Mesa Verde National Park is a rich archeological site that contains well-preserved dwellings of the Ancient Pueblo people dating back to 7500 B.C. Despite the barren look of the landscape many native communities from the Paleo-Indians to the Ute thrived in this land.
Unlike other National Parks, Mesa Verde was established with the explicit purpose to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the ancient inhabitants, the Ancient Pueblo people, of the land. Unfortunately, the preservation effort came at a high cost to the Ute who lived on the land when the U.S. government usurped it through unfair and manipulated treaties. Today, Mesa Verde continues to be an area dedicated to preservation and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
CLIFF DWELLING TOURS: Mesa Verde’s main attraction is the over 5,000 ancient artifacts, including over 600 cliff dwellings. Visitors can walk inside three of these cliff dwellings (Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House) through one of the ranger-guided tours, which require tickets ($5/per person). Tickets are sold in-person only and sell fast so be sure to get to the park early! During my road trip, I got to the Park around 10AM and grabbed one of the few remaining tickets for a late in the day tour of the Balcony House. This popular tour is famous for the 32-foot ladder that visitors have to climb and the 12-foot tunnel they have to crawl through.
MESA TOP LOOP DRIVE: Visitors can experience a self-guided tour of the other sites including surface-level dwellings via the three loop roads off the main park road. One of the highlights of my visit was the Mesa Top Loop, a six-mile drive that took me to the famous Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook and the Sun Temple.
Driving the roads in Mesa Verde is an attraction unto itself. There are beautiful and expansive views of the landscape with many overlooks to enjoy the ancient human and natural history of the area. Unfortunately, I saw very little of Mesa Verde’s most recent inhabitants, the Ute people.
Because the roads are winding, they are also a favorite spot for bicyclists, so make pay close attention to them on those corners.
HIKING: There are nine hiking trails but given the archaeological sensitivity of this area backcountry hiking and camping are not permitted within the park boundary. The day hike trails range from half a mile to eight miles. I hiked the Point Lookout Trail, 2.2 mile switch-backed trail to the top of the mesa. From the lookout area, there are amazing views of the Montezuma and Mancos valleys. On a clear day, you can also see the mountain ranges in Utah and the Rockies!
Airports: American and United Airlines provide service to Durango La Plata County airport, which is the closest (50 miles) commercial airport to Mesa Verde National Park. Other major airports in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Salt Lake City, Utah are over several hundred miles away.
Visitors need a car to get around because Mesa Verde does not provide a shuttle service.
Entrance Fee: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee to Mesa Verde National Park. A seven day pass for cars/other vehicles is $30 and $25 for motorcycles. Visitors can also walk or bike into the park for $15/per person. There are annual pass options as well – $55 for unlimited entrance to Mesa Verde for one year or $80 for unlimited entrance to any National Park or any other public lands operated by the National Park Service. The entrance fees are lower during off peak season.
Hotel: The Far View Lodge is the only hotel inside Mesa Verde and is open seasonally (May – September). The rooms are simple but each room comes with Wi-Fi and a private balcony that offers panoramic views of the Park.
Camping: Morefield Campground is the only camping option within the park. There are over 250 sites including 15 RV hook up sites. The campground is rarely full and open year round but services are only available seasonally. If hiking in Mesa Verde is on your list, many of the trailheads are located near the campground.
Gateway Towns: There are several hotels and other lodging options in Cortez, Colorado (less than 10 miles) outside of Mesa Verde. Durango, Colorado (50 miles) offers a wider range of options.
For centuries native communities from the earliest known Paleo-Indians and Ancestral Puebloans to the most recent Utes lived and flourished in the lands that is currently Mesa Verde National Park. The Ute still consider many artifacts including the elaborate shelters their earliest ancestors created sacred.
As European gold prospectors and American settler colonialists encroached on western land, the Ute signed a series of treaties with the U.S. government. Although the first treaty in 1849 established land boundaries between the two nations, between 1863 and 1874, the U.S. government through executive orders and other means fraudulently confiscated land that belonged to the Ute. In 1874, the Ute signed another treaty they believed granted only mining rights to settlers in some areas of Ute land but retain overall control of the 4 million acres of land. However, translators misrepresented the terms of the treat which did not stipulate the above terms and the Ute were forced to relinquish much of their land.
By the 1890’s the U.S. government opened the strip of Ute land to homesteading, which led them to lose even more land including what is currently Mesa Verde National Park. Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde a National Park in 1906 to ironically preserve the ancient sites. (Source: Southern Ute History)
Today, the Ute continue to advocate for the right to land, water, and hunting/fishing in this ancestrally important area.