4,700 archeological wonders, including 600 cliff dwellings, mesa-top pithouses, and much more, offer a glimpse of Ancestral Puebloan life.
Our state is home to one of the world’s most unique and well-preserved historical sites in the world. Mesa Verde National Park, established as a park in 1906, is a gem of preserved cultural and natural resources that are awe-inspiring.
Located in Southwest Colorado, about 35 miles from Durango and 10 miles from Cortez, you could spend weeks exploring the park and still not see it all. The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the area from 550 A.D. and 1300 A.D., first living on the mesa tops for centuries, moving into the cliff dwellings for the last 75 to 100 years. By the late 1200 A.D.’s these early people began migrating south and abandoned the Mesa Verde area. They left behind a bounty of dwellings, relics, tools, and more that are still being explored to this day.
Petroglyphs are found on many cliff walls throughout the park. Courtesy of NPS.gov.
“Currently, Mesa Verde has over 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings and the mesa top sites of pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures, with many more yet to be revealed,” said visitmesaverde.com.
The dwellings first mentioned by an expedition in 1765, and members of the San Juan Exploring Expedition used the name “Mesa Verde” in 1859. The area gained much following after pioneer photographer, William Henry Jackson, photographed the Two Story House in 1874.
Scattered throughout the park are a host of cliff dwellings in various states of preservation. Some are accessible, while others are just for observation. Five of the most impressive, and best-preserved dwellings are Balcony House (accessible by a ladder and tunnel), Cliff Palace (as seen in the cover photo), Long House, Spruce Tree House (check it out on the park’s webcam!), and Step House. You are able to access certain areas in some of the dwellings to get a first-hand look at the Ancestral Puebloans architecture and culture.
Cliff Palace. Courtesy of NPS.gov.
There are tons of tours available to help you see the parts of the park that you’d like to see. You can find one that meets the ability level of your party. Don’t forget to stop by the visitor center to learn more about the history of the park. Mesa Verde also has lodging and camping options, or you can stay in nearby towns.
Hiking is amazing in the park. Almost every trail will lead you to or near dwelling sites, whether you are a novice or experienced hiker. There are trails from around one mile round trip to close to eight miles. Pack plenty of water, use sunscreen, and wear a hat for shade. In all seasons, the park is fairly exposed to the sun, and it can get very hot in the summer months.
Please obey park rules, and do not enter dwellings that are marked off limits. Also, leave what you find in the park. There are pottery shards everywhere, and while beautiful, they should remain undisturbed, no matter how small — it’s the right thing to do, and it’s also Federal law.
Biking is also allowed in areas in and around Mesa Verde. From single track to the sweeping berms of the Rib Cage Trail, there is something for riders of all ages. You can even cross country ski parts of the park or ride around on a fat-tire bike to get a look at the cliff dwellings during the winter season.
In addition, there is a host of wildlife and natural scenery to view, and Mesa Verde is a wonderful spot for bird watching.
Mesa Verde is located near several other fascinating vacation spots and activities. There are several other historic and cultural sites within driving distance from Mesa Verde, if you use it as a home base: Hovenweep National Monument, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Anasazi Heritage Center, Trail of the Ancients (a 114-mile scenic/historic by-way highlighting the occupation of the area by Native American peoples), and Canyon of the Ancients.
In addition, the Four Corners Monument is an easy drive from Mesa Verde, in case you want to stand in four states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) all at once!
Nearby Durango is also home to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad where you can take a train ride into Colorado’s mining past, as well as numerous hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and back-country jeeping opportunities. Check out everything Durango has to offer here.
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