Mesa Verde Country is at the foothills of San Juan Mountains of Colorado and on the northeast edge of the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau covers 240,000 miles, connecting Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. It is home to 9 National Parks, 18 National Monuments and the tribal lands of 6 Native American nations. It is likely that Mesa Verde Country will be on your way to one of these destinations.
Let’s Go! Learn Things in Mesa Verde Country…
Mesa Verde National Park
The Mesa Verde region was home to ancient puebloan civilaztions. These indigenous tribes lived on the flat mesas and in the alcoves of the steep cliffs. The gem of Mesa Verde Country is the Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde NP protects and preserves 52,000 acres with over 4,000 archeological sites.
As with most of the western National Parks, the Mesa Verde NP Visitor Center is right off the highway, but the bulk of the park is miles further in, along a scenic byway. The Visitor and Research Center is an impressive collection of educational displays, ancient artifacts, helpful Rangers and souvenier/book selections. I confess to being a fool for National Park gift shops, and this was a very nice one.
Ranger Guided Tours
Visiting and touring the cliff dwellings is kind of tricky so I want to try and help you navigate the process.
First of all, while the park is open year-round, the hours of the Visitor Center and available guided tours vary seasonally. For the specifics I suggest you visit the park website and read it carefully. Access into all of the cliff dwellings via a guided tour are completely shut down between October and April. However, that is not to say you cannot see the dwellings, it just means you cannot go down into them. I will explain more later.
Secondly, let me clarify the “guided tours”. There are three major cliff dwellings that you can go down into with a Ranger Guided Tour. They are Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House. Ticket prices are a very reasonable $5 but they are tricky to get. Tickets for these tours must be purchased in person at either the Mesa Verde NP Visitor Center or the Durango Welcome Center (in downtown Durango). These tickets can only be purchased for any tour within 48 hours. This actually means that each day you are most likely buying tickets for the next day because the day-of tickets are usually sold out the day before.
There are two caveats to this process. One is that there is a third party touring company that will sell you tickets in advance, online, but for the inflated cost of $80. The other caveat is, that you really don’t need a “guided tour” to thoroughly enjoy this park and it’s story.
On your OWN: Self-guided Touring
I encountered many visitors frustrated and disappointed about missing out on the ranger guided tours. Despite this, I was determined to find a way to experience the park and share it with my readers. So, I studied the maps talked with the Rangers and set out on my own.
This part of Mesa Verde Country is defined by two major mesas, upon which the ancient civilizations were centered. A mesa is a flat-topped hill or mountain with steep layered sides. These mesas are Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. The 23-mile scenic road starting at the Mesa Verde NP Visitor Center will take you on a wonderful auto-tour out to these two mesas. Alonog the way you will also find the Morefield Campground which has several hiking trails, as well as the Manco Valley, Montezuma Valley, Park Point and Geologic Overlooks. At the location of the Far View Lodge you will reach the junction for either the Chapin Mesa Rd or the Wetherill Mesa Rd.
The Wetherill Mesa gives you access to Step House and Badger House Community via the Long House Loop Trail. There is a ranger guided tour into Long House. All of these sites are only accessible from May to September. During late fall and winter the road is closed and the ranger tours cease.
The Chapin Mesa road remains open year round. Because I visited in late September (which was a beautiful time) Chapin Mesa was my only option. This road gives access to the Far View sites, Spruce Tree Terrace, Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Mesa Top Loop drive. The Mesa Top Loop is a 6-mile drive that will give you plenty of park to discover. There are short, paved trails to twelve easily-accessible sites, including surface dwellings and cliff dwelling overlooks. Highlights include Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point and Sun Temple stops. It is open 8:00 am to sunset.
Here are some of my favorite views along the Mesa Top Loop Auto Tour:
Mesa Verde National Park is truly a gem. With accessible overlooks and clearly annotated displays, you learn what archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered about these ancient Puebloan communities. There are remains of pit houses, kivas, cliff villages, and temples. Archaeologists believe that these people started around 600 AD in pit houses on top of the mesas, close to their agricultural fields. But later, around 1200 AD, they started moving down underneath the protective cliffs and alcoves.
Other Destinations in Mesa Verde Country
During the same time periods as the cliff villages on the mesas, there were other communities in the Montezuma Valley, to the north. As we explore more of Mesa Verde Country we learn about these other groups.
Canyon of the Ancients in Mesa Verde Country
The Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center was another great place to learn about the story of these ancient peoples. There were enlightening dioramas of dwellings, examples of ancient baskets, pottery and tools. Outside the Center is a short paved trail that passes several pueblo structures and ruins. The trail offers a dramatic view of the McPhee Reservoir. Back in the Visitor Center we had learned about the massive archaeological excavation project that took place before the Dolores River was dammed up for the reservoir.
Cortez is a sleepy town that bursts into life during the summer tourist season. There are typical chain hotels such as Baymont and Hampton Inn. They are nothing special but probably the closest (30 miles) to Mesa Verde National Park or Canyons of the Ancients.
The town of Cortez has a few decent dining options, a couple of yummy breakfast diners and a craft brewery. This is a National Park gateway town so there are places to rent off-road vehicles, gas up your vehicles and browse for some souvenirs. One of our favorites was Notah-Dineh Trading Post.
Durango is one of my favorite destinations this year. It has a perfect mix of hometown familiarity, glitzy tourism, spectacular mountain views, burbling river, historic locomotive and great dining, shopping and lodging.
Go! Learn More on a Durango-Ouray Scenic road trip
Plan plenty of time to enjoy Mesa Verde Country.
Be sure to put this region on your bucket list. If you love history, art, cowboys, trains, National Parks, hiking, mountains, extreme sports, zen fishing or great food, then Mesa Verde Country is perfect for you.