It's not every day that you get the chance to literally hike back in time, but that's exactly what visitors to Mesa Verde National Park are able to experience. The mesa in Colorado was home to a tribe of Ancestral Puebloans, who built breathtaking cliffside apartment complexes into the mesa in the 13th century. Find out what attracted these Native Americans to the Colorado wilderness, and get ready for a one-of-a-kind experience that lets you walk in the footsteps of these fascinating (and architecturally advanced) people.
Some tips for visiting Mesa Verde National Park:
1.) Sometimes people are so excited to go into the cliff dwellings that they forget how impressive they look from afar, so definitely take a bit of time to drive along Ruins Road. It's an angle worth checking out during your visit, especially since there are so many stunning overlooks. It's a twisty, turny, and sometimes steep drive...in case anyone is prone to carsickness. There's also the incredible Mesa Loop Road as well, which is perfect if you're crunched for time during your visit. 2.) The park contains 4,000 archaeological sites spread out over 80 square miles. That can be overwhelming, so plan out what you want to see in advance. Keep in mind that some ruins are self-guided tours only, while others require you to visit on a guided trip with a park ranger. 3.) As far as National Parks go, Mesa Verde is less pet-friendly than others. Leave Fido at home, since pets aren't allowed on the trails or in the buildings. It's not because they don't love dogs, it's because preserving the many archaeological sites is a huge task. They ask the humans stick to the trails and be cautious when visiting the park as well, for the same reason.
The history in the park goes beyond ancient Pueblo people, the Mesa Verde Administrative district is from the 1920's, and once housed park administration. It's pretty awesome that the buildings were done in a Pueblo revival style that blends the distinctive, rustic "parkitecture" style found in most national parks with the style of architecture the park preserves.
Cliff Palace is the largest and probably best known dwelling: it contains 200 rooms and 23 kivas (a kiva is a ceremonial room used by the Puebloans), all within the largest cave in the mesa. 700 years ago, which would have boasted brightly painted walls, wooden beams, mortar, and tons more. In order to visit, you'll need to snag a ticket for a guided tour from the visitor center.
Balcony House is an especially amazing group of dwellings within the park because modern day visitors must climb a ladder and crawl through a tunnel to visit. But the Native Americans who lived there would have climbed in using toe-holds carved into the cliff. This site is only accessible through a park tour, so pick up tickets at the visitor center.
Located 20-miles south of Cortez, CO at the Junction of Hwy. 160/491, Towaoc, CO, US
Right next door to Mesa Verde, you'll find hundreds of more ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, wall paintings, surface sites and more at Ute Mountain Tribal Park. It's less crowded than Mesa Verde, and it's a totally different experience. You can't even enter the park without a Ute guide, since these are their lands, and so they allow tourists to book full or half day tours of the park. The full-day tour is a three mile hike that takes you to four incredible cliff dwellings, plus the groups are smaller, so you pretty much have the canyon to yourself, and the guides are more than just guides. They're storytellers of sorts, weaving life experience and in-depth knowledge into the historical and cultural information.
The second largest group of dwellings, Long House is in the Western part of the park and offers incredible views along with the ancient history. You can either check it out from the road, or reserve a ticket to take the tour that lets you get up close and personal with some really cool history. Stop by the visitor center if you want to check it out.
Step House is one of the few dwellings in the park that you don't need to reserve a ticket to visit. The trail out here is 3/4ths of a mile and can get a little steep, but it's worth it. Plus, there's usually a park ranger onsite to answer any questions you might have about the ruins.
There's nothing like a cold beer after a long day of hiking in the sun, so head to Main Street Brewery in nearby Cortez. They brew up some pretty tasty beers, blondes, pilsners, and honey raspberry wheats for those who want to keep it light, and porters, stouts, and schwartzbiers for those who like it darker, and even offer a big menu of pub food to soak it all up.
Colorado might not be barbecue country, but after eating at Jimmer's Back Country BBQ, you might change your perspective on smoked meats. They serve up juicy turkey, tender brisket, homemade sausage, and fall-off-the-bone ribs. And since good BBQ is nothing without good sides, get some cornbread, slaw, mac and cheese and fries, too.
When you're traveling, sometimes its nice to stop into a cozy, familiar setting, and the coffeehouse atmosphere of Absolute Bakery and Cafe will make you feel right at home. Located in an historic building and done up in funky, mismatched, artsy decor, it feels like your favorite coffee shop at home. They serve up sandwiches and pasta, along with tons of mouthwatering baked goods and candies, all made from scratch!
The best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park: It does snow here, usually between October and May, and it can get pretty hot in the summer. Be prepared with snow tires and warm clothes if you visit in the winter, and lots of water and sunscreen if you come in the summer. Spring and fall are always good times to visit as well, just note that many spots in the park are only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day!