The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was the farthest point from home on our epic western road trip of September 2015. As we turned back toward home, Colorado offered us a couple additional sites we hadn’t visited before. We thought we’d check out the “four corners” where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet. At the risk of sounding super cheap, when we heard the entrance fee was $5 per person, we decided to pass. It just had the feel of a tourist trap.
On the other hand, Mesa Verde National Park, established in 1906, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, is no tourist trap. This amazing park contains nearly 5,000 archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi) from 550 AD until the late 1200s.
The visitor center is located in a valley at the foot of a winding road up to the mesa. Stop here first to plan your visit and purchase tour tickets.
The approximately 21-mile drive up to Chapin Mesa delighted us with breathtaking views.
Five dwellings were open to the public in 2015; Spruce Tree House and Far View allowed self-guided tours but Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House required tickets for ranger-led guided tours. In September, Cliff Palace and Long House were already closed for the season but fortunately for us, Balcony House, the “most adventurous cliff dwelling tour” (Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Guide) was still open. We paid the $4 per person ticket price and scheduled our tour for the following morning. In 2016, only four dwellings remain open to the public. Spruce Tree House closed because of safety issues related to falling rock and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. How lucky for us to see this cliff dwelling before it closed.
Spruce Tree House is the third largest and best-preserved of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. The trail is short but steep, changing elevation by 100 feet in a quarter mile.
We saw only a fraction of the 120 rooms and 8 kivas at Spruce Tree House. A kiva is a chamber below ground that in modern day pueblos was used for religious, social, or ceremonial purposes. Because the Ancestral Pueblo people had no writing system, we can’t know for certain but archeologists believe the purpose was the same in prehistoric times.
As I said, Cliff Palace was closed for the season when we arrived. The largest and most well-known cliff dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace contains 150 rooms and 21 kivas and was inhabited by around 120 people. Fortunately for us, we could view it from a distance and photograph it even though we couldn’t tour it.
Our ranger-guided tour of Balcony House the next morning was as much about the journey as the destination. The strenuous hike included steep stairs, three ladders, and a tunnel.
The destination was well-worth the effort, however. This cliff dwelling consists of 38 rooms and 2 kivas. Our ranger knowledgeably shared information about the site and the Ancestral Pueblo inhabitants.
Because Long House was closed for the season, we decided not to drive the 12 miles over to Wetherill Mesa where it’s located. We did, however, hike the Far View area. The Far View sites are farming communities on top of the mesa rather than cliff dwellings.
National parks in the United States preserve and protect historical and cultural sites like Mesa Verde as well as our amazing and abundant natural resources. For a couple history nerds like us, Mesa Verde was a place to immerse ourselves in the history and culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people. As a result, we are better educated about and appreciative of the time and place of these early people.
Based on events of September 2015.