In southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to “preserve the works of man.”(Photo: National Park Service)
In southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to “preserve the works of man.” The “works of man” reference the 600 cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, dating back 700 years, part of the nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites found within the park. In addition to the cliff dwellings and archaeological sites, and due to its protected status, Mesa Verde is also home to a number of animal and plant species that have mainly disappeared or are rarely seen in the region outside of the park, including the peregrine falcon, Mexican spotted owl and the Cliff Palace milkvetch plant. In 1906, 27 people visited the park; more than 500,000 visited in 2014. We checked in with Dan Wulfman, president of Tracks & Trails, for his tips on 10 tips to help plan your trip to Mesa Verde National Park.
1. Take your time: Driving to the park, you’ll follow a slow, winding, 21-mile drive that takes nearly an hour – add more time on if you decide to stop and enjoy the panoramic views from the pull-offs along the way. A visit to Mesa Verde National Park shouldn’t be rushed, so you may want to plan on spending the night to make the most of your visit.
2. Get oriented: Upon arrival, take the time to stop by the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at the park’s entrance. Here, you’ll find exhibits on the Ancestral Pueblo people and how they lived in the area more than 700 years ago, as well as park rangers who can help you plan your time in the park. You can also buy tickets (in-person only) to Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House; tickets are needed to visit these three cliff dwellings. Wulfman advises that these tickets sell out quickly, so plan to arrive early or even prepare to book your tour/s for the following day if needed.
3. Mesa Verde 101: The half-day 700 Years Tour takes park visitors on a guided tour of some of the park’s main attractions along the Mesa Loop Road, including Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park, built in the 13th century. Tip: Make reservations online before arriving at the park.
4. See the sunrise over Mesa Verde: The Balcony House Sunrise Tour is offered only six times in 2016, with five remaining: June 20, June 21, September 21, September 22 and October 10. The tour is a magnificent opportunity to not only see the sunrise over the park, but if you’re a part of the small group of just 24 people, you’ll have the place to yourself. The tour does involve climbing and crawling, so get ready to get your hands dirty. You’ll also need to be an early riser – the tours begin at 5:15 a.m., 6:15 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., depending on what time of the year you’re visiting. Be sure to reserve your space by making reservations online before your trip.
5. Spruce Tree House closed, but not forgotten: Though Spruce Tree House is closed indefinitely due to concerns of rock falls, you can still see the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling that was also the park’s most-visited from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, where park rangers are available to answer questions. Tip: the museum’s gift shop is the best in the park.
6. Explore on your own: In addition to the guided tours, there are plenty of self-guided activities within Mesa Verde National Park, whether you prefer to drive or walk. The Mesa Top Loop Road is a six-mile driving tour with short, paved trails to stop and explore. Highlights include Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook, and the views of Cliff Palace. Or get out and stretch your legs with short hikes to the Far View Sites Complex (3/4 of a mile), Step House (one-mile) and Badger House Trail (2.25 mile).
7. Hike longer, go further: Longer hikes can also be found within the park, as well as special backcountry guided hikes. A 2.4-mile round-trip hike along the Petroglyph Point Trail (must register with a park ranger) leads to views of the Spruce and Navajo canyons, and is the only trail within the park to see petroglyphs. Also at 2.4 miles, the Spruce Canyon Trail is a terrific way to explore the canyon bottoms and the plants and wildlife that make their homes within the habitat. The special backcountry guided hikes range from half- to nine-mile excursions. Be sure to stay on hiking trails, whichever route you choose.
8. Live the night life: When the sun sets, join a park ranger at the Morefield Amphitheater (at the end of the road in Morefield Campground) for an evening campfire talk about a range of topics relating to the park’s natural history. These evening programs began in the park in 1907 by archaeologist Jesse Fewkes. Afterwards, cast your gaze skywards for terrific stargazing.
9. Stay the night: Whether you enjoy camping under the stars or on a comfortable bed, you have choices in Mesa Verde National Park. Camping is available at Morefield Campground and Village from April through October, and is open to tents, trailers and RVs (15 full-hookup RV sites require reservations). Each camp site has a table, bench and grill, and showers are available. A gas station, grocery store and gift shop can be found within the village. The park also offers primitive camping, but the only time remaining in 2016 is October 20–31.
10. More to explore: There are plenty more national parks, monuments, historic sites and recreation areas within driving distance from Mesa Verde National Park. One to note: Hovenweep National Monument, about 70 miles from Mesa Verde. The six prehistoric villages built between 1200 and 1300 AD once housed more than 2,500 people.