Colorado Resort Adventure Guide

Southwest Region
Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos & Cortez, CO

by Tom Stockman
Photo of the Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House, catching some sun.

Mesa Verde History

Colorado's oldest National Park turned 100 years old in 2006.

President Teddy Roosevelt, father of the National Park Service and US nature consersation of outdoor resources as public lands, founded Mesa Verde as Colorado's first National Park in 1906.

Today pristine maze of canyons, cliff dwellings (now ruins), mesas, archeological sites, and the world-famous Native American cliff dwellings is mostly safe from looters, developers, and over-zealous tourism because of the protection given to National Parks. Most of the dwellings open to the public require taking a guided tour, but visitors still get to climb through the narrow passageways, ascend the crude ladders, and explore the labyrinths of dwelling chambers.

The abandoned cliff dwellings are spectacular, dating from when Native Americans lived here 800 years ago; the Ancestral Puebloan Native Americans, formerly known as Anasazi, are regarded as one of the more sophisticated societies of Native Americans cultures.

Spruce Tree House is available for unguided visits, and descending into the gorge where it is located provides clues about why they chose to build cliff dwellings. The sheltered gorges are cooler in summer than the mesas, and provide protection from more extreme weather in winter.

Theories about why they chose to build these cliff dwellings include defensive protection from hostile Indian tribes. The dwellings allowed inhabitants to simply pull up the wooden ladders that gave access, making attacks much more difficult.

Photo, inside the Balcony House complex of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.

All the ruins are amazing, they almost seem to blend into the canyon walls as if formed by nature, not by human hands. The park is filled with desert-land juniper and pinon pine trees (their fragrance fills the air after the common summer thundershowers), vultures and ravens drift in the sky, and coyotes cry in the night. These now-deserted ruins teemed with people 800 years ago.

Sophisticated reservoirs and canals from the top of the canyon walls supplied a constant flow of water that ran through the various levels and rooms of the dwellings. Agricultural plantings of food sources were also irrigated by the canals surrounding the cliff dwellings. Archeologists tell us the people spent much of their time pursuing shelter, water, and food. A lot of Indian pottery has been found, used for water and food.

These extensive cliff dwellings were inhabited for less than 100 years, according to archeologists. The reason for the abandonment of these ruins is unknown, speculation includes drought, invaders, depletion of resources like game and soil. If Mesa Verde was built during a wet period, then a normal dry period might have revealed that water supplies just weren't enough to support the settlements.

Mesa Verde Today

Today, the Cliff Palace is lit at night, and the sight of these extensive buildings sheltered under a massive overhanging cliff is impressive. The lighting is warm and tinted orange, evoking images of the warth & lighting of ancient campfires. 800 years ago, the cliff dwellings and this area was bustling with people.

Today's current Pueblo Indian population seems to regard the Mesa Verde period as simply a waystop on the Pueblo culture's development; the Pueblo Indians moved south after the Mesa Verde's days, developed different architecture, and continued agriculture, pottery. Their society moved on. Many modern American Indian tribes trace their heritage to the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde.

Photo inside Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace cliff dwelling.

More than 5,000 archeological sites exist in the park's 52,000-acre area. Wildfires in 2002 revealed many sites that were previously undiscovered. Archeologists and other researchers flock to this park because it's one of the best-preserved historical sites about Native Americans in the U.S.

The entrance to the park is 9 miles east of Cortez and 35 miles west of Durango in Southwestern Colorado on US Highway 160. Driving time from either location will be affected by slower sppeds on that highway. It is recommended that visitors have a vehicle in which to drive through the park.

Many educational and entertaining events & programs go on throughout the year, especially in the warmer months.

The Visitor Center opens in mid-April through mid-October, it's 15 miles from the park entrance, and has exhibitions on historic Native American jewelry, pottery, and baskets; also on famed early archeologist Nordenskiold. Tickets for the tours of the cliff dwellings are available here, and nearby are the park's lodge, restaurant, cafeteria, and gift shop.

The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is open year-round, it's 20 miles from the park entrance, and offers self-guided tours of the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling in spring, summer, & fall. There's a range-guided free tour in winter, 3 times daily. Also a video presentation about the park plays in the museum every half-hour. On exhibit is a chronology of the Ancestral Puebloan culter, and there's a bookstore, snack bar, gift shop, and post office.


Photo of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, the largest group of cliff dwelling.The Far View Lodge near the Visitor Center offers views into 3 states, no phone, no TV, but beautiful, simple, and quiet. Private balconies and bathrooms in all rooms. Deluxe rooms also available, recently renovated, add refrigerator, coffeemaker, & more. Nearby food court & gift shop offers service all day long...even expresso!

The Morefield Campground is open mid-May through mid-October, many sites are shaded, the campground rarely fills completely. Tents, trailers, & RV sites with hookups available, as well as group sites. Hiking trails from Morefield Campground climb to great views of the valleys & mountains of this part of the park and surrounding areas.

  • Visitor Center: 970-529-5036 free, open mid-April through mid-October, 8 AM to 5 PM
  • Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum: 970-529-4631, hours vary depending on season,
    open 8 AM until 5 PM or 6:30 PM
  • Climate: summer, 90s, and afternoon isolated monsoon thunderstorms; fall, cooler night, possible snow
    starting in October; winter, snowpacked & icy at times, possible 3-4 feet snowstorms; spring, highly
    variable, many days 70s & sunny, sometimes 30s & snow.
  • Prices (2006 season):
    Park Entrance - $10 fee per vehicle, good for 7 days
    Guided Tours - $3 fee (only 1 dwelling can be toured without a guide)
    Campsites - $20 per night + tax, max 2 vehicles, 2 tents, reservations accepted
    RV Hookups - $25 per night + tax, 15 hookups available, first-come, first-served
    Group Campground Sites - $5 per person + tax, $55 minimum, reservations accepted
    Far View Lodge - 800-449-2288, lodging rates start at $110, slight increase for double occupancy, &
    more for deluxe rooms
  • Location: in far southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde is 35 miles west of Durango, 350 miles southwest
    of Colorado Springs, 360 miles southwest of Denver.

Photos used by permission.

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