Mesa Verde – Spanish for “green table” – probably conjures up images of a giant plateau topped with luscious greenery. Or a dinner table covered with a green tablecloth. Depends on your thought process, I suppose. Or your level of hunger. Clearly I’m hungry as I’m writing this. Maybe I should go eat lunch first.
Okay, lunch eaten.
As I was saying, “mesa verde” = “green table” which in this case obviously refers to a giant green plateau. From a distance, that is in fact what Mesa Verde looks like. But Mesa Verde is so much more than just a large, green plateau. Mesa Verde is a place where thousands of years of history is preserved in the cliff faces and stone remains left behind by ancient peoples. Because of this, Mesa Verde has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park contains over 4,000 well-preserved archaeological sites, including the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.
Mesa Verde was originally inhabited as early as 9500 BC and as recently as 1285 AD by various Native American lineages. By 550 AD, the area was inhabited primarily by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, who built the many cliff dwellings and other structures that remain today. The Ancestral Puebloans were driven out of the area by the end of the 13th century due to severe drought, and the civilizations they built were abandoned.
There’s so much history at Mesa Verde, and I could write an entire (very long) post about it. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just weave in what I can as I discuss each place that we visited within the park.
**One important point before I begin: A more common name for Ancestral Puebloans is Anasazi. However, “Anasazi” was actually the Navajo word for “enemy.” For obvious reasons, present day Puebloans prefer this word not be used.
Mesa Verde is located in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It’s an oddly-shaped park, with just one entrance station, in the northernmost portion. The roads are winding and narrow and travel through the park takes longer than expected. Due to the nature of the roads, trailers or large vehicles (i.e. RVs) aren’t allowed past the campground.
Just inside the park is the Visitor Center, which is the main place to purchase tickets for tours of some of the dwellings, so this was our first stop. Four miles past the visitor center is Morefield Campground. We stopped here as well to set up camp before continuing into the park.
Beyond the campground, the road travels through a tunnel and then begins winding its way up and then across the top of the mesa. There are several overlooks along the way, with short walks out to viewpoints. From some of these overlooks, views extend into Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona!
Eleven miles (17.7 km) beyond the campground is Far View Junction. From here, the road forks; right leads to Wetherill Mesa and left to Chapin Mesa. We went right. The Wetherill Mesa road is only 12 miles (19 km) long, but it takes 45 minutes to drive due to the abundance of sharp curves. I remember reading that and assuming it was an exaggeration.
It was not.
The road comes to an end at the Wetherill Mesa Ranger Station. From here, there are a couple of short, self-guided trails, as well as the departure point for the Long House guided trail. Tour tickets are required to visit Long House. Tickets are $4 per person. The Long House tour is about 2 hours long and involves a 2.25 (3.6 km) mile round-trip hike (130 feet/40 m elevation gain) and climbing two 15 foot (5 m) ladders. It was a ranger-led tour, and we learned so much history in addition to getting some up close and personal views of these incredible ruins.
Long House was build and occupied during the 13th century and is the second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. It’s estimated that approximately 150 people lived there.
From the Wetherill Mesa Ranger Station, there are also three more trails: one to a cliff dwelling called Nordenskold Site #16 (2 miles/3.2 km round-trip); one to Step House (1 mile/1.6 km round-trip), which contains a pit house, cliff dwelling, and petroglyphs; and one to the Badger Community House sites (2.25 miles/3.6 km round-trip) which, rather than a cliff dwelling, is located on top of the mesa. Mesa top sites such as this were actually occupied for the majority of time that Ancestral Puebloans lived in Mesa Verde (approximately 650-1150 AD). It wasn’t until around 1150 AD that they began to construct cliff dwellings.
It was late in the day by the time our Long House tour finished, however, and we didn’t have time for these hikes, so that concludes day #1 at Mesa Verde. Next – more cliff dwellings on day #2!
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: located off of US Highway 160 in the southwest corner of Colorado. To get to Wetherill Mesa, follow the park road to the fork, then keep right
- Fees & passes: $15 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted. Long House tours are $4 per person; purchase tickets at the visitor center
- Camping: Morefield Campground – 267 sites, reservations accepted but the campground usually doesn’t fill; $30+tax per night
- Hiking: four 2.5 mile (4 km) or less round-trip trails depart from the Wetherill Mesa Ranger Station: (1) Long House, (2) Step House, (3) Nordenskold site #16, and (4) Badger Community House
- Other: basic amenities can be found throughout the park, but there’s no gas beyond Morefield Village (located near the campground). Also, RVs and trailers are not allowed beyond this point due to the narrow, winding roads.