Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde And Its Spectacular Cliff Dwellings: History And How To Visit

As I look down into the canyon, I notice the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. At first glance they seem to be part of the rocks. But a closer examination reveals circular shapes and straight walls, windows, doorways, and perfectly round holes in the ground. I realize that as much as they blend in with their surroundings, these buildings are man-made.

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park. Cliff Palace

Hundreds of dwellings pepper the walls of the canyon of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the desert Southwest. Even though some date from 600 AD, they are some of the best-preserved ancient ruins in the Four Corners area and really, in the whole country.

They are all included in the first National Park established with the purpose of preserving “the works of men” in 1906. The site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, due to its exceptional archaeological value.

The Discovery of Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde

The first time I heard the story of the discovery of Cliff Palace, I was sitting under the alcove, listening to the ranger talk. Following the story, I imagined the two cowboys, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason first setting eyes on this spectacular cliff-dwelling in 1888, centuries after it lay abandoned.

View of Cliff Palace. Mesa Verde
View of Cliff Palace from the mesa top

Standing on the canyon rim, they looked down into the canyon and noticed the dwelling in a cave, on the opposite wall. What did they think of it?, I wondered.

Obviously curious, they hiked down into the canyon to investigate. On their way, they first entered Spruce Tree House, followed by Square Tower House and Cliff Palace.

Upon reaching it, they stood in a huge building they must have thought of being a palace, collapsed in a few places. Feeling like the first Westerners to walk through this for maze of rooms, towers, passageways, abandoned for centuries, they must have been in awe.

The Wetherill Family – Looters or Conservationists?

The Wetherill family, Quaker homesteaders, introduced these spectacular dwellings to the public. For years, the five brothers explored and dug out the ruins and brought home the artifacts they found, while looking for more ruins in the area.

Fifteen months after the discovery, their father, Benjamin Wetherill, wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institute, proposing Mesa Verde to be a protected monument. A few months later, he wrote another letter, worrying that unless the ruins are protected, the “tourists will destroy them”. By then tourists started exploring the ruins and taking artifacts as souvenirs.

But it took years for the area to be designated a National Park. In the meantime, in an effort to protect the artifacts from “tourists”, the Wetherill brothers brought home artifacts to store them. Although they sold some, as awful as it sounds, at the time it wasn’t illegal, or considered wrong. If anything, by keeping it all in the hands of one family, they felt they were protecting it from others, who might have destroyed them.

Mesa Verde Becomes a National Park, and a Protected Archaeological Site

It wasn’t until after the US Government passed The Antiquities Act in 1906, that Mesa Verde became a National Park and as such, a protected site. The Antiquities Act placed all prehistoric ruins and artifacts under Federal protection, and Mesa Verde became the first one of these prehistoric ruins.

So, these gorgeous cliff dwellings were the catalyst for the preservation and care of many more prehistoric sites, all over the US.

Mesa Verde National Park. Cliff Palace
Walking through Cliff Palace

Walking through the rooms, examining the towers, entering the kivas, I thought about the people who once called this place home.

Who Built these Structures?

Though I learned some of their histories from the ranger on the tour, for a more in-depth answers I visited the Chapin Mesa Archeology Museum.Through the displays of artifacts, I understood the chronology of the region.

The Basketmakers

The first people settled in Mesa Verde on the mesa top around 550 AD, building pit houses. They started farming and learned basket weaving as they transitioned from a nomadic life. Archaeologists call them Basketmakers for the main skills they developed.

Pueblo People

Later, around 750 AD their way of building houses evolved; The newer homes, clustered closer together, made of poles and mud, had upright walls. To distinguish this style of homes from the first, archaeologists call their builders the Pueblo People.

As their population grew and the people of Mesa Verde became better at agriculture, they cleared the mesa top for their crops.

Building the Cliff Dwellings

Now that they grew crops on the mesa top, sometime around 1200, they moved their homes into the alcoves on the Canyon walls. This is when they built the elaborate cliff dwellings we associate with the region. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and other researchers can still only guess the reasons for this building style.

Using the mesa top for farming and thus needing other places to live, is only one of the theories. Defense, religious reasons, protection from the desert weather are some other possible reasons.

Either way, they only lived in the cliff dwellings for about 100 years before leaving the area altogether. Again, their reasons are guesswork. Overpopulation, drought, a combination of both? But they left, and we can only marvel at the ruins of the homes they had built.

According to their descendants, the present-day tribes from the area, including the Hopi, their settlements were only temporary stops on their migration journeys. The Ancestral Puebloans did not disappear; they moved on when a settlement no longer fit their needs.

Visiting the Sites

Now, since they are part of the National Park, we can visit most of the archaeological sites in Mesa Verde. We can start with the older ones, on the mesa top.

The Mesa-Top Sites

Though not as spectacular as the ones built in the alcoves of the mesa walls, the mesa top sites are still interesting. The best part about them is we could visit them on our own, without a ranger-led tour.

Far View Sites Complex

We stopped at the Far View Sites Complex, where the Ancestral Puebloans lived just before moving into the cliff dwellings. This complex was the most populated part of Mesa Verde around 700 AD and beyond. Even after part of the population moved into the cliff dwellings, some still stayed here.

Mesa Verde. Kiva on the mesa top
Kiva on the mesa top

We walked through the ruins of Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House and Far View Tower. The view from the tower is amazing. You can look out and see way far in the distance. Since a short path connects all the sites, the walk to and through them doesn’t take too long.

Cedar Tree Tower

We drove over to Cedar Tree Tower, another structure similar to the Far View Tower. Though archaeologists found a few of these structures on the mesa top, they are not sure of their original purpose. Usually associated with a kiva, they might have had a ceremonial purpose, besides the lookout or communication system.

Square Tower House and Sun Temple

To reach more mesa top sites, we drove the Mesa Top Loop Road. This 6-mile one-way loop had many opportunities to stop, explore small ruins, and enjoy views of Cliff Palace from overlooks.

Stops start with the Square Tower House, and end with the Sun Temple, which was probably a ceremonial center. A D-shaped building, featuring two kivas within its walls, the Sun Temple reminds me of smaller scale of a building in Chaco Canyon.

The Cliff Dwellings

The cliff dwellings are the reason people visit Mesa Verde, the reason the park is so popular. In fact, they are the reason the park exists in the first place. For good reason; these cliff dwellings are indeed spectacular, some of the largest and best-preserved in the Southwest – and in the world.

Cliff Palace

The most popular, Cliff Palace, is open for visitors with a guided tour. We took the tour a few times over the years, and always enjoyed the experience. Reaching the large cliff dwelling, listening to the ranger telling us stories about it, then walking through some of the rooms and the covered kiva, is an unforgettable experience.

Comprising over 150 rooms and 21 kivas, Cliff Palace was once home to over 100 people, or about 25 families. Archaeologists also believe that it was a ceremonial and administrative center.

Joining this tour a few times over the years I learned a lot about this site. The tour starts at the Cliff Palace overlook, and involves climbing a few vertical ladders, which gives us an idea of how the cliff dwelling’s ancient inhabitants got in and out of the site.

We walked through a few rooms, some of them comprising multiple levels. We marveled at the walls built to seem like part of the cliff, and walked around the kivas under our feet.

But the highlight of this particular tour, especially for kids, was entering an underground, covered kiva. We descended through a small hole on a ladder. As we entered, following our kids, we found ourselves inside a perfectly round room. As we already knew, it was a kiva, used as a ceremonial room in ancient times.

Balcony House

Though comprising 40 rooms and a few kivas, the site is not as large as Cliff Palace, the Balcony House tour is much more adventurous.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde NP
Balcony House

I remembered the first time on this tour; We had a baby in a backpack and two young kids of 7 and 9. Though they were fine, I was constantly worrying about them, especially when I realized that they were the only young kids on that tour. As we progressed, I realized that their small size helped, as they navigated the most difficult parts easier than the adults in the group.

The Trail

A staircase leading into the canyon starts off the trail, followed by an easy walk below the mesa top. When we reached the base of the cliff dwelling, we climbed a 32-feet long, wooden ladder. Though it’s not as difficult as it sounds, and a lot of fun for kids, being on the sheer cliff, don’t look down if you have a fear of heights.

Mesa Verde- Climb to Balcony House
Climbing to Balcony House

Narrow passageways and a low tunnel comprised a few other challenges of this trail.

At the end of the tour, I reminded our kids of their attitude on the first trip. “Let’s do it again!”, they asked. My then-five-year-old daughter even ran back to the start of the trail trying to join the next tour. The ranger helped us explain to her it was time to let others go.

Inside Balcony House

Mesa Verde - Balcony House
Inside Balcony House

The ruins showcase a few kivas and well-preserved rooms. The view from the site is just as spectacular though. Looking out from it, I felt like they chose this location for the view alone.

Mesa Verde. View from the Balcony House
The view from the Balcony House

Spruce Tree House

Showcasing 130 rooms and eight kivas, Spruce Tree House is the third-largest cliff dwelling in the park, after Cliff Palace and Long House. The only one that could be visited without a ranger, it used to be the first one we hiked to. Even the trail leading to it is spectacular, a shaded walk into the canyon, on a trail surrounded by large spruce.

Though the trail and the site are closed due to safety reasons, the overlooks from the museum offer views of this cliff dwelling.

Long House

As the second-largest site at Mesa Verde, Long House promises to be a spectacular site. But since I still haven’t made it to Long House, I can’t say much about it. At the end of a long drive and even longer tram ride, Long House is not as easily accessible.

Although we bought tickets for a tour on our latest trip, we had to leave due to a (luckily minor) injury that prevented us to hike it. But since it is the only cliff dwelling we haven’t seen, we plan on returning soon.

Other Sites – on Wetherill Mesa

Wetherill Mesa is on the West side of the Park. The 12-mile drive from Far View Lodge ends at the Wetherill Mesa information kiosk, where we got on a free tram.

The tram drives a 6-mile loop and stops often at trailheads and a few smaller sites. Since we took the tram late in the day, and it would be the last one leaving Wetherill Mesa, we didn’t have much time to explore. You wouldn’t want to get stuck in this canyon. After the last tram leaves, you’d need to walk out to the car, something we didn’t want to do. To explore these sites, we decided to catch an earlier tram, in the morning, next time we visit Mesa Verde.

The highlights of this side of Mesa Verde are sites like Badger House Community and Step House, both of which you can explore on your own. For Long House, you need to join a ranger-led guided tour.


Mesa-Verde

FAQ

  1. Where is Mesa Verde National Park?

    Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the US, is in the Four Corners area, in the state of Colorado, near the town of Cortez.

  2. Can you visit the cliff dwellings without a tour?

    The only cliff dwelling you can visit without a tour is Step House, in Wetherill Mesa. For all other cliff dwellings, you need to join a ticketed tour.
    As of May 2022, you need to buy tickets ahead of time. You can do this either online onrecreation.govor by calling 877-444-6777. You can buy them 14 days in advance.
    However, you can still enter the park and visit the mesa top sites without them.

  3. Where to stay when visiting Mesa Verde?

    The best place to stat within the park’s boundaries is Farview Lodge, offering comfortable rooms with balconies with gorgeous views of the park and the Four Corners Region.
    The park also offers camping opportunities at Morefield Campground, with amenities on site, including a small convenience store.
    You can find many other options for lodging in the town of Cortez, 9 miles from the park entrance.

  4. Where to eat when visiting Mesa Verde?

    The park offers several dining choices, from fine dining to a casual setting.
    The Metate Room is the top restaurant in the park, Mesa Verde’s fine dining experience, offering award-winning dishes made of local ingredients. Open for lunch and dinner.
    The Knife Edge Cafe offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner near the Morefield Campground.
    The Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe offers Southwest specialties and classic American dishes in a historic building near the Chapin mesa museum.
    The Far View Terrace Cafe is a good option for lunch in a casual setting.

  5. What is the best time to visit Mesa Verde?

    The shoulder seasons, spring and fall offer the best experiences in the park, when it comes to weather.
    Though the summer months get hot during mid-day, it is still a good time to visit, since all trails are open. Just try to stay out of the sun mid-day, carry water, and wear sun protection.
    In the winter the trails to the cliff dwellings, the campground and restaurants are closed, but the rest of the park remains open, with opportunities for snow-shoeing and visiting the mesa top sites.

Mesa Verde NP
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde protects "the works of men" since 1906.

11 thoughts on “Mesa Verde And Its Spectacular Cliff Dwellings: History And How To Visit”

  1. Fascinating! It is really interesting to think about what happened when it was discovered. I can’t imagine coming across something like that. Glad the government stepped in to protect it. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    1. I know, Anisa. I would’ve loved to be the first person to see this… though it had to be a challenge to get to them at the time. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  2. So far I have only explored the Indian dwellings in Arizona. I’ve heard of Mesa Verda, but I’ve had no idea it was in Colorado. I hope I’m going to see these ruins too someday. I really loved the Arizona and these seem to be in way better shape than those. In fact the entire complex is much bigger that those I’ve seen so far.

    1. Yes, Anda, this is much bigger and better preserved than anything we have in Arizona. Though we have some pretty spectacular ones, too. They are all pretty much in the Four Corners region, but Mesa Verde in CO and Chaco in NM are the two biggest complexes. Yes, you should go. you’ll enjoy these if you like the ones in AZ.

  3. This looks absolutely amazing. I’ve always wanted to see these ruins, though I have to admit, that 32 food ladder gives me pause. I’m sure I could do it as long as I don’t look down!

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