The remainder of our time at Mesa Verde was spent exploring the rest of the Chapin Mesa area. The end of Chapin Mesa Road splits into three short loops. One leads to Cliff Palace and Balcony House, the second is the Mesa Top loop, and the third is the Spruce Tree Terrace loop. After completing our tour of Cliff Palace, we headed up Mesa Top loop road.
The Mesa Top sites are exactly what they sound like – ancient sites located on top of the mesa rather than on the side of a cliff. In the early days of Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde, they didn’t have the technologies to construct and survive in cliff dwellings, so instead they lived on top of the mesa.
The main dwelling unit at the Mesa Top sites is called a pit house, so named because it was constructed by digging down into the ground. In later years, they began building houses out of wood, stone, and adobe – a precursor to the cliff dwellings. In fact, cliff dwellings were only built and occupied during last 100-150 years that Ancestral Puebloans lived in Mesa Verde. For the first 600 years, they lived on top of the mesas.
From the Mesa Top loop road, there are overlooks of a few cliff dwellings, as well as a short self-guided trail down to Square House Tower. There are many mesa top sites, some of which are connected by the Pit Houses and Villages trail. Last is the Sun Temple, which is a large ceremonial structure; however, all signs point to the fact that this temple was never actually completed.
Next was the Spruce Tree Terrace loop. Here is where the Chapin Mesa Museum and Bookstore, food, a gift shop, picnic tables, bathrooms, and three trails are located. One trail leads down into Spruce Canyon and a second leads out to Petroglyph Point. The third and shortest trail took us down to Spruce Tree House. Spruce Tree House is a large cliff dwelling, and the tour is self-guided. Sadly, according to the NPS website, Spruce Tree House is currently closed due to frequent rock falls. This is unfortunate because this was the one place where we were allowed to climb down into a kiva. Hopefully the area will be reopened in the coming years.
Our final two stops as we made our way back down Chapin Mesa Road were at Cedar House Tower and the Far View Sites complex. Both areas are very well preserved and are excellent examples of Ancestral Puebloan architecture. At Cedar House Tower, we saw the remains of dams built by the Ancestral Puebloans, suggesting that they had developed some sort of agricultural or irrigation system. Far View Sites is probably the largest mesa top site, and we were able to walk around a variety of large structures.
There were many hikes in Mesa Verde that we did not do. There’s just so much to see and we only had a couple of days. With its incredible ruins and rich history, Mesa Verde is definitely a place that warrants a return visit someday!
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: Mesa Verde is located off of US Highway 160 in the southwest corner of Colorado; to get to the areas discussed in this post, follow the park road to the fork, then keep left onto Chapin Mesa Road
- Fees & passes: $15 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted.
- Camping: Morefield Campground – 267 sites, reservations accepted but the campground usually doesn’t fill; $30+tax per night.
- Hiking: there are many trails of all different lengths on Chapin Mesa
- Other: basic amenities can be found throughout the park, but there is 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.