Saturday, May 25, 2013

Exploring Mesa Verde National Park

The entrance to Mesa Verde National Park is just one half mile from our RV park so it had to be on our list of things to do while in the area. We are a bit ambivalent about our national parks. They do indeed protect some of the loveliest and most interesting sights in the country but they also draw some of the biggest crowds. We decided to visit the park before the holiday weekend began, hoping to avoid some of the crowds we anticipated would visit over the next few days.

Mesa Verde preserves sites of the Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the area starting about 1400 years ago, for about 700 years, starting out on the mesa tops and eventually building dwellings using natural caves in the cliff sides. They inhabited the cliff dwellings during the 13th century and then left the area for reasons unknown.

The park is huge. It is easily 25 miles long, with many sites to stop and visit, and several of the sites can be visited only by ranger-led tours. We decided to do two ranger tours: Cliff Palace and Balcony House, preceded by the Petroglyph Point hike and exploring the self-guided Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling.

There is a beautiful new visitor center where the staff can help you plan how to spend your day and where you buy tickets ($3/each) for any ranger-guided tours.

Here's a look at our day in Mesa Verde. The crowds were not too bad for the most part, the guided tours were informative and pretty interesting (Balcony House more so than Cliff Palace, in my opinion), and there was lots of driving involved (we didn't know how huge the place was before we arrived).

Gorgeous, brand-new visitor center.

The ranger who helped us plan our day said the Petroglyph Point hike was her favorite in the park and it did not disappoint. The trail hugs the wall of the canyon just below the rim, allowing excellent views and winding through some interesting geology. You might have trouble with this hike if you have a fear of heights.

Yes, that is the trail!
Skinny, uneven, stone steps through the!

Vultures warming up in the sun.
Remains of a small cliff dwelling along the trail.
The canyon we were skirting.

Back at the trail head, we headed down into the canyon a short distance to see the Spruce Tree House. This cliff dwelling has 114 rooms and was constructed between 1200 and 1276 and is thought to have housed about 100 people. It is about 95% original construction.

Spruce Tree House from the canyon rim.
A little closer view.

After walking through Spruce Tree House among a lot of people, we drove further into the park to the Cliff Palace in time for our 12:30 tour. The park service allows about 50 people on this tour and tours depart every half hour each day. Cliff Palace is so named because it is the largest cliff dwelling in the park, it is about 85% original construction. There are some steep stairs and ladders on this tour.

View of Cliff Palace from the canyon rim.
Here you can see how the dwellings are built around large sections of existing rock in the cliff.

We then drove on to our next tour of Balcony House. Along the way are pull outs so you can view dwellings in the cliff walls across the canyon. There are over 600 cliff dwellings in the park and only a handful are open to the public.

Balcony House was a unique tour. Not only did you access it via steep stairs and a very long ladder, you also walk through a small passage way and leave by crawling through a tunnel. This tour is not recommended for people with a fear of heights.

This dwelling is divided into two halves; this North half has a wall surrounding the courtyard,
an unusual feature we had not seen in other dwellings which usually just open right onto the canyon.
One of the balconies for which the site is named is in the right foreground supported by logs.
We took the ladder up to the passageway (that dark hole) to the other half of the dwelling.
Opposite view of the North side of the dwelling.
We entered the dwelling through a small passageway behind the stacked rooms.
Those people are looking through the doors into the rooms.
A view into the South side of the dwelling which has two round kivas and showed evidence of fires,
unlike the North side.  
Looking back towards the North room you can see how precipitously the canyon drops away,
there is no protective barrier on this side. This dwelling was unique due to the large amount of
retaining walls that had to be built in order to construct all of the rooms in the cliff.

The passageway and tunnel features of this dwelling suggested a need for security. Here is the exit tunnel:

Hans entering the tunnel.

The exit was a little larger than the entrance and you could stand up in the middle of the tunnel.

On our way out of the park we stopped to take in the view to the North West.


  1. This is the kind of place I imagine seeing when I think of cliff dwellings. It's amazing how well these dwellings have held up. I wonder if it's because most of the visits are guided tours. We will definitely put this park on our growing list of places to explore next year.

    1. Guided tours are normally not our thing...but we were glad we did it. Informative and controlled (no kids running all over the place, etc.)!

  2. Such craftsmen... the quality of those dwellings belies the time period in which they were built. Then again, there are those pyramids in Egypt. Nice shots!
    Box Canyon Mark

    1. The detail was incredible in these sites and the ranger pointed out to us when two side by side structures were built at different times and you could see the slight differences in masonry and quality. Very cool!

  3. We have yet to visit Mesa Verde NP. Last November we had planned to stop but all the campgrounds in the area were closed and a snow storm was approaching so we drove past and high tailed it to Goosenecks SP, Utah. When you're in Gunnison be sure to explore the backcountry north of Crested Butte. One of my fav's. Great photos. might consider a visit to Grand Junction. Hans would love the bike trails.

    1. Thanks for the Crested Butte tip!

      Hans actually went to high school in Grand Junction and we have visited briefly in the past and done some Mtn biking in Fruita. We'll be doing some mtb biking around here before we leave...

  4. I am really torn about whether we need to visit or not!!! We have been to several ruins here but NOTHING to that scale. I may need to visit Mesa Verde. Your pictures are wonderful and truly capture the full flavor.

    Enjoy!! See you in a few days! We arrive on Monday in Durango!!!

    1. Just like Bryce and Zion, you'll have to deal with some crowds at Mesa Verde. But it really didn't seem too bad the day we went. We may go back on Tues or Weds to hike the Whetherill Mesa which just opened for the season on Friday.

      Looking forward to seeing you two!

  5. The Anasazi Cultural Museum in Cortez was really good. We wished we had gone their first before visiting the rest of the area because it did such a good job of setting the stage and explaining what we were seeing. It's a really interesting area. Another place to which we need to return.

  6. We have been to Mesa Verde many times over the years. The new visitors center is a great addition. Like you we have taken several ranger led tours and would recommend them for anyone visiting the park. This park along with Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Culture and many other Ancient Puebloan sites in the 4 corners area paint a fascinating picture of this era. Great pics!