rough area.

Getting Here

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. Mesa Verde isn’t an easy place to get to, at least in the sense that most people consider their destinations. It’s 3.5-4 hours from the nearest Interstate (I-40), depending on which part of I-40 you aim for. The park sits right between Cortez and Mancos, CO and is about an hour from the Four Corners Monument.

So this isn’t an area that you’re going to be able to just stop by on your way to somewhere else. It’s a destination and it’s a destination well worth making the drive for. This entire region of Colorado is unbelievably beautiful, with several National Forests (San Juan and Rio Grande), plus the cool old western (and modern western) town of Durango, CO.

Costs

Getting into Mesa Verde National Park costs $10-15 per vehicle, depending on the time of year that you’re there. It’s higher in the spring and summer months and lower in the fall and winter. From January to March of 2012, the fee was waived entirely, so perhaps that’ll happen again in 2013.

There are several tours of some of the cliff dwellings available for additional fees.

Mesa Verde In Pictures

As usual, we’re here to bring Mesa Verde right into your browser. Enjoy!