History of Mesa Verde National Park
I have visited Mesa Verde National Park many times and it is one of my favorite places to visit. Mesa Verde, meaning “Green Table” in Spanish, is located in the four corners region of southwest Colorado. It is home to close to 5,000 known archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people including 600 cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Pueblo people called this area home from approximately AD 600 to 1300. The history, culture and artifacts gathered here for discovery are incredible. You can visit pit houses, pueblos, and the spectacular cliff dwellings while exploring the park. The the visitor centers, museum, and trails offer stunning information and vistas of the beautiful landscape.
Past Visits to Mesa Verde
When I was sixteen years old, our family visited the park for the first time on a cross-country road trip. We didn’t visit with any expectations of what we would see. But, we were all surprised by the beauty and history located in this amazing place. After calculating the results of “favorite stop” on the family road trip, we were all shocked to hear that Mesa Verde was the winner! It even ranked higher than the main stop of the trip – The Grand Canyon!
Little did I know that when I accepted a teaching position while we were living in Arizona over 10 years later, the annual class trip was to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in southwest Colorado. Each year we traveled to Colorado for a week to learn about the history and culture of the people who once called this area home. The trip always culminated with a visit to Mesa Verde National Park.
Shiprock, New Mexico
While I had visited this incredible place several times before our road trip, Todd and the kids had never been! I was so excited to include a visit to Mesa Verde on this road trip. So, after packing up the camper in Albuquerque, we started the 4 hour drive up to our campground near Mesa Verde entrance. We made a slight detour on our drive to drive through Shiprock, New Mexico. Shiprock, a giant volcanic rock formation for which the nearby town is named, is visible from hundreds of miles away.
I have viewed Shiprock from a car or bus window several times. I wanted to get a closer view since we were nearby, but visiting the volcanic rock formation is closed to the public. Shiprock lies on land owned by the Navajo nation. Because the formation is considered sacred by the Navajo people, visiting the formation is strictly prohibited. We were able to pull off the road a couple of miles from the formation to get a quick picture. I was disappointed we couldn’t get closer.
Mesa Verde RV Resort
After our slight detour, we continued our drive up to Mesa Verde RV Resort, our home for the next 3 nights. Located just ½ mile east of the entrance road to Mesa Verde National Park, the Mesa Verde RV Resort was the perfect location for exploring the national park. The facilities were nice and clean, the kids loved another fun pool, and the grounds were beautiful! We spent the first evening in the area walking around the lake at the back of the property. We also enjoyed a spectacular lightning storm over the mesa once it was dark.
Cliff Dwelling Tour Tickets
Our first morning in Mesa Verde, Todd got up before everyone and drove over to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center to get tour tickets. Most of the park is accessible on your own, but several of the more difficult cliff dwellings to reach require a ranger-guided tour.
Tickets can be purchased up to two days in advance, but they must be purchased in person. Locations where tickets can be purchased are the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, the Morefield Ranger Station, the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, or the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez, CO. Checkout the national park website for open times. Unfortunately, we did not arrive into town before closing time the night before. So, thankfully Todd rushed over at opening time to try to purchase tickets! Tickets were available for each of the dwellings we wanted to visit. Now we could plan our days and explore the park!
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
After breakfast, we loaded everyone up in the car and made our first stop of the day at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. This new building opened in 2012 and it gives you a good glimpse into the history and culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people who called this area home. There is also a bookstore and a huge research area housing over three million artifacts. Once we finished touring the Visitors Center, we began the 20-mile drive up the mesa.
Day 1 – Chapin Mesa
Mesa Verde National Park is comprised of two main areas to explore – the Chapin Mesa and the Wetherill Mesa. We chose to explore the Chapin Mesa on our first day in the park. If you only have 1 day to explore the park, this is where you should focus your time. Most of the sites open for visiting and facilities such as museums and food are located in this area.
Balcony House Tour
Our first tour was for Balcony House at 11AM. We gathered at the meeting point for the tour along the Cliff Palace Loop Road and slathered everyone in lots of sunscreen! It was a beautiful day and we were going to be exploring outside for the duration of the day. Our park ranger tour guide met us at the Balcony House entrance point promptly at 11AM and gave us a little history of the dwelling.
Balcony House is considered a medium-size cliff dwelling with approximately 40 rooms. Balcony House was occupied by the Ancestral Pueblo people for some time during the 13th century. It was then abandoned as were all of the other sites in the area around the turn of the 14th century. The people lived in this area for many years – in pit houses, pueblos and finally cliff dwellings – but why they chose to abandon the area is still unknown. The area was rediscovered and excavated by several explorers and eventually archaeologists.
The tour of Balcony House is one of the most adventurous tours because of the 32-foot ladder climb to get into the dwelling! After a short hike down into the canyon, a pause at the ladder has everyone’s attention. We chose to carry both Emelia and Philip in the backpacks on our back up this ladder. We didn’t want to risk them falling off this tall ladder! The view from the ladder is quite spectacular, but we didn’t dare take our grip off the wood beams to enjoy it.
Once we made it inside the cliff dwelling, our guide showed us many of the different rooms and discoveries that have been made at Balcony House.
The view from the dwelling was incredible. It’s amazing to imagine how the people who lived here accessed this dwelling from the mesa without ladders and modern stairs.
The view from Balcony House
We were able to explore a little on our own, then it was time for the climb through a tiny tunnel to get out. The kids walked through on their own and fit just perfectly! After the tunnel, we climbed up several narrow passageways and along the cliff face to reach the top of the mesa.
It was an exciting and very informative tour of Balcony House.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
After our tour, we continued our drive along the Cliff Palace Loop Road and then back to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. This area also has a gift shop, food options, and bathrooms. The museum has a huge collection of artifacts and information that tells the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in this area long ago. After wandering around the museum and bookstore, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the benches overlooking Spruce Tree House.
Spruce Tree House Closed
The view down to Spruce Tree House is beautiful! But, this is where we learned some disappointing news. There is a self-guided hiking trail down to Spruce Tree House that starts right outside the museum. Spruce Tree House is the best preserved and third largest cliff dwelling in the park. This was the one dwelling that you could hike to and explore on your own. There were always park rangers posted to answer any questions in the dwelling, but being able to explore at your own pace was ideal.
Also, Spruce Tree House was the only significant dwelling that could be visited without a guided tour. So, if you weren’t able to get tickets for the other tours, you could still visit a dwelling. Unfortunately, there was a rockfall near Spruce Tree House in August 2015 and a subsequent analysis of the rock arch above the dwelling led the park to close the site to visitors indefinitely. A multi-step approach is planned for stabilizing the rock which will take years to complete.
So, we enjoyed the view from afar and then drove over to the Cliff Palace tour meeting point for our 1PM tour.
Cliff Palace Tour
We met our guide, the cutest little park ranger I’ve ever seen, Betty, at the meeting point. Then we began the hike down to the largest cliff dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace.
The hike down requires climbing several ladders and some uneven ground, but Emelia was able to hike the entire way on her own. We stopped at a little alcove with a fantastic view of Cliff Palace. Here Betty gave us some more history on this dwelling.
Built during the same time period as the other cliff dwellings in this area, sometime around the 13th century, Cliff Palace is the largest of all the dwellings. Cliff Palace also contains more kivas than other dwellings, so it’s possible that it was a religious center or hub for surrounding people. Settlers first came across Cliff Palace in the late 1800s. Excavation and reconstruction took place over the next several decades to allow visitors to see the dwelling up close.
With about 150 rooms, there is much to explore at Cliff Palace. We were able to look in some of the towers and marvel at the size of this dwelling before beginning the climb back out to the mesa top. The climb out was a little more strenuous with several narrow passageways and ladders, but again, Emelia was able to climb out on her own! Overall the tour was wonderful and we were grateful we got to see this incredible site!
Mesa Top Loop Road
After our tour of Cliff Palace, we spent some time exploring the sites and views from the Mesa Top Loop road. The pit house and pueblo excavations are great areas to explore how the building styles of the people changed over time. The views of the canyons and cliff dwellings from several of the lookouts are incredible!
Our busy day exploring the Chapin Mesa was rewarding and spectacular. We ended our evening with a yummy dinner and some swimming at the campground. Another evening thunderstorm made for more lighting views up on the mesa. Watching the lightning over the mesa is one of my favorite memories from our visit to Mesa Verde when I was a kid. Because the views from the mesa are extensive, you can see the lightning all across the valley!
This is especially fun to watch from your balcony at the Far View Lodge. Far View Lodge is the only lodging available in Mesa Verde National Park! While incredible to watch, it also reminds you of all the wildfires this area has had to fight!
Look for my next blogpost on our second day at Mesa Verde National Park coming up! There was so much to see and do!
Campground: Mesa Verde RV Resort
Food: Picnics and Spruce Tree Terrace Café
Activities: Mesa Verde National Park
Purchase tour tickets for the cliff dwellings up to two days in advance at the following locations: