Ladders to the Past: Exploring Mesa Verde National Park

What you will experience at Mesa Verde National Park is nothing short of spectacular. This park has some amazing history, and after just one day of exploring, we left in awe at the brilliance of the cliff dwellings we got to witness there. Created by the Ancestral Pueblo people roughly 1,400 years ago, they lived and thrived in Mesa Verde for more than 700 years. Originally, the people built and lived in pithouses usually found on mesa tops (later known as kivas) that sunk into the ground. Later, they began to build homes above ground formed with poles, thick walls, and mud, and finally; homes built of stone. But as time passed, they would move back into the cliff alcoves high above the ground as their ancestors had once lived. With over 600 cliff dwellings in the park, it is unknown as to why the people moved into these cliff dwellings, but some speculate it was due to defense, or even to escape the harsh weather.

Mesa Verde National Park…you will drive to the top for an incredible experience!

The Pueblos lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years, and despite much research, little is still known about the dwellings because there were no written records kept. Some researchers believe they left the dwellings due to drought or depletion of resources on the land. One of the most magnificent cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace, with over 150 rooms. Touring this dwelling is perhaps the most recognized and sought after tour in the park. During your visit here, you can either take a drive through the park to see the dwellings, or through a guided tour. Should you take a tour, be advised that you will need to climb tall ladders and fit in tight spaces to get to the dwellings at 7,000 feet elevation. The hikes to the dwellings are considered strenuous.

Guided Tours of the Cliff Dwellings

The only way to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde is through a guided tour. You can purchase tickets in person up to two days in advance at the Visitor and Research Center, the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, or the Morefield Ranger Station. You can also make a reservation online in advance here, which I HIGHLY recommend you do. The drive to Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum at the top is about a 45-60 minute drive. For this reason, I highly recommend purchasing tickets at the Visitor and Research Center at the entrance to the park instead of the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, which is much further away if you don’t have tickets in advance.

We made this mistake when we traveled here by skipping the Visitor and Research Center at the base because we were so excited to begin the drive to the top. We also didn’t leave early enough, stopped along the many vista overlooks, and by the time we got to the top at Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum in the early afternoon, there were very long lines and we weren’t able to get tickets to see Cliff Palace, the most sought after tour in the park. At the time of our travel, online reservations were not an option. I HIGHLY suggest you reserve your tickets in advance online before your visit if you can. Also, the national park service has written a great page on their site, which includes booking tables, to help you plan your tours if you plan to take two or more in a single day. Tours can be booked for the following cliff dwellings as of 2020: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, Mug House, and Square Tower. Booking Advice

Self Guided Tours

If you do not feel comfortable climbing ladders, or have health restrictions that may prevent you from hiking to the dwellings, there are other options for you! There are plenty of dwellings that you can view by taking a short walk, or parking at one of the overlooks. Below is specific information from the national park service:

Spruce Tree House
Best-Preserved Cliff Dwelling (Early March to early November)
You can observe Spruce Tree House from viewpoints near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Rangers will be available at the overlook daily, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (with extended hours in late spring and summer) to answer questions and share information. Due to safety concerns related to rock falls, you can no longer take a tour of this dwelling; however overlooks near the museum offer great views!

Mesa Top Loop Road
A 6-mile driving tour with short, paved trails. Twelve easily-accessible sites, including surface dwellings and cliff dwelling overlooks. Highlights include Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point and Sun Temple stops. Overlooks also found on the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. Open 8:00 am to sunset.

Cedar Tree Tower: Mesa Top Tower and Kiva
Ancestral Puebloan tower and kiva complex can be viewed from the road. Open 8:00 am to sunset.

Hiking at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park was one of many national parks we visited on our road trip in 2017. We hiked a lot! But, one of the most memorable hikes we did on our entire four week trip was right here in Mesa Verde. We LOVED the Petroglyph Point Trail, which can be accessed from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. The kids were only 7 and 5 years old at the time, and they absolutely loved exploring this trail. I highly recommend this hike to anyone! The one thing I would definitely keep in mind though, is that this trail has a few steep drop-offs, so keep your kids close and don’t allow them to run or venture off too far from you.

Listed below are three great hikes in this park that I would highly recommend to you, along with specific info about the park trails directly from the park service…

Petroglyph Point Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip
This adventurous trail provides excellent views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and takes you past a large petroglyph panel located 1.4 miles from the trailhead. The trail is narrow, rugged, and rocky, with several steep drop-offs along the canyon wall on the way to the petroglyph panel. After the panel, you’ll scramble up a large stone staircase using hands and feet to climb to the top, then enjoy an easy return through forest to complete the loop. Petroglyph Trail Map

Prater Ridge Trail 7.8 miles, round-trip
Begins on the west end of Morefield Campground. The trail ascends Prater Ridge and follows a loop around the top of the ridge, returning via the same route. A cut-off trail can be taken which shortens the trail to five miles.
Natural History: Changes in elevation and vegetation along with views of the surrounding area are highlights of this trail. Prater Ridge Trail Map

Spruce Canyon Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip
Begins from the Spruce Tree House trail, follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon, turns up Spruce Canyon, and returns to the museum via the picnic area. The trailhead is located near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. Please contact a ranger for times the gate above the trailhead is open. Registration at the trailhead or museum is required.
Natural History: The Spruce Canyon Trail offers an opportunity to explore the canyon bottoms of Mesa Verde and discover the plants and wildlife that live in this habitat. Spruce Canyon Trail Map

For a more comprehensive list of hiking trails at this park, please visit the Mesa Verde National Park website here.

Driving Into the Park

An overlook driving into the park

Perhaps one of our most memorable moments here was actually the drive into the park! The overlooks and views were stunning! Plan to drive through four mesas with gorgeous views of the mountains in New Mexico in the distance. Stop at all the overlooks! They are worth it!

Planning ahead at this park will make for a memorable experience! I can’t wait to hear all about your time here! Happy travels!

Watch this quick video from the National Park Service on Mesa Verde!

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