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Recommendations for Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Emese lives in the Southwest, and she has traveled extensively in the area. She has a thorough understanding of this land and its people.

The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park are spectacular.

The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park are spectacular.

On the Balcony of Far View Lodge

The late afternoon sun is just arching through the sky as I sit on the balcony at Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde, Colorado. It is a clear day, so I can see far in the distance, across a green valley, to high mesas and even higher mountains. I'm amazed to think that I can see through two states as I look at Shiprock, over in Arizona.

Fluffy white clouds cover the sky here and there, casting their shadow on the mesa top. Somewhere in the distance, I see rain falling, a sight you can only experience in the desert. The light breeze feels good as it gently blows my hair.

The patio is just slightly elevated, so I can see all the shades of green as I look down on the field below. The grass is brown-green in most places, but blue-green shrubs dot the landscape, contrasting with the olive of the creosote bushes and the brighter green of the pinion pines. Lots of yellow wildflowers gleam against the green, contrasting with the bright red of the delicate and smooth Indian paintbrush. A big, bright butterfly flies by me, so close that I can feel the wind from its wings. As it settles on a flower, I recognize it: a monarch! Its bright orange and black and its delicate, smooth wings are a sharp contrast to all the washed-out green and spiky texture of dried grass and the roughness of the yellow flower. The monarch takes off again and as I watch it leave, I am aware of the distinctive smell of the creosote.

Suddenly a brown spot appears at the edge of the clearing. It is a deer, moving quietly, cautiously towards the building. She stops right in front of my balcony. As she looks up at me, I notice her big brown eyes shadowed by black eyelashes. She is so close, I could almost touch her shiny, silky coat . . . but I leave her alone. Deciding to ignore me, she starts grazing, slowly moving away. I notice her perking up her ears, so I follow her gaze. A herd of beautiful wild horses is crossing the road below. Everything is so peaceful as crickets sing their afternoon music. Beyond this sound, there is only the distant hum of the highway.

A herd of beautiful wild horses is crossing the road in Mesa Verde National Park.

A herd of beautiful wild horses is crossing the road in Mesa Verde National Park.

What Is Mesa Verde National Park?

Mesa Verde, Spanish for "Green Table", was established as a National Park by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, with the purpose to "preserve the works of man". It was the first one of its kind.

"The works of man" the park preserves are the old cliff dwellings of ancient Pueblo people. You can find more of these dwellings in a cluster here than anywhere else in the Southwest, in the high deserts of the Four Corners area. The Anasazi (the "Ancient Ones") inhabited the place between 550 AD and 1300 AD. For more than 700 years they lived here, building their homes, these cliff dwellings, into the canyon walls, as well as other homes on top of the mesa.

I have visited the place multiple times with my family and each time we go, we discover something new. The park is in the "middle of nowhere", far from most cities, or even bigger towns. Cortez, the town closest to the park, is not a very big one.

If you take the time to drive all the way there, it is definitely worth the stay for at least one, if not multiple nights. The Far View Lodge is our family favorite at this time, but in earlier times we have usually opted to camp. The campsite is well developed, with a mini gas station and a small shop.

Surrounding the archaeological site, the park is home to a large forested area, which unfortunately has many places burnt down over the years. Nonetheless it is beautiful.

Though the setting is beautiful, the real reason to drive all the way out there is to visit the cliff dwellings. They are all spectacular.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is the best-known, the largest, and the most spectacular of the cliff dwellings within the park boundaries, and one of our favorite spots. More than 150 rooms and 21 kivas (ceremonial rooms) were home to about 100 to 150 people according to researchers. Since most other cliff dwellings in the park consist of only about one to five rooms, Cliff Palace must have had a special significance in the lives of the people living here. It was probably a ceremonial, administrative and social center.

To visit Cliff Palace you need to join a tour. Tickets may be purchased at the visitor center located just across from the Far View Lodge. The single one-hour tour gives you the most insight into this dwelling, but if you don't have enough time, go for the Classic Pueblo Tour, which includes a short visit, among the other sites.

Hiking to Balcony House

Balcony House is my favorite spot to visit. Not only is it spectacular, but getting to it involves an element of adventure. Of course, you need a guided tour, given some danger on the way. We went through a tunnel, a few tight passageways through the rocks and a very high 32-foot ladder. Of course, the ladder is not the original, but it still looks like it.

It was really fun, though nerve-racking when we visited it with two young kids (nine and seven) and a baby in a backpack. At least I didn't carry the baby, my husband did; I just tried to watch the older ones so they wouldn't get into trouble. We went down into the canyon through those narrow passageways, then climbed the ladder on the side of the rock. It was impressive, and the kids had a lot of fun doing it. The site itself is also quite impressive, though with 40 rooms and a few kivas, it is not as large as Cliff Palace.

I had a much easier time visiting it years later with my then-teenage son. I didn't need to worry about him, and we enjoyed exploring the site.

You can only visit Balcony House with a ranger-guided tour. Tickets may be purchased at the visitor center.

Other Sites in the Park

Spruce Tree House is the third-largest dwelling in the park, with about 130 rooms and eight kivas. It was always the first one we visited since it was the easiest to get to. A short descent from the mesa top, on a paved trail, shaded most of the way, used to get us there.

Unfortunately, you can't visit Spruce Tree House at this time. Just recently the park closed it down due to rock falls from the alcove surrounding the dwelling. The overlooks near the museum offer a great view of it though.

Long House is the second largest of the sites in the park. You can reach it at the end of a winding 12-mile-long road, on Wetherill Mesa. Since the road follows a historic fire trail, it makes me sad driving through it. At the end of the road, a free tram ride took us farther. The tram stops at a few other dwellings, in addition to Long House.

We usually stop at the smaller sites on the mesa top. Short trails from their respective parking lots lead to Badger House Community, Cedar Tree Tower and Sun Temple, among others. They are all worth a walk-through.

Directions

The park is located on US-160, in the Southwest corner of Colorado.

The closest town to it is Cortez, about 25 miles away. From Cortez, take US-160E, then the Mesa Verde exit.

From Durango, which is about 65 miles away, take US-160W, then the same Mesa Verde exit.

Lodging

Once inside the park you have two options.

You can stay at Far View Lodge, located 15 miles inside the park. There is no TV or cell phone service in the rooms, which enhances the experience without distractions. There are plenty of rooms to choose from, both standard or upgraded kiva rooms. The lodge is in operation between April 16 and October 25.

The other option is camping at the Morefield Campground, just about four miles from the park's entrance. There are quite a few hiking trails starting at the campground, so for hikers, it's a great option. The campground is open between May and October

Dining

There are a few options to choose from:

My personal favorite is the Metate Room Restaurant, located just across the Far View Lodge. Their food is fabulous, with a menu that reflects the area. Over the years I think I have tried many of their meals and I can say that I liked everything I tried, though my favorite I think is the blue corn peanut dusted trout. What really impressed me was how they incorporated local fare into very elegant and tasty meals.

If you prefer a more casual, food-court setting, the Far View Terrace Cafe is a great option.

Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe is another option for patio-style dining in a beautiful setting.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you see the Mesa Verde ruins every day or do you need ticket reservations in advance?

Answer: You can see the mesa top sites without a reservation or a tour. However, you can only visit the cliff dwellings with a ranger-led tour, and for that, you'll need tickets. Unfortunately, you can only reserve them in person, at the Visitor Center. So make sure you stop there before entering the site and buy a ticket, $5/person/tour. Reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance; During busier weekends they tend to sell out fast.

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