Mesa Verde contains over 4,500 archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people; 600 are cliff dwellings. I first visited this park about ten years ago when my children were younger, and I’m glad I went back. I was happy to see there is a new visitor’s center right at the entrance now, so that you can set up your tours and put together a plan for your visit before you drive 45 minutes on 20 miles of two-lane switchback roads into the park. That drive gets you to the Far View area, and from there you can fork out to explore either the Chapin or Wetherill Mesa. It’s also important to note that once you reach the top of the mesa you have climbed to elevations that can be more than 8,500 ft, so unless you are acclimated to high altitudes, a plan is important.
The good news about the long drive in is that as the altitude increases, there are plenty of places to pull over, park, and take in the views. Just be sure to do that in designated areas only because when they say giant boulders fall here, they mean it. I watched them move one that had just fallen on the road and it was massive. Here’s a video from the Mancos Valley Overlook, which is one of the first you encounter and at a relatively low altitude:
The tours are popular, so it’s best to book those in advance. Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House all require a ranger-guided tour. On my previous trip, my family toured both Cliff Palace and Balcony House and if you are physically able to handle the climbing and crawling through a short tunnel, I strongly recommend those because they are super interesting and a lot of fun.
This time around, I decided to visit last minute, so I opted to see the sights I didn’t catch last time, starting with a visit to Spruce Tree House (currently closed to tours due to falling rocks.)
After that, I headed out to do the Mesa Top Loop Drive, which is on the Chapin Mesa, and is a series of stops where you can hop out to take a look. Parking is available along the way. There is a small guide book for this drive available at the visitors center and I recommend picking one up (they ask for a 50 cent donation). This was a really good option for me, because I wasn’t up for another high altitude hike that day. Everything is fairly close to the areas where you pull over, and in the early spring, there was also the advantage of no crowds. As a bonus, the smell of pine in the morning was delightful.
Mesa Top Loop Drive:
There is a small cafe and gift shop back in the area by the Spruce Tree House, so I stopped there for lunch. Offerings are limited and pricey, but you’re paying for convenience here. Fair enough. After lunch, I started the drive back down off the mesa with the intention of stopping frequently to photograph the sweeping vistas (there are a lot of them).
Geologic Overlook is a fantastic spot to stop and photograph Cortez, CO and the Montezuma Valley below. It’s also a good place to photograph Ute Mountain, which happened to have just the right amount of snow on it the day I visited to highlight it’s famous eagle. I was walking back to my car when I saw a couple walking up the path towards me. I greeted them and was about to point out the eagle on the mountain, when I realized the person standing in front of me looked exactly like a Swiss photographer that a mutual friend had been trying to introduce me to for about three years, but we never seemed to be in New England at the same time (he was also wearing his camera, which I had seen in photos many times, so that was another hint that I was looking at the person I thought I was.) I was so shocked that I just muttered, “Benno?” A mutually shocked and confused response greeted me. I tried to explain what the connection was before asking his wife to take a photo of us together so I could post it on Facebook. I had connected to Benno Hunziker years ago for his beautiful photographs, but I found him through the fife and drum community, which it turns out is smaller than I thought! I got back in my truck laughing, because I was pretty sure Benno had no idea who he had just met, but I was also pretty sure Facebook would fill in the missing links.
I headed back down off the mesa, and was happy with my decision to visit as a day trip. My prior visit had been for three days, and we stayed at the Far View lodge for two nights, including a very memorable sunrise. That was a great experience and gave us lots of time to explore, but the altitude was very challenging for me and had kicked off a whopper of a migraine. I spent about four hours up on the mesa this time, and was able to handle it with no problems.
Overall impression: I love this park. My first visit to Mesa Verde was with kids in tow (10 and 12 years old) and that was a perfect age to bring them here. This time I took things a little easier and I’m glad I did. Climbing through the cliff dwellings is super interesting and fun, but I missed all the cool stuff to see on the Mesa Loop Drive. I also realized that Mesa Verde is another highly accessible park. If you aren’t up for the physical challenge of the tours, you can still see a lot of interesting ancestral pueblo ruins, including the cliff dwellings, and the views from the mesa are spectacular.
Costs: The entrance fee per vehicle is either $15 or $20 (low or high season). I got in free with my annual National Park Pass. Guided tours are $5 per person, self-guided tours are free but I suggest purchasing the accompanying trail guides available in the book store (nominal cost of about $1). Lunch at the Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe was $15, including a drink. We ate at the Metate Room Restaurant in the Far View area when we stayed here years ago, and it was excellent although a little pricey for our budget. It wasn’t open yet when I visited, but I would have eaten there again if it had been.