Mesa Verde National Park
A Window To The Puebloan Past
Mesa Verde National Park is truly spectacular, and a national treasure. Located in the Four Corners region near Mancos Colorado, this amazing park encompasses just over 52,000 acres and has an estimated 600 Pueblo dwellings. These dwellings which were constructed between 600 and 1200 AD are truly a sight to see and, a reminder of just how resourceful and inventive the Ancestral Puebloan people were. Please read on as we take you through our visit to the park and share some of our insights and experiences in this historic wonder!
The conclusion of our 385 mile trip from home to our first stop in the Four Corners region found us pulling into the Mesa Verde RV Resort. Though there is a campground in the park itself, we liked the “mom and pop” feel of this RV resort along with it being half a mile from the park entrance. If you want a full hook-up spot in Mesa Verde’s Morefield Campground, plan ahead as they get booked up quickly. We did take a drive through Morefield Campground which was gorgeous. There were several sites still open for those looking for a dry camping experience. The main benefit, you can shorten the 45-minute drive from the visitor center to the cliff dwelling locations as you are already in the park.
Mesa Verde Visitor And Research Center
After we got our RV set up and ready to go, we headed on over to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center near the park entrance. It was free to get in, and a required stop to book our tour times for the following day. Tour times can be reserved and paid for at the visitor center, museum or the Durango Welcome Center. Tickets can only be purchased up to two days in advance. Plan on $5 per person for the guided tours.
The visitor center also has several exhibits. Visitors can learn about the Ancestral Pueblo people, the museum and research collection, and features of the visitor center itself. The visitor center is also a great place to pick up some maps, trinkets, and passport stamps if you collect those! Talking to one of the park rangers in the visitor center, she suggested we enter the park an hour before our tour started due to the long drive from the entrance to the tour location. That was a top tip we took to heart for day two!
Cliff Palace Tour
Day two was tour day! We had a 10 AM tour time, so we hit the park entrance around 9 AM and purchased entry. From there it was an absolutely beautiful drive up the mesa along the paved road. There were several switchbacks, and top speed was about 45MPH. There were several pull-out and view locations which we took advantage of on our way back. It was a little hazy the day we were there due to forest fires in the area, but we enjoyed the views just the same.
It was a short walk from the large parking area to the tour location. The day had already started warming up, so we were glad we brought plenty of water for the tour. You aren’t allowed to bring food or snacks on the Cliff Palace tour for the most part as crumbs can attract pests. Water is a must have however when you are in the desert at 8000 feet in elevation. Bring water. Our tour guide was Ranger Jack who was a wealth of knowledge. You could tell he was passionate about the area and loved being a Park Ranger. Just an awesome dude all the way around in our opinion! Thanks Ranger Jack!
The walk down wasn’t horrible, but we are from Utah at 4200 feet in elevation. If you are from sea level locations, it may be a bit more strenuous. There was a ladder or two to clime, and the path was steep in a few spots. All in, there were roughly 20 folks in our group, so the pace was slow and everyone got to the cliff palace and back in one piece.
Upon reaching the Cliff Palace, we were taken back by the enormity of the dwelling as well as the breathtaking setting. Ranger Jack explained several of these structures were three to four stories tall with roofs and balconies. He also explained these fantastic buildings would not have just been just the brickwork like we see today. A plaster mixture was then spread on them along with brilliant red, white, and tan coloration. What a spectacle it would have been against the natural rock background and surrounding juniper trees!
Some of the original juniper used in the structure can still be seen protruding from some of the walls along with original coloration on some of the upper walls. Additionally, well-preserved kivas gave as a glimpse into Ancestral Puebloan life on the mesa top. These kivas were dug 6 to 8 feet into the ground and a well built multi-layered roof would have been constructed. The ladder and vent hole for the fire would have come through the roof. In addition, a carefully engineered vent channel on the side would have forced the smoke out of the hole in the top to prevent smoke inhalation. The thick brick and mortar walls, plaster exterior, and thick roofs meant kivas were well insolated. Combine that with the cliff overhang and one can imagine the residence of the Cliff Palace were kept safe from most of the elements.
The climb out from the Cliff Palace was pretty steep, but there were handrails which helped considerably. Once we reached the top we were back on the platform where the tour started. We were all pretty hungry at this point so we started our voyage for food. We were glad we found the Spruce Tree Terrace Restaurant.
Spruce Tree Terrace and Mesa Top Loop
The Spruce Tree Terrace is on the same side of the park as Cliff Palace on the Chapin Mesa side. It was also just a short walk from the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum which we later visited. The Spruce Tree Terrace had some beer and wine on hand, as well as some tasty menu items like burgers, grilled cheese, sandwiches, and hot dogs. They also had what they called a Navajo Taco which was really good, but a bit on the spicy side for our delicate pallets. The employees were great, however, as was the food and cafe style atmosphere.
We finished our lunch and walked through the attached gift shops which had some beautiful items. A couple of said items came home with us. From there it was off to the museum to see what they had on display. I must say, they had a pretty extensive collection of artifacts, paintings, and dioramas. It was amazing to see all of the items on display which really helped paint a picture of how the Puebloans lived and where they eventually migrated. Highly recommended!
Lastly, we finished the day by completing the Mesa Top Loop. This loop consists of several pull-out areas where we were able to park and walk very short distances to see Pit Houses and View Areas. It was all very cool stuff, but honestly, after seeing the kivas and the Cliff Palace, we didn’t find them as amazing as we probably should have.
In hindsight, I should have added an extra day to explore the other half of the park on the Wetherill Mesa side. I also think had the three of us not been under the weather, we would have explored some of the hikes to more of the hidden gems in Mesa Verde. We had a great time though and learned a tremendous amount about the Puebloan people, and the Four Corners Region as a whole.
Mesa Verde National Park – Coloradoinfo.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coloradoinfo.com/activities-attractions/mesa-verde-national-park