Mesa Verde National Park is the first national park created to preserve the works of mankind, as opposed to the works of nature. The Ancestral Puebloans who built the magnificent cliff dwellings that the park protects had a unique culture that is still very much alive today. From food to architecture to art, the influence of these ancient peoples is felt just as strongly today as it was thousands of years ago. Here's how to immerse yourself in this special culture on a trip to the park.
First, a little background on the history of the park, and the Native American sites that it protects. Ancient peoples have occupied the area for centuries, but the main feature of Mesa Verde National Park, the cliff dwellings, were built by the Ancestral Puebloans between 750 AD and 1300 CE. These were some of the earlier people to rely on planted crops like corn rather than foraging and hunting, and they started building the pueblo structures to store corn and shelter themselves during the winter.
But the most impressive thing about the Ancestral Puebloans is the fact that not only have their structures remained standing for centuries, but their influence on culture can still be felt in the region to this day.
If you want some really thorough insight into the Ancestral Puebloans, and how they've impacted the area, make the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center your first stop. They have great historical displays, tons of artifacts from across the park, and even modern art inspired by the Ancestral Puebloans. It's also where visitors pay admission and reserve tickets to visit the sites that require a tour guide, so it's the perfect introduction to Mesa Verde National Park.
One of the sites that require a ticket and ranger guide to see is the Long House. It's incredibly well preserved, and after you book a time to take the tour, you'll get to walk around inside this ancient dwelling. It's the second-largest "house" in the park, and it's an utterly mesmerizing place to explore. It's also one of the longest guided tours in the park, as it lasts about two hours. It's pretty incredible to walk down into the canyon, and then climb the ladders up into the dwelling. The rangers do an excellent job of teaching their tour groups about what researchers think certain buildings were used for, and how the site was excavated.
Located at the park's Far View Lodge, the Metate Room is the perfect place to get a taste for how Ancestral Puebloan flavors have made their way into the area's cuisine. You can get a sense of the regional food with chili relleno and crispy prickly pear pork belly, while the more adventurous can sample rattlesnake and pheasant sausage or elk Wellington.
Balcony House is another one of the dwellings that you can tour. Once again, a ticket is required to access this site, but the park rangers who guide you through up the ladders and through the tunnels that allow you into the dwellings do an excellent job of setting the scene. They paint a picture of what the Balcony House would have looked like back when it was occupied and can answer any questions. It's an absolutely gorgeous site that makes for a fun afternoon excursion!
For the best accommodations (and the only hotel located inside the park) book a room at the Far View Lodge. It's a simple, National Park Service-run lodge that doesn't have TVs or phones... but once you catch a glimpse of the panoramic, 100-mile views from your room, you won't miss those a smidge. The hotel is set 15 miles into the park, so you're totally immersed in the natural beauty of Mesa Verde National Park, and you won't be troubled by any kind of modern development. You're only 3 short miles from the cliff dwellings, making this a super convenient place to stay.
The decor is all Pueblo-inspired as well, and if you want to really get into the spirit of the Southwest, you can even rent a campsite here. The Metate Room is the onsite restaurant here, and there's also a bar/lounge where you can enjoy a drink, some nibbles, and the enchanting scenery.
Venture outside the park to the Notah Dineh Trading Company and Museum for even more history and culture. Learn the history of trading posts, and see some absolutely incredible woven rugs made by locals. Other objects on display include beaded jewelry, dolls, pottery, and more. Once you're done browsing the displays, explore the collection of contemporary woven rugs for sale (Notah has one of the largest selections of Navajo rugs in the area), intricate jewelry, traditional pottery, and tons more.
On a trip to Mesa Verde Country, it's impossible to not feel the native culture. As you learn about the past and explore the ruins of Mesa Verde National Park, you'll gain a new appreciation for the art, food, style, and atmosphere of the region as you experience it all with a new perspective: one that considers how the past has influenced the present.
Welcome to Southwest Colorado! Amazing views and Southwestern charm are waiting for you. Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos make up this ancient land, and the National Park, Monuments, tribal heritage and western cultures offer you so much more to explore. One Day isn’t Enough in Mesa Verde Country.