Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is a national park in southwestern Colorado that is full of some fascinating Native American History. The park also has some amazing views and nature to enjoy but the real draw are the numerous ruins with historical and educational displays.
While there are plenty of opportunities to hike at Mesa Verde, the park can also be enjoyed as a driving heavy location. This allows more people with different physical abilities to be able to enjoy more of the park. It is a very big park and a full day is most likely required to enjoy it to the fullest. I learned this the hard way and only allowed a little more than a half day and missed a whole section.
There is also some camping available at the park at the Morfield Campground and the Far View Lodge is available inside the park if you are looking to make it a full day. Mesa Verde does have rules on how big trailers and campers can be on some of the roads so make sure to check their camping rules. Also, part of the park is closed in the winter season so plan accordingly.
The beginning portion of the park is where some of the most impressive views are. There are a couple of really nice overlooks to be enjoyed. Point Lookout is a moderately strenuous hike to the top of a mesa and some really amazing views.
For those not looking for a challenging hike, the Park Point Overlook is a short walk on a paved path that takes you to even more amazing views. The Park Point Overlook also has a historical fire tower. I have full write ups on both the Point Lookout and Park Point Overlook on this website.
The last of the overlooks at the beginning portion of the park is the Knife Edge. The Knife Edge has a two mile hike that is included as well for those who are ok with heights. This path follows one of the original roads. It is a road that saw its fair share of accidents and was not for the feint of heart.
As I mentioned, Mesa Verde is a very big park and driving is a big part of it. After the overlooks and about eleven miles into the park you will come to the Far View Terrace and junction for the two main loops of the parks. To the right is Weatherill Mesa road which is open May through September. No bikes are allowed on Weatherill and vehicles need to be under 8,000 pounds and under 25 feet in length. I also mentioned above that I did not allow enough time for my trip and I had to sacrifice Weatherill Mesa on this trip but hope to get to it on my next trip!
If you stay straight at the junction you will head to the Chapin Mesa. The Chapin Mesa is open year round. Chapin Mesa is also home to some of the best historical and architectural highlights of the park. Most of the elements require tickets to take guided tours down to. Some, like Spruce Tree House when I was there, can be closed for protection and preservation. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an excellent time exploring! There are a lot of places to stop on Chapin Mesa with short walks to overlooks or exhibits from the small parking areas. Here are a fewof the spots I really liked.
Spruce Tree House
The Spruce Tree House is the most preserved of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. There is a self guided hiking tour in the summers and ranger guided tour in the winter. As I mentioned these ruins were closed when I was there and I was only able to walk a bit down the walkway. The trail was still open and there is a two and half mile trail down Spruce Canyon from here. There is also a petroglyph trail that is available from here but I was fighting the clock and didn’t attempt either of those.
The Cliff Palace was my favorite spot at Mesa Verde. The palace is so impressive. You can take a guided tour down to the palace but you need to get rickets in advance, which I was not aware of. There are a couple of places to see the Cliff Palace from but one thing I did was went to the start of the hike, listened to the rangers give the explanation of the site and then took in the Palace from the overlook at the start. If you are looking to hike down to the palace be aware that to get out there are four vertical ladders that need to be used. So keep that in mind based on your physical abilities. You can also see the Cliff Palace from other parts of the park so keep your eyes open at the various overlooks.
I have to be honest, I didn’t remember seeing Balcony House while I was at the park and it wasn’t until I came home and looked at the picture that I noticed it. I needed to look it up and found that you can indeed take a ranger guided tour to these ruins as well. Advanced tickets are required here as well and there is a ladder and tunnel so plan accordingly. I can say that at least you can see it from somewhere in the park although I can’t remember where!
Pit House A.D. 600
The historic ruins don’t stop at what can be seen above ground however. There are also a series of displays that date back even further. The first of these is at the Pit House from the year A.D. 600. There is a small pull off to park at and a short walk the structure that houses these remains.
The Pit House was fascinating to me and I love the history. I didn’t grow up in the west so the southwestern Native American history was bit new to me. These were the first homes of the ancestral Pueblo farmers of the area. They would build half below and half above ground to keep the home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There was a hearth in the center with an exhaust hole above. It was really cool to see these remains of some of the earliest homes in the area.
Navajo Canyon Overlook
The park is also as majestic as it is historic. The Navajo Canyon is proof of that. The Navajo Canyon Overlook is just a bit past the first pit house. The canyon has sheer walls on the tops before a pretty steep grade down to the canyon floor. Like a lot of these canyons in the mesas, it is amazing that from the top side you wouldn’t really know the canyon is there until you get right up to it.
Square Tower House
One of the most fascinating of the ruins for me was the Square Tower House. These ruins are tucked into near vertical cliffs with no obvious entry points. The overlook is just past the Navajo Canyon Overlook. The sheer walls of the canyon tops became the backdrop to a pretty amazing build.
The Square Tower Hose was in use between A.D. 1200-1300 making it even more impressive that it was created without the benefit of modern tools. The Square Tower House is the tallest structure in the park and it is said to even still have original paint and plaster. There is a ranger guided tour that includes rock scrambles, a 20 foot ladder and some drop offs. I did not know about the tour but I don’t know if I would do it. I’m pretty scared of heights and just seeing this on the cliffside from the overlook was making me a bit nervous.
Pit Houses and Pueblos A.D 700-950
As you continue along the loop it is like you are moving forward in time. The Pit House and Pueblos section of the park is from A.D. 700-950. The info graphics around this section talked about the inclusion of villages in the mix. There are a couple or these spots close together at this site suggestion that the inhabitants were living closer together and had gathering spaces. There was also reference to stone tools being found.
Mesa Top Sites A.D. 900-1100
Continuing on the journey forward in time and technology are the Mesa Top Sites. At this location the village was still pretty visible including a kiva. A kiva was a gathering place traditionally used by males for religious rites. There were more above ground remains in this area and it was really interesting to see the growth from the first site to this one.
Sun Point View A.D. 1200-1300 and the Sun Temple
The Sun Point was one of the last Pueblo communities built in the Mesa Verde area. From here the villages moved into the cliff dwellings. The village only stood for a couple of generations and it is thought that those who moved took most of the stone and wood with them to the dwellings and their new homes.
From Sun Point there are views across the valley to the Cliff Palace that we saw earlier. You can also see a majority of the migration pattern of the Pueblo across the canyon from the Sun Point Overlook.
The Sun Temple is the next stop and it was the most intact topside structure that I saw on the trip. The temple looked like a one story building that could still be in use today. Although there were no doors.
There was a window though and you could see into the temple a bit. According to modern Pueblo Indians, Sun Temple’s features classify it as a ceremonial structure. Based on stone removed the estimates are that the walls were 11-14 feet tall but archeologists are unsure if the building was ever completed. I was still very impressed and this was one of my favorite spots in the park.
Wrapping up Mesa Verde National Park
I learned so much at Mesa Verde National Park. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I went there and I did an early hike thinking it was a hiking park. When I got to see all that it had to offer I was blown away at the history of the location. Especially how well preserved it was.
I do wish that I would have dedicated more than about a half day to the park. There was so much to see and I wish I would have stayed and done more instead of rushing through some of the locations. Also, I was surprised by how much driving was involved and that I needed to preorder tickets for all of the locations. But lessons learned and I will plan better next time. Plus, if you are thinking of going on a trip you have all the information so you won’t make my mistakes! Definitely worth a trip.
I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map page that you can find here. If you have a suggestion or comment you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!