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Spruce Tree House is near the museum and does not require a special ticket to visit.
Mesa Verde National Park
Closest available address
Park is about 40 minutes west of Durango via Highway 160.
Visitor center and cliff sites generally open 8-5, longer in summer. Park = 24 hours.
Best time to visit
Summer, Fall, Spring
Mesa Verde National Park is a world famous park and cultural site in southwestern Colorado. The park is best known for a variety of cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi Indians approximately 800 years ago. Mesa Verde is a large park at 52,000 acres and has several thousand archaeological sites as well as over 600 cliff dwellings. Facilities include a visitor center/museum at the park entrance and another museum inside the park. There also is a campground, lodge, restaurant, and gift shop. Mesa Verde has a few hiking trails, but recreation is not the focus here - it's history. While the park is open year round, some of the cliff dwellings as well as some visitor facilities are only open seasonally. The park is a high plateau environment with elevations around 7,000 feet and is interspersed with narrow but steep canyons. By the way, Mesa Verde means green table in Spanish.
The Anasazi first moved to this area around 550 AD. Their communities were primarily agricultural, but hunting and gathering were also practiced. These were an industrious and innovative people. Dwellings evolved over the generations from simple wood and hide structures built around shallow pits to more elaborate multiple story stone structures. Even more sophisticated communal buildings in the cliffs were built around 1200 AD. However, after about 100 years the cliff dwellings were abandoned. It's not exactly clear why they left, but likely was due to a severe and prolonged drought. The dwellings were left relatively intact over the years until the late 1800s when looters and souvenir seekers arrived and began pillaging. Concerned citizens appealed for government protection, and the park was established by President Roosevelt in 1906 to protect the sites.
There are two primary areas with ruins at the park: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. Chapin is generally open year round, but Wetherill Mesa is only open in summer. It was closed during the visit in September. If you want to see both of the mesas and/or take some hikes, you should plan on a two day visit. Otherwise, one day will suffice. Plan to stop at the visitor center by the entrance to purchase a ticket for a tour of the Cliff Palace, which is only accessible via a guided tour and is the most impressive cliff dwelling in the park. It’s closed in winter.
The drive from the park entrance to Chapin Mesa takes about 40 minutes, and there are some good views along the way. Start your park visit at the archaeological museum at Chapin so you can learn more about the ruins and watch the overview film. Both the museum and film are a bit dated but were still informative, especially the museum which was packed with exhibits and relics. A cliff dwelling called Spruce Tree Terrace is near the museum and can be visited on your own or with a tour. It’s small but worth a look. Also worthwhile is driving the Mesa Top Loop, which provides a great overview of multiple types of dwellings built over the centuries. There are good views of Cliff Palace on this road as well. The Cliff Palace tour is rather hurried because of high volume. While the ranger's talk was uninteresting, Cliff Palace was quite impressive due to its size and location. Balcony House was also visited but was sub-par. It’s smaller than Cliff Palace and requires scampering up ladders and crawling on hands and knees. Had there been more time the 2.5 mile Petroglyph Point Trail would have been hiked to check out the ancient art and enjoy some backcountry. For a more in-depth backcountry experience, the park offers small group outings available only by reservation and which visit ruins not otherwise open to the public. Spending a day here was time well spent. Mesa Verde is the premier place to see Anasazi ruins. The park does a great job with both presentation and interpretation, so you leave with both an appreciation for how these people lived and an understanding of who they were.
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