All of Colorado's national parks protect natural wonders except Mesa Verde, which showcases some of the most well-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. The ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, first settled in Mesa Verde during the 700s building adobe structures on mesa tops. By the 12th and 13th centuries, the Anasazi moved below the mesa cliffs, where they were protected from the changing weather. Then, for reasons that are not entirely known, the ancestral Puebloans abandoned Mesa Verde and left their homes for ruin.
Hundreds of years past until these buildings were rediscovered by American trappers and prospectors in the latter half of the 19th century. Mesa Verde's fame quickly grew, but this fame also brought vandals who looted what was left of the ruins. By 1908, President Roosevelt named Mesa Verde a national park, effectively preserving these still largely intact building for generations to come.
Mesa Verde National Park is separated into two mesas. Chapin Mesa, the most popular destination in the park, contains Cliff Palace, the Spruce Tree House, and Balcony House. The largest and most spectacular of these settlements is Cliff Palace, where a short, guided hike will lead visitors through ancient ruins. Spruce Tree House is almost as impressive as Cliff Palace and is the only of these settlements open in the winter. The most exciting journey to these cliff dwellings is to Balcony House, where ruins are literally built into the side of a cliff. Numerous other ancient structures are also viewable and accessible on top of the mesa.
Twelve miles south of the visitor center, tourists can access the much less traveled Wetherill Mesa. Highlights include the Long House and Step House. Despite being a short drive away from the main area of the park, Wetherill Mesa is a great place to get away from much of the crowds at Mesa Verde for a midday picnic.
Hiking, camping and lodging facilities are also available in the park.
How to Get There and Where to Stay
Mesa Verde is located near the remote town of Cortez, Colorado, which is about an eight hour drive from Denver and a five hour drive from Albuquerue, New Mexico. Cortez offers numerous hotel accommodations to suit any traveler. Keep in mind, Cortez is a town of about 8,000, so do not expect lay your head down at the Ritz. There are also numerous campgrounds in the area, including a campground in Mesa Verde itself.
Realistically, you can spend two full days and experience most of what Mesa Verde has to offer. Luckily, there are many other local attractions to keep you in the Cortez area for a full vacation.
Probably the other largest attraction near Cortez is "Four Corners," where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. This is the only place in the United States where you can be in four states at once. Four Corners, in itself, is somewhat of a novelty, but there are many Native American shops surrounding the four corners monument to make it well worth the trip.
If you want to view more Native American ruins, there are many other options to choose from in the Cortez area, including Hovenweep, Aztec Ruins, and Chaco Canyon.
The Four Corners region is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the western United States. From Cortez, take a drive south to Farmington, New Mexico, to view Ship Rock and then drive over to Arizona to view Monument Valley. During this day trip, you will view terrain straight out of old western movies.
Read these other essential articles for your Colorado Vacation:
- Plan your Colorado Vacation
- Vacation in Denver
- Colorado National Parks
- Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
- Climb a Fourteener in Colorado