SERIES – PHOTOS OF A FAMILY ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE
Mesa Verde National Park is a crown jewel in the U.S. National Park system. It is also a World Heritage Site, and something not to be missed when road tripping in the American Southwest. Contained within the park’s boundaries are some of the best preserved ancestral Pueblo Indian archeological sites. From meager pit-style homes to substantial cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park provides visitors a window into life long ago along these mesas.
Come along with us as we revisit our favorite moments exploring the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde National Park. Hike along the same trails that people have traversed for a thousand years. Enter 900+ year old cliff dwellings. Let the ancient world take hold of your thoughts, your imagination. It will be a day you will not forget.
Witnessing Ancient Cliff Dwellings
Today, Mesa Verde National Park is synonymous with cliff dwellings and artifacts of an ancestral Puebloan society. It is home to over 600 cliff dwellings left behind, all that remains of a life long gone from these cliffs.
Some of these ancient engineering marvels are small. Others are quite large, once designed to support hundreds of people. Perhaps the most recognizable, most famous, of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings is Cliff Palace.
Mesa Verde is a treasure trove of ancient Puebloan history. Nowhere is this more evident than along the scenic drives through the park. Around every corner, across every canyon view, is an ancient cliff dwelling like these two, named Fire Temple and New Fire House.
Then there is Square Tower, under repair to shore up its structural integrity. Today’s engineers are hard at work to preserve what ancient engineers created over 900 years ago.
Spruce Tree House is one of the most visited cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde. Until very recently, it could be explored up close. Today, it is closed for preservation reasons, and a rim-side view is as close as one can get for the foreseeable future.
Touring Oak Tree House
The trail leading to Oak Tree House is off-limits for most of the year, and for most visitors. For those who are fortunate enough to reserve a spot in a very limited ranger lead tour, this is the beginning of a most unique and oh-so-special, rare glimpse inside this ancient cliff dwelling.
This rim-side overlook is as close as the vast majority of Mesa Verde visitors will get to Oak Tree House. A fortunate few will actually step inside the remains of this ancient community.
Oak Tree House is remarkably well preserved, and provides an amazing insight into life beneath the Mesa Verde plateaus. This ancient engineering marvel once consisted of close to 60 rooms, and is one of the larger cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.
An Oak Tree House tour is well worth the nominal per-person fee charged. Tours are limited to no more than 12 people at a time, and should be booked months in advance. Read more about our own Oak Tree tour at Inside The Oak Tree House Cliff Dwelling.
Hiking Petryglyph Point Trail
Mesa Verde isn’t all about drive-by views of cliff dwellings! This park abounds with plenty of hiking opportunities, including the Petroglyph Point Trail. Don’t miss the chance to leave the crowds behind on a hike into Mesa Verde’s Petroglyph Canyon.
The Petroglyph Point Trailhead is easily found along the path leading to the very popular Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling. It only takes a few hundred yards after diverting down the Petroglyph Point Trail to leave the masses behind.
The trail is a semi-challenging 2.4 mile hike that takes hikers beneath the plateau, past crumbling ancient ruins, at times opening up for breathtaking views across Spruce and Navajo Canyons, in the quest to find a panel of ancient petroglyphs carved in sandstone.
The panel sits above the trail on a sandstone outcrop, and is the only petroglyph panel visible to the general public. Quest completed! Continue on up the trail for the return to the Chapin Mesa Museum along the top of the plateau.
Exploring Balcony House
Though not nearly as large as some of its neighbors, the 40-room Balcony House is a cliff dwelling not to be missed. Purchase your tour tickets early for this ranger lead tour, because that’s the only way you’ll see this ancient abode up close.
This is one of Mesa Verde’s more adventurous tours, and not for the faint of heart! The tour begins with climbing up a nearly vertical 32 foot ladder. Then there’s the alcove exit, which includes crawling on hands and knees through a narrow, 12 foot long by 18 inches wide tunnel, followed by another ladder climb up 60 feet of open rock face. Yikes!
Yet, it is all worth the strenuous, intimidating entrance and exit efforts for an up-close experience with Balcony House. Walk through the common area as an ancient people once did. Peer into stone-framed windows, imagining the life that went on inside. Stand at the edge of a T-shaped door, wondering why was it shaped this way?
Balcony House tour tickets are $4.00, and availability may be in short supply during peak summer months. Secure your tickets up to two days in advance of your preferred tour date.
Late Afternoon In Spruce Tree House
Considered one of the best preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Spruce Tree House is an archeological treasure trove of ancient engineers’ handiwork. Visitors here can witness original, intact roofs and floors, as well as original plaster designs.
Spruce Tree House is accessed via a paved, steep path originating at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Tickets are not required, which can lead to Spruce Tree House being very crowded during peak summer months. Consider exploring this cliff dwelling later in the afternoon, after the crowds have diminished for the day.
Note: A few months after our own experience in Spruce Tree House, it was closed to the public due to falling rocks. Check the National Park Service Mesa Verde website for the latest update as to when or if Spruce Tree reopens to the public. For now, one is limited to views of Spruce Tree House from the nearby overlook.
Twilight Tour of Cliff Palace
A Cliff Palace Twilight Tour affords its visitors amazing, uncrowded views of Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling as the sun sets over the plateau. Twight Tours are very limited, ensuring you a front row view of this massive, wondrous ancient site. And the tour guide dressed in character makes this a very entertaining tour!
A Cliff Palace Twilight Tour requires advance reservation and a $20 per person fee. It is a fee worth every penny to experience Cliff Palace beneath the fading daylight, no crowd blocking the view. Book early through Recreation.Gov, as these small group tours fill up fast!
The 90 minute tour leads visitors through Cliff Palace at a leisurely pace, ensuring optimal viewing opportunities. Watching the fading sunlight play off this archeological wonder is sure to leave a lasting impression upon all who experience this early evening tour.
Don’t miss the original, 800+ year old timber beams in the three story tower house, nor the corn cobs used in the mortar joints! For real. Those are corn cobs placed by the ancients who built this place so many years ago.
Have You Been To Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde National Park was the pinnacle of our adventures near Durango, Colorado. Though we only had one day to explore this fascinating snapshot of Southwestern United States history, we maximized what time we did have. Our day started with an 8:00 am Oak House Tour, and ended with the early evening Cliff Palace Twilight Tour. Our only regret was that we didn’t one more day to explore!
How about you? Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? How long did you spend in this incredible archeological site? Did you too wish you had more time to explore this national treasure? Do share!
Catch the rest of the Series – Photos of A Family Road Trip Adventure:
- Road Tripping in Colorado and Utah – Photos of a Family Adventure
- Exploring Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado.
- A Fascinating Experience at Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM
- Welcome to The Iconic Four Corners Monument, USA!
- Inside The Oak Tree House Cliff Dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park
- Inside Animus Forks – A Colorado Mining Ghost Town Experience
- A Day of Experiences In Canyons of The Ancients & Hovenweep Nat’l Monuments
- Hiking Into The Devil’s Garden – Arches National Park
- 5 Favorite Moments – A Photo Journey Through Arches National Park
- Exploring Sego Canyon’s Ancient Rock Art & Historic Ghost Town
All images by C.Biederman.