Mesa Verde National Park, situated in southwestern Colorado, is known for ancient cliff dwellings that date back hundreds of years. But is Mesa Verde worth visiting?
Mesa Verde National Park is worth visiting. Not only can visitors see the impressive cliff dwellings and ancient Pueblo archeological sites, but the natural landscape of Mesa Verde is also gorgeous, as are the views from Park Point. Mesa Verde National Park is well worth your time.
So can you see Mesa Verde from the road? Can you explore the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde? How long should you plan to stay there? Discover the answers to these questions and more in the following sections.
Mesa Verde: Before the National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado, near the Four Corners region where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The park is known for its fantastic scenery and beautiful Southwestern views, but perhaps the most interesting part of the park is the archeology.
The earliest evidence of human activity in Mesa Verde dates back thousands of years. These early settlers were likely people of the Clovis culture, who hunted game and camped near rivers and streams. As time marched on, people in the area began to build small settlements and began to hunt with the atlatl, a spear-throwing device that made it easier to kill game.
By the early 600s, the people of Mesa Verde had developed permanent settlements. There is strong evidence that they traded minerals and foodstuffs with other cultures, with trade networks perhaps reaching as far as the Pacific coast. Archeologists call the people of this time “basketweavers” because of the woven baskets they left behind.
By about 750, the basket weaving culture had become what we would recognize as the Pueblo culture. The Pueblo people built complex buildings with food storage and began practicing agriculture, which led to an increase in population density and more coherent settlements. The Pueblo people’s agricultural practices grew to include the use of dams and sophisticated irrigation systems.
Around 1130, a severe drought struck the Mesa Verde area. The drought affected agricultural operations and access to resources, which led to conflict and violence. Rival groups of people fought for control of critical things like water and corn. The drought and its ecosystem of conflict continued for decades, and eventually, settlers moved on to more favorable locations, leaving Mesa Verde behind.
Creation of the Park
In 1776, Mesa Verde was rediscovered by Spanish missionaries, but no further settlement was attempted. The next human occupancy in the region came when the Ute Indians were relocated to the area by the U.S. government. In the late 1800s, prospectors and archeologists began exploring the region. The first Pueblo site to be protected was the Goodman Point Pueblo, which was federally protected in 1899.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress passed legislation that created the 52,485-acre national park we know and love today. For the following two decades or so, archeologists and engineers worked to restore and stabilize the ancient Pueblo dwellings to “preserve the works of man,” in the words of President Roosevelt.
Visiting the Park Today
Today, sightseers to Mesa Verde National Park can enjoy not just the beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes of the southwestern United States, but also the preserved buildings of the ancient Pueblo people. The ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings are remarkable for their scope, complexity, and durability. Not many of the dwellings we live in today will be around in 700 years, but Mesa Verde just might be.
Visiting Mesa Verde today will cost you between $20 and $30, depending on which season you visit the park. Most of the park is open year-round, but parts of Wetherill Mesa and overnight camping are closed during the winter months.
Some of the must-see features at Mesa Verde include the Pueblo ruins at Cliff Palace and Sun Point View. While the archeology is fascinating, Mesa Verde National Park also features some of the most interesting hiking trails in the southwest.
Road Trip Answers Fun Fact: Archeologists believe that the ancient Pueblo people lived in the Mesa Verde area for hundreds of years, dating back at least to the 600s AD. The famous cliff dwellings for which the park is known were probably constructed in the late 1100s, a couple of hundred years before the Pueblo vacated the area.
Other Posts of Interest
- Is The San Antonio Riverwalk Safe?
- Which is Better: Yosemite Or Redwood National Park?
- What Is The Best Time Of Day To Drive Through Los Angeles?
- Can You Drive Through Zion National Park? +Points of Interest
Can You See Mesa Verde From the Road?
While you can’t see the sights of Mesa Verde from the highway, you can see the main points of interest from your car. One of the best ways to see the park is to drive Mesa Top Loop Road. The road is a six-mile loop that takes you through several of the most significant archeological sites at the park.
Mesa Top Loop Road features numerous stops and overlooks, including some of the famed cliff houses. The National Park Service recommends stopping at Square Tower House Overlook, Cliff Palace, and Sun Point View. Budget about an hour to drive the loop, longer if you want to explore.
Can You Walk in the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde?
Most of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde are accessible through guided tours. The tours begin at an appointed time and allow guests to proceed through the cliff houses at their own pace, with rangers periodically stationed at unique locations to provide context and education. The ranger-guided tours require tickets, which you can book in advance on recreation.gov.
If you want to explore the cliff dwellings on your own, plan to visit Step House. You’ll find it at the end of a steep, winding, one-mile trail. While you are free to explore on your own, there is a ranger stationed at the dwelling.
Can You Explore Mesa Verde on Your Own?
Mesa Verde National Park has plenty of opportunities to explore on your own. There are campsites, archaeological sites, motor trails, and foot trails throughout the 52,485 acres of the park.
One of the most fascinating places to explore is the Far View Sites Complex. Here, you can see multiple professionally-excavated archeological sites that feature buildings and structures built by ancient Pueblo people. Walking trails connect these sites.
There are also a number of excellent hiking trails at Mesa Verde. The trails range from easy out-and-backs and loops to strenuous paths that cross rugged terrain. Some of these trails are pretty challenging, and all of them are in a high-altitude, arid location. So plan ahead before venturing onto the trails.
How Long Do You Need at Mesa Verde?
Most guides say to allow at least six hours at the park, plus time spent driving in and out. It takes about an hour to get from the park entrance to the cliff dwellings, and there is a museum. There’s a lot to see and do at Mesa Verde, so we’d recommend making it an all-day trip.
You may even want to consider staying overnight. There is a well-appointed lodge, plus RV hookups and primitive campsites. Unfortunately, camping is not available during the winter months. If you don’t want to stay on-site, there are plenty of hotels nearby.
How Crowded is Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde National Park is much less crowded than nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. On average, the park sees about 600,000 visitors per year. However, the park is busiest during July and August. During those months, it sees more than 3,000 visitors a day.
If you choose to visit in the summer, be aware that high temperatures can approach 90 degrees. The high temperature and high elevation make for an arid climate, so prepare accordingly. Bring plenty of water and snacks. If you are not acclimated to the altitude, and you plan on being active, consider bringing oxygen bottles with you.
While the park is busiest in the summer, the best time to visit Mesa Verde is in the fall. This time of year is better because the temperatures are milder in the fall months, and the smaller number of visitors means you can enjoy a more intimate exploration of the park. In addition, in the late fall, snow is possible in some of the higher-elevation portions of the park.
To get a unique perspective of Mesa Verde, consider visiting in the winter months! Snow contrasts beautifully with the ruddy rocks and gives the cliff dwellings a fascinating accent. Plus, the park is less busy in the winter, so if you’re looking for solitude or a real escape, the winter months are worth considering!
Mesa Verde: A Window Into the Past
Mesa Verde National Park is a one-of-a-kind place to visit. At Mesa Verde, you can enjoy the inspiring scenery and tranquil hiking trails while also getting to stand in buildings that were occupied more than 700 years ago. You’ll find the unique mix of timeless beauty and ancient history to be a wonderful experience. Mesa Verde National Park is definitely worth visiting.