Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World
Heritage Site protecting some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan
archaeological sites in the United States. About 1,400 years ago, long
before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four
Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and
their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone
communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D.
1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient
Getting there ...
We continued our trip from the
Black Canyon of
the Gunnison National Park after lunch in Montrose. It's a smooth
3-hour drive, and it has nice scenery when we drove through the Colorado
- We stopped by a few overlooks after entering the Mesa Verde National
Park on our way to the Far View Lodge inside the park.
- Mesa Top Loop
After a break and an early dinner at the Far View
Lodge, we headed to the Mesa Top Loop Road for a scenic drive in the late
- Square Tower House
Featuring the tallest standing structure in the
park, an intact kiva roof, original plaster and paint, and plentiful rock
art, Square Tower House is one of Mesa Verde's most impressive cliff
dwellings. There was a ranger-led backcountry tour to visit the Square
Tower House. But unfortunately we could not fit the tour (only offered
3 times per week) in our itinerary, so we could only see it from above.
- Sun Temple & Cliff Palace Viewpoint
According to modern Pueblo
Indians, Sun Temple's features classify it as a ceremonial structure. A
short walk past the Sun Temple leads to a viewpoint with one of the best
views of Cliff Palace.
I booked the 9AM tour (first tour in the morning) to
visit Cliff Palace. Built between 1190 and 1280 CE, Cliff Palace was
once home to over 100 people. Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace
contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a
social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage. Out of the nearly
600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms
each, and many are single room storage units. Today, Cliff Palace
stands as a testament to the engineering and artistic achievements of the
Ancestral Pueblo people. On this tour, you will descend uneven stone steps
and climb four ladders, with an elevation change of 100 feet (30 m). Total
walking distance is 1/4 mile (0.4 km).
Our next tour was to visit Balcony House at 11AM.
Balcony House was a mid-sized village of 38 rooms and two kivas and probably
housed up to 30 people. Two naturally-occurring seep springs were located
nearby, one within the alcove and one just below. A tour of Balcony House is
one of the most adventurous in the park. You will scale the face of a cliff
via several tall ladders,
squeeze your way through a
narrow tunnel on your hands and knees, and explore some of the same
passages used over 800 years ago.
- Petroglyph Point Trail
After a lunch at the Spruce Tree Terrace and a
quick visit to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, we hiked the rugged and
adventurous 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Trail. For the first half of the
trail, hikers traverse the side of Spruce Canyon, squeezing between boulders
and descending narrow stone staircases to reach a large petroglyph panel at
trail marker #23. From here, hikers must climb a 100-foot (30 m) cliff,
scrambling up rocks and uneven sandstone steps to the mesa top, and then it
is an easy walk back to the trailhead to complete the loop. Many
people actually did the whole loop but missed the petroglyph panel because
if you only pay attention to the trail and never look up to the canyon
walls, you will pass the large petroglyph panel easily without knowing.
Spruce Tree House
Before returning to the trailhead, the Petroglyph
Point Trail passed a nice viewpoint overlook the Spruce Tree House, the
third largest cliff dwelling (after Cliff Palace and Long House),
constructed between about 1211 and 1278 CE. The dwelling contains
about 130 rooms and 8 kivas (kee-vahs), or ceremonial chambers, built into a
natural alcove measuring 216 feet (66 meters) at greatest width and 89 feet
(27 meters) at its greatest depth. It is thought to have been home for about
60 to 80 people. However, due to continued safety concerns related to
rock fall, the site remains closed for the foreseeable future.
- Cliff Palace
I went back to Cliff Palace Overlook to take a few
pictures because of better lighting in the afternoon.
- Soda Canyon Overlook Trail
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail is an easy
1.2-mile (round-trip) hike winds through pinyon-juniper forest to three
overlooks, where hikers are rewarded with views of Balcony House and other
cliff dwellings across Soda Canyon. We got there shortly after
8AM to begin the hike before the weather was getting hot, and also for good
lighting on Balcony House.
- Far View Sites
This is a mesa-top community including Far View House, four other villages,
and a dry reservoir. In ancient times, the community was a place of modest
homes interspersed with small farm fields. It was a place filled with
people, vibrant life, and constant change in the surrounding landscape
between 900 to 1300 CE.
- Unfortunately, the Wetherill Mesa area of Mesa Verde National Park is
closed for the 2023 season to accommodate the demolition and construction of
a new contact station in the Wetherill area. The existing contact
station was damaged by the Pony Fire in August 2000 and needs to be
replaced. An additional large waterline replacement project may extend
the Wetherill closure through 2024. It means we would not be able to
visit other famous cliff dwellings such as Long House and Step House in this
area in this trip.
After went back to our room at the Far View Lodge for the
final break, we checked out of the hotel and headed to Durango for lunch,
and walked around the small old town and visited the interesting
D&SNGRR (Durango &
Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) Museum.
Going Home ...
We had an early evening flight from Durango to Denver, and then from Denver
back to San Francisco. This time our flights were on time (but the
previous flight from Durango to Denver was canceled so its passengers all
rebooked to our flight). Western Colorado is a remote and scenic nature
region that includes the desert, mountains, mountain lakes, and river valleys.
From the majestic
Black Canyon of
the Gunnison to the historical cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, this western
Colorado trip was full of wonders for us to experience.
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