Colorado is a well-visited state and a favorite among tourists. Winter activities include some top-notch skiing opportunities and resorts and summer activities include hiking the green valleys or mountains and swimming in the lakes and rivers surrounded by natural beauty. Mesa Verde National Park is found in Montezuma County and is a favorite park of the area with some fantastic human-made features that will leave you in awe. The park is known for the preservation of the ancient cliff dwellings created by historical people, and they still stand today high above the ground, carved into the cliff-side. The park was established in 1906 and has since protected over 600 cliff dwelling sites including the famous “Cliff Palace,” which is estimated to be the largest cliff dwelling establishment in North America. Other famous dwellings include the Oak Tree House, the Sun Temple, and the Square Tower House.

Ancestral Pueblo People

The ancient Pueblo people lived in the Mesa Verde area for close to 700 years. Here they survived by farming the green fields below the canyon walls, and as their population flourished, they began to carve homes out of the cliff walls. Some homes are massive and able to house many families while others were smaller and more suited for just a few people. The canyon walls gave them excellent vantage points to watch for enemies and offered shelter during severe weather and a better safety net for survival. Eventually, the population became threatened due to weather, drought, disease and enemies and the people left the city in the canyon walls, leaving behind a legacy for all to learn about.

Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park

Ranger-guided tours

Due to the delicate nature of the ancient cliff dwellings and the fact that they are at a higher elevation with no rails and with some ladders to climb, many of the dwellings can only be seen by doing a ranger-guided tour. The summer months are very busy for the park and visitors may be limited to only one cliff dwelling tour per day. The tours can be strenuous and involve climbing up ladders along with some steep hiking.

The Cliff Palace tour is the park’s largest dwelling and one of the most impressive. The journey takes about an hour and involves a ¼ mile hike and five ladders in which to climb up and down. See the massive cliff palace and stand in awe at what the ancient Pueblo people had accomplished.

The Balcony House tour has a 32-foot ladder to climb, a 12-foot tunnel to crawl through and another two ladders to climb down. The trip takes about an hour as well to see the perfectly preserved Balcony House in the park.

The Long House tour is a two-hour tour and is more in-depth than the other tours offered. Visitors will hike over 2 miles round trip and climb two ladders. The tour ends at a trailhead, giving you the chance to explore further before returning to the main visitor area. Guided tours are excellent opportunities to hear from professional park staff about the ancient people’s dwellings and how they survived as well as how they created such masterpieces so long ago.

Self-guided tours

There is only one cliff dwelling tour that you can do on your own, but there are plenty of other things to see on your self-guided tour throughout the park. Check with the park because some sites are only open seasonally while others are open year round. The best-preserved cliff –dwelling in the park is known as the Spruce Tree House. This can be seen on a self-guided tour as the dwelling can be seen from viewpoints near the museum. Rangers are available during work hours at the viewpoints to answer questions you may have about the amazing ancient home.

The Mesa Top Loop Road is a 6-mile loop that has several short and easy paved trails that branch off of it. There are 12 sites to stop and see, and there are some cliff dwellings among them. This is a great way to see the park, some of the cliff homes and trails too. The road is open from 8:00 am to sunset so don’t miss out. The Cedar Tree Tower is an ancestral Puebloan tower and kiva complex that can be seen from the road. The Step House has a cliff dwelling and petroglyphs available for viewing at the end of a hike. The hike is about a mile round trip and takes about an hour. You can find the trail near the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk. These sites and trails are available for exploration on your own and offer an interesting insight into the people that called this place home.

Woman looking at Cliff Palace

Special hikes in Mesa Verde National Park

The park has several tours and hikes that are considered backcountry hikes. It is recommended that you be in good physical condition and bring plenty of water and sunscreen and a hat, as the shade is limited.

The Balcony House Sunrise tour requires a flashlight and hikers to be able to carry their gear as you hike up ladders and steep inclines to the cliff dwelling known as the Balcony House to see the sunrise.

The Mug House hike is named after the three mugs tied together with yucca rope that was found at the site. This dwelling was estimated to have housed anywhere from 80 to 100 people. Along the hike, other places like the Adobe Cave and incredible views of Rock Canyon will be seen.

The Spring House is the most significant unexcavated ancient dwelling in the park and has 86 rooms and seven kivas, which are chambers. This hike is an 8-hour hike and lasts about 12 miles and is considered strenuous. There are a steep elevation change and uneven terrain along the way. There are several other unique backcountry hikes to take. So stop by the visitor center and see which one you would like and when they are scheduled.

Different seasons offer exciting opportunities

The changing of the seasons offers a new set of activities at Mesa Verde National Park. The winter season brings a chance for visitors to see the snow covered park and participate in winter hiking opportunities, skiing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The warm summer months allow visitors complete the guided hiking tours to see the cliff dwellings or do their self-guided tour or drive at specific sites.


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