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Recommendations for Visiting Mesa Verde National Park From a Frequent Visitor

Updated on October 10, 2017
Emese Fromm profile image

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

Cliff Palace, the largest ruin in the Mesa Verde Archaeological Park
Cliff Palace, the largest ruin in the Mesa Verde Archaeological Park | Source

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 heard 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 heard of beautiful wild horses is crossing the road in Mesa Verde National Park.
A heard of beautiful wild horses is crossing the road in Mesa Verde National Park. | Source

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 this 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 100-150 people, according to researchers. Since most other cliff dwellings in the park consist of only about 1-5 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.

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Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National ParkA Kiva in Cliff Palace Inside Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park | Source
A Kiva in Cliff Palace
A Kiva in Cliff Palace | Source
Inside Cliff Palace
Inside Cliff Palace | Source

Hiking to Balcony House

Balcony House is my favorite spot to visit. Not only is 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 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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
After a going through a tunnel, tight passageways, and a 32-foot ladder, you can finally reach Balcony House.
After a going through a tunnel, tight passageways, and a 32-foot ladder, you can finally reach Balcony House.
After a going through a tunnel, tight passageways, and a 32-foot ladder, you can finally reach Balcony House. | Source

Other Sites in the Park

Spruce Tree House is the third largest dwelling in the park, with about 130 rooms and 8 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 tram ride, free of charge, 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.

Getting There

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 4 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 of patio style dining in a beautiful setting.

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    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 24 months ago from The Desert

      Hello, Jean,

      I'm so glad this hub brought back fond memories to you. In 1982, it must've been even more remote than it is now. It's interesting that you are from NJ, we first visited the Southwest when we were still living in Jersey, bu that was more than a decade after your visit.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting, it means a lot.

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 2 years ago from New Jersey

      I visited Mesa Verde in 1982 with my husband, on the first of two trips where we drove across the country from NJ. It's a lovely place, and your pictures are beautiful. Thanks for a lovely memory.

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Thank you, Susie. I love national parks, they are always nice to visit.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      I have not visited this national park but would love to. I have imagined what it would be like to live there in this dwellings and believe I would like that very much if only it was possible. Beautiful hub, Emese.

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Hi Essie, Yes, of course I've been at Montezuma's Castle, it't too close to my home to pass it :) I live in Phoenix. However, this is way bigger and more spectacular, or I should say, it's on a bigger scale. Yes, they are built in a similar fashion, but while Montezuma's Castle can be a quick stop off the highway, to visit Mesa Verde you really need to stay there at least one full day, or two. It has many more structures than the one in Montezuma's Castle. You seem to like the Southwest, hope you get to visit soon :)

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 2 years ago from Southern California

      Spectacular! I am always mesmerized by dwellings such as these. Another reason to return to Colorado! Have you been to Montezuma's Castle in AZ yet? It reminds me of this. I really think you might like it. I'll see if I can dig through my photos.

      Your hub was a delight. I liked your story about the deer and horses!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Thank you, Akriti.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 2 years ago from Shimla, India

      I look forward to read more of your hubs. Very interesting

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Hi Mel, you know, they are guessing that drought was a big factor of them abandoning their dwellings. I think there were a few very long stretches of drought that at least contributed to it. It's never too late to visit.... San Diego is not that far. Thank you for the visit, glad you enjoyed my hub.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      In light of our prolonged drought here in California, it makes me wonder why these mysterious people suddenly abandoned these dwellings? Living in the Southwestern US can be a tenuous proposition, at best, because of our limited moisture. I am somewhat ashamed that I have lived in the Southwest my entire life but still have not visited this magnificent place. Great photos and great hub.

    • Kathy Stutzman profile image

      Kathy Stutzman 2 years ago from When not traveling, located in Colorado or Minnesota

      Me too...I like to get out there every 2 or 3 years, but have missed a few - and I am due a trip. Your article and pictures made me want to get up and go. Thanks!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Kathy, thank you for your visit. Glad I could point out new things for you to see next time. Hope you get to go soon.

    • Kathy Stutzman profile image

      Kathy Stutzman 2 years ago from When not traveling, located in Colorado or Minnesota

      What a great article - thanks for sharing, it makes me want to be there right now. I love Mesa Verde and you have given me new things to explore the next time I go - thank you!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Thank you, Kristen! Glad you liked it. I appreciate your vote :)

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub, Ernese. Very vivid and visual with the photos and the travelogue descriptions. Voted up for beautiful!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      @ChitrangadaSharan Thank you for your comment and your vote! I'm so glad you enjoyed my article.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      What an amazing location and such rare pictures!

      I had no idea about this place, till I read your wonderfully presented hub.

      Thanks for sharing the interesting information about this beautiful place. Voted up!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Thank you for your comment, peachpurple. There wasn't much traffic at the time, I'm guessing the horses wouldn't be out when it gets more crowded. It's a national park though, so everyone drives slowly. I've been there lots of times, but it was the only time I saw wild horses

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      beautiful sight to behold, don't the horses get knocked down?

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      I clicked approve, but the icon just disappeared, now I only have the choice to deny. This does not seem right :(

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Okay, I'm going to post this...when I do, you should see an icon below my comment that asks you to approve it...once you do that you'll see an icon that allows you to reply