Mesa Verde National Park Tour
Mesa Verde has been on our travel list since 2020 when we had to cancel our original plans due to the pandemic. For this trip we arrived on a Monday and checked out on Thursday giving us two full days in the park; we could have used three.
For me, it was the architecture and archeology of the cliff dwellings that were so fascinating. Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the United States with 5000 sites and 600 cliff dwellings, and Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
We arrived on a Monday afternoon and checked in at the Mesa Verde Visitors Center and then journeyed on to our hotel room at the Far View Lodge located in the center of the park. At the entrance to the visitor center you are greeted by the sculpture “The Ancient Ones” which illustrates the Ancestral Pueblo people traveling up and down the face of the rock cliffs with little more the finger and toe holes for support. They hunted and farmed on the mesa tops and lived in village houses, and then later moved into the cliff dwellings below where the cliffs overhung and protected their homes.
The Visitors Center includes a museum, gift shop, ranger station, and exhibits. Ranger guided tours are required for Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House, and interpretive programs include a bus tour of many additional sites. You can purchase tickets at the ranger station but we signed up early online for the bus tour, Cliff Palace, and Long House tours. The Balcony House was described as the most difficult trail which I decided to forego until we had tried out the others. In retrospect I wish we had made time for the Balcony House tour too.
Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table mountain” which describes the high flat tops of these mountains that provided for the Ancestral Pueblo people. The elevation change is about 2000 feet to the valley below. Natural growth included Pinyon Pine and Juniper which were used for firewood and building materials. The soil was rich on top so farming included squash, corn, potatoes, and beans. The climate is arid but water was available from reservoirs and from rain and snow melt collected in check dams and farming terraces around the mesa perimeter. The vast range on the mesa top provided for hunting elk, deer, rabbit, and squirrel for food and fur skins, and turkeys which were domesticated and raised for food. Weapons and tools were made from wood, stone, feathers and bone, along with basket weaving and pottery, but no metals. Hunting used stone tipped spears, stone knives, and bow and arrows with stone tips. During the 700 years the Ancestral Pueblo lived on the mesa their pottery developed from mud formed pots to fired ceramics used for carrying water, storing grain, and cooking.
The Pueblo Potter by sculptor Adrian Wall and the NPS illustrations by Roy Andersen illustrate the lifestyle on the mesa a thousand years ago.
Trade developed with other clans and distant communities to include shells from the Pacific west coast and turquoise, pottery, and cotton from the south where the Pueblo later relocated. At its peak there were about 35,000 people living on the mesa top villages and cliff dwellings.
The first occupants around 500 CE built pit houses on the mesa top and along the cliff alcoves. They were usually square or rectangular pits dug into the ground and covered with poles using mud and vegetation to seal the structure and provide shelter. A hole in the center of the roof provided access to the interior by ladder and ventilation for smoke from the fire pit below. By 1000 CE more stone and adobe construction was utilized with multiple floor levels, which led to the Cliff dwellings we see today, most of which were built from 1100 to 1300 CE. About 600 dwellings have been found at Mesa Verde ranging in size from single rooms to communities of 150 rooms with multiple floor levels.
Life was hard as compared with today, the Ancestral Pueblo’s average life span was relatively short, as most people lived an average of 32–34 years, with a high mortality rate at 50% for children.
By 1300 the Ancient Pueblo had left and Mesa Verde was deserted for unknown reasons. Speculation is that there was an ongoing drought, and that the land had become baron and not yielding the crops and hunting they needed for food. The harsh conditions may have caused conflicts over resources leading to the construction of the cliff dwellings for protection, and the eventual move south to find a better home. Today, descendants to the south include the Hopi of northern Arizona, and the people of Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, and the Pueblos along the Rio Grande.
The journey from the visitors center to our hotel took about 45 minutes as it is a winding mountainous road with numerous overlooks along the way. The first notable sight is the flat top of the mesa at Point Lookout. There is a trail and overlook at Point Lookout that we did not get to see. My plan was to return and tour several trails and overlooks along this road the next morning, but traffic was backed up to the Mancos Valley Overlook due to road work further down.
At the hotel we checked in at the Far View Lodge and had dinner at the Far View Lounge, Monday night, and every night we were there as the food was excellent. You need to make reservations ahead of time as their restaurant is quite popular. The lodge is set up like a two story motel with exterior entrances. We were given a first floor room with a great view of the valley. It was nice but old as you might expect and a second floor room would have been better for the view and to avoid the sounds from neighbors above. Our first night was greeted with a real treat, a rainbow opposite the setting sun as light showers rolled across the mesa top.
It was fall with the desert like mesa displaying its full fall colors. The sunsets every evening were strikingly beautiful leading me to understand the term big sky. What you see at Mesa Verde is an incredibly big and beautiful sky.
Coffee in the hotel lobby and breakfast down the road at the Far View Terrace Café. The café has a breakfast buffet for a full breakfast and a coffee shop with breakfast pastries and sandwiches for something light. Our morning was free so we went back the way we came in to check out more overlooks that we did not have time to see on the way in Monday. Those included Mancos Valley Overlook, Montezuma Valley Overlook, and Park Point Overlook. As mentioned we did not get back to Point Lookout because of traffic. As it turns out there had been a landslide that blocked the road limiting traffic up and down the main road, a common problem for the park road crews.
The Mancos Valley Overlook provides a view to the east toward Durango and the mountains to the northeast and the Southern Ute Reservation plain to the southeast.
The Montezuma Valley Overlook features a rock formation called Knife Edge with a view to the valley in the west about 2000 feet below, and to the east a view across the canyon between the mesa tops where the Mesa Top Ruins Road is winding its way up.
The road into the park is called Mesa Top Ruins Road and was first built in 1914 where before that time it was a 25 mile hike to the cliff dwellings. The road has been built and rebuilt many times and requires constant maintenance and upgrades to keep it open. The Morefield-Prater Tunnel was built in 1957 to alleviate a problematic section of road along Knife Edge.
Park Point Overlook and trail is the highest point in Mesa Verde at 8,572 feet. Fires have increased over the years, ignited primarily from lightning strikes and dry conditions. The fire lookout station is manned during high risk periods but has automated monitoring systems too.
Tuesday afternoon was our first tours which included a bus tour to Coyote Village and Far View House, a ranger tour of Cliff Palace, and an overlook to Spruce Tree House.
The Ancient Pueblo had an innovative construction created during the latter part of their occupation of the mesa called the Kiva. The Kiva was a round room built below ground with one or more in almost every village home sites. The space is believed to have been used for preparing game, cooking, family social life, and ceremonies.
Features included, a stone lined pit walls forming a large circle with pilaster and pole racks. Pole and mud roofs supporting stone pavers with a central entrance by ladder also used as a chimney for smoke. A fire pit in the center and a ventilation shaft to one side that pulls air in at floor level, and a deflector that distributes air around the central fire. Pedestals and racks around perimeter for family and group gatherings and preparing food. Our tour guide gave us a great overview at each site and along the route of the bus tour.
A detail of the ventilation shaft shows the intake hole in the upper left and the out take supply air at the bottom of the pit with the deflector wall in front. The fire would have been built on the right side of the deflector wall in the center of the Kiva.
The bus tour included a ranger guided tour of Cliff Palace where we walked down to the overlook to see the Palace tucked into the cliff alcove below. Cliff Palace contains 150 rooms and 23 Kivas and is believed to have had a population of approximately 100 people.
The ranger giving us an overview of the Palace is one of the first female Native Americans hired by the National Park Service to provide tours and interpretive information at the park. At the Cliff Palace site another ranger joined in providing more details about the construction and life in the Palace complex.
Some of the towers are about four floors in height reaching from the base of the alcove to the cliff overhang above. The rooms in the rear formed storage chambers for food provisions to last through their long winter months, sometimes storing up to two years of provisions. Unique key hole doors provided access from ladders to the interior in a shape believed to accommodate the narrower ladder and the climber carrying up materials requiring a wider entrance.
A view up from Cliff Palace to the overlook from where we had arrived and the trail built from natural materials. The trails up and down were invigorating and beautiful, but watch you step, and take your time.
The bus tour took us to an overlook view of Spruce Tree House which contains 130 rooms and 8 Kivas, for about 60–80 people. Included at the overlook is the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, and the Spruce Tree Terrace Café, where I had hoped we could dine for lunch sometime. Unfortunately both were closed for the season, and the trail to Spruce Tree House was closed to tours for safety reasons and Mesa Top Loop road was closed for road work, so we missed several sites there. So an advantage to coming mid season is that everything will likely be open where as the advantages to coming at the end of the season are smaller crowds and cooler weather conditions. Regardless, we wore ourselves out seeing what we could in the time we had.
Tuesday night sunset and the Milky Way Galaxy, Mesa Verde is a designated night sky park for viewing the stars. This is the best I could do with a cell phone camera, which is pretty close to how it actually looked to me.
On Wednesday we drove back along the tour route to see the sites along the Mesa Top Loop Road, but the road was still closed for paving. So instead we traveled on and walked the Soda Canyon Trail to the Balcony House Overlook where we could get a view across the canyon. Guided tours were available to see the Balcony House but we did not make it to any. The Balcony House, is described as a medium size cliff dwelling with about 40 rooms.
On Wednesday afternoon we drove back to the Far View Terrace Cafe for lunch and then across to the west side of the park for a ranger guided tour of Long House. The cafe was a great stop for breakfast and lunch every day with indoor and outdoor seating, a coffee shop, cafeteria style dining, and a tour stop station for the bus tours. And the turkeys still roam the mesa top.
At Long House tour we were able to walk up into the house and along the back wall of the cliff alcove between the cliff and the buildings. Many had fresh water that had filtered through springs in the sandstone rock above.
Long House is nearly equal in size to Cliff Palace with about 150 rooms, 21 kivas, and a row of upper storage rooms. Streaks of water can be seen along the face along with storage room high above the main floor of the alcove.
The same area included Step House and Badger House which we could have seen but we were running short on time and energy, and looking forward to that dinner reservation back at the Far View Lounge.
Our final night at sunset with the jet streams criss-crossing the sky, a reminder that we would soon be headed home.
Sunday was a travel day for flights from Huntsville Alabama to Denver Colorado and then down to Albuquerque New Mexico. The parks recommendation was to fly into one of the regional airports closer to the park, but those use smaller aircraft that nearly doubled the flight cost over simply flying into Albuquerque.
On Monday we drove from Albuquerque to Mesa Verde National Park which took about five to six hours. The rental car was about a third the price of a rental from one of the regional airports so that was another incentive for the longer drive.
Given our choice for driving we decided to make a loop out of it and travel back through Taos and Santa Fe New Mexico later in the week.
Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in the park with plans to leave Thursday morning. We could have used one additional day. There are three ranger guided tours and I had signed up for two of them. In retrospect I would have liked to have done the third tour, but there was not enough time to work that into our schedule. One tour per day is about all you can get in given the size of the park and the number of tours available. We saw Cliff Palace and Long House but missed out on touring Balcony House, although we did see it from the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail.
On Tuesday we found that the road was closed on the route back to Point Lookout due a landslide, and on the bus tour we found that the Mesa Top Loop road was closed due to paving work, and the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe were closed for the season. That would be one of the disadvantages for going to Mesa Verde during the last week of the season. But, the crowds were low and we wore ourselves out getting to see more than we could take in anyway.
Thursday was a travel day for a road trip back to Taos. That was a long but beautiful drive. We did not get to see as much of Taos as I would have liked but we did find a good restaurant at the Azteca Mexican Grill, and our hotel was a bed and breakfast with great accommodations at the Casa Benavides Bed & Breakfast Inn.
On Friday we traveled to Santa Fe and then on to our hotel in Bernalillo north of Albuquerque. In Santa Fe we were able to tour several historical sites in the old downtown area including the San Miguel Mission and the Loretto Chapel, plus several studios with beautiful life size bronze sculptures.
The drive to Mesa Verde and back through Taos and Santa Fe was nice and easy given that it is wide open country with light traffic along most of the route. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about driving the rental because I have become so accustomed to driving my Tesla with all its self driving features. I found though that the Nissan had a good speed control system so I turned that on so all I had to do was steer. The Altama was a nice dependable car.
Saturday was our flights home reversing the path from Albuquerque through Denver and back to Huntsville, an all day journey.
So, Mesa Verde National Park is well worth seeing and touring. Take your time, read up on the adventure ahead of time, and enjoy the sites.
Notes and References:
Story and photographs by David Smitherman, and reference data from personal experience, on site information, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and the following links.
Mesa Verde National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
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