Generally, the land of extreme southwest Colorado is high desert with arid mesas and wide empty valleys, but it becomes more mountainous to the northeast, as the foothills of the San Juan Mountains
approach. The hills of Mesa Verde are shaped like a comb, linked by a high ridge (the North Rim
) running approximately east-west and many long thin, wooded mesas extending southwards. These have almost flat tops but are separated by narrow, often sheer-walled canyons up to 1,000 feet deep, and it was in these well-protected ravines that the Anasazi Indians built their settlements, between 550 and 1250 AD, although most of the large buildings were constructed near the end of this period. As with many other ancient cultures of the Southwest, the Mesa Verde area was abandoned quite suddenly, around 1300 AD and it was not until the late 19th century that their settlements were rediscovered.
Mesa Verde National Park is approached from busy highway US 160, which runs along Montezuma Valley
between Cortez and Mancos (see map
There are a few businesses including RV sites and Indian souvenir shops around the entrance, but most facilities are in the two towns, 10 and 8 miles away respectively. A steep climb begins just inside the park gate, as the road winds up a rocky ridge, reducing traffic to 15 mph in some places, and including one section right beneath a near-vertical cliff, a location prone to avalanches in winter and rockfalls all year. A pull-out on the east side gives fine views over Mancos Valley
and the snow-covered La Plata Mountains
, before the road passes through a gap in the ridge and onto the flat floor of Moorfield Valley
, site of the park's campground (open mid May to mid October). The highway crosses to the adjacent valley (Prater Canyon) via a tunnel before ascending again, steeply up to the top of North Rim, the wooded escarpment forming the south edge of Montezuma Valley. Several roadside stops allow for viewing the lands far below, and three have short trails to other viewpoints, including at Geologic Overlook
and Montezuma Valley Overlook
. On a clear day the views southwards extend to Shiprock Peak
in New Mexico, 50 miles away.
Another short trail along the entrance road leads to Park Point
, at 8,571 feet the highest peak in the area. Nearby stands a watch tower with uninterrupted 360 degree views, and visitors can enter to learn about the work of the fire prevention service. From here, the first signs of the great fire of August 1996 were observed - for five days, a large destructive blaze raged through the bushes and pine trees covering the hills and canyons in the north central section of Mesa Verde. The fire followed an extended spell of hot, dry weather and was started by lightning; when it was finally extinguished nearly 5,000 acres had burned, and the park had to be evacuated and closed for a week. The fire jumped across the main park road several times and spread to within a few feet of the visitor center buildings, but despite the short-term destruction, no lasting damage was done. Many other serious fires have occurred in the last hundred years, recent events being in 2000 (twice), 2002 and 2003, but the vegetation always recovers. One side effect of such fires is the revelation of previously unknown archaeological sites.
The park drive eventually reaches Far View
, a cluster of buildings that includes the visitor center and a restaurant. From here, a side road (open only during summer) continues further west across steep terrain for 12 miles towards the Wetherill Mesa
group of ruins, most famous of which is Long House
, a large structure which may be reached either by foot path or tram. However, by far the most visited section of the park is Chapin Mesa
, ten miles south of Far View along the main approach route (the Ruins Road) - here are dozens of easily accessible cliff dwellings, ruins and other historic features, although the majority of the thousands of archaeological sites in the park, many still unexcavated, are more remote. Three one-way loop systems help ease traffic congestion on the narrow roads between the various groups of ruins. There are also foot trails, but hiking is limited to recognised routes and most ruins are not open to the public, to help prevent damage to the fragile sandstone structures and the theft of artefacts. Some trails require tickets to be purchased, to control the numbers of visitors, and watchful park rangers are present at all the major ruins during opening hours. Guided tours are available through some of the largest clusters of buildings; these often require visitors to ascend ladders and crawl through small openings.
The largest cluster of buildings, with 150 rooms in total, is Cliff Palace
- this has many towers, houses and circular kivas (ceremonial gathering places), is also reached by a short trail (including a ladder) and is easily explored. The palace is best viewed from a different road at the opposite side of the canyon.
Spruce Tree House
, one of the best-preserved cliff house complexes, is visible from the road near the park museum. The structure originally had 114 separate rooms and is built in a large overhanging cave-like recess in the canyon wall. A short but quite steep foot trail descends into Spruce Tree Canyon to view the ruins. A longer path (the 2.4 mile Petroglyph Point Trail
) continues past, and along the canyon, giving a good appreciation of the landscape - it passes colorful rock formations and a small ruin as well as the petroglyphs. The trail returns along the rim above the canyon with good views of distant lands to the west. The third large ruin in the Chapin Mesa area is Balcony House
, visible further along the Cliff Palace loop road.
Detailed description of sites along Chapin Mesa