Southwest trip day 13: Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Today we visited Mesa Verde National Park located in far southwestern Colorado. There are more than 4,400 archeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings in the park—more than anywhere else in the country. To recognize the uniqueness of Mesa Verde, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made Mesa Verde a World Heritage Site in 1978.

After you enter the park, the road starts to climb until you reach Park Point Overlook at 8,572 ft. Even after walking a relatively short distance to the fire lookout at the top, I noticed how thin the air was.


Park Point Overlook (8,572 ft.)

We had tickets for the 11:00 am tour of Cliff Palace, the largest and best known cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. We had been warned that due to road construction the drive from Cortez where we spent the night could take an hour and a half, but it being Sunday there was no road work and light traffic so we arrived way early. This gave us a extra time to admire Cliff Palace from the overlook.

My first impression was similar to the first time I saw the Grand Canyon: My mouth fell open and I didn’t know what to say. The buildings are stunning but just as amazing is how well preserved they are. Cliff Palace was built by the Ancestral Puebloans more than 700 years ago; it had 200 rooms and 23 kivas, round ceremonial chambers partially dug into the ground (easily visible in the photo below). Cliff Palace was home to more than 100 people who lived there for about 100 years before they left Mesa Verde (like so many other sites in the Southwest) for reasons unknown. For more information about the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as “Anasazi”) click here.


Cliff Palace as seen from the overlook

The Cliff Palace tour promised to be a lot of fun, involving climbing down steep and uneven steps and later climbing three wooden ladders—and it was.


Climb down into Cliff Palace. The friendly ranger in the photo was our guide, Kathleen.
Climb down into Cliff Palace

Since Cliff Palace can only be visited on a reserved tour, the number of people present at any given time is limited. The tour ahead of us was quite large but ours had maybe 20 people, including the four of us. This allowed us to view the buildings without having to elbow your way to the front of the line—and it allowed me to take photos with no people in them.


Cliff Palace


Cliff Palace


In this photo you can see the next tour group waiting to enter Cliff Palace


Cliff Palace

On the way out we had to climb up three wooden ladders. Luckily they were very sturdy and firmly anchored to the rock walls. The Ancestral Puebloans used no ladders, they simply scrambled up the sheer rock face. We saw a few original hand and toe holds and they were not deep. Just the thought of climbing up 300 ft. like that made me dizzy.


Climbing up a ladder on the way out

Our next stop was the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. From there a short but steep trail winds down to Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling in the park and the only one open to the public with no tour reservation.

But before we went down to Spruce Tree House I took a closer look at the park service buildings constructed in the 1930s and 1940s. The architecture blends harmoniously with the natural sandstone formations and the overall look is very pleasing to the eye.


Park headquarters with banana yucca (Yucca baccata)

As was the case in the Grand Canyon, the most prevalent succulent at Mesa Verde is the banana yucca (Yucca baccata). It grows in exposed sunny sites, sometimes all by itself but often in clumps.


Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)


Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)

I also found two prickly pear species, Opuntia phaecantha and Opuntia polycantha. When not in flower, they look fairly similar, with phaecantha having larger pads than polycantha and fewer spines. Mesa Verde gets a lot of snow in the winter so these two species are extremely cold tolerant.


Desert prickly pear (Opuntia phaecantha)

After having seen Cliff Palace in the morning, Spruce Tree House wasn’t quite as impressive. Having so many people around you was distracting and I had to constantly watch where I was stepping so as not to bump into anybody.


By the time I made it down to Spruce Tree House, there were twice as many people around me as in this photo

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by what these ancient builders accomplished with the most primitive of tools. They fashioned bricks out of sandstones, which must have taken a lifetime, and they glued them together with mortar so durable their dwellings still exist today.

Spruce Tree House

At Spruce Tree House, you can still see how black the sandstone got from the open fires. (At Cliff Palace, the black layer has flaked off over the centuries.)


Spruce Tree House

The blackened sandstone ceiling creates a somewhat sinister effect. While Cliff Palace had seemed like a nice and cheery place, Spruce Tree House felt more malevolent. Maybe I was still under the spell of a great novel I read recently, Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The fictitious Anasazi city of Quivira the protagonists of this novel discover harbors an terrible secret, and I could easily picture Spruce Tree House as the location for that novel.


Spruce Tree House

As we were leaving Mesa Verde in the afternoon, towering clouds were suspended in the sky, creating an almost surreal atmosphere.


Leaving Mesa Verde


Leaving Mesa Verde


Clouds over burned area

I will miss these incredible clouds that seem to appear like magic every afternoon in the Southwest.


  1. Since we didn't get to tour Cliff Palace I feel very lucky that Spruce Tree House was fairly empty when we were there.

    Love the "leaving" pictures and I know exactly what you mean about those clouds.

    1. The park seemed to be deserted when we entered but it seems that everybody goes to the same two or three attractions. If I had a choice, I wouldn't travel in mid-summer but with kids in school we don't have much of a choice.

      Next time I want to do Balcony House. It's reservations only and involves crawling through a tunnel :-).

    2. Claustrophobia alert! There is no way I could do that...but more power to you!

  2. Great photos of great locations. Looking forward to the slideshow next year in Davis. Bill

    1. By then I will have gone through all my photos. So far I've taken 3,161 photos although many of them are duplicates with slightly different exposure.

  3. Love the leaving pictures too, the contrast of the road in the middle of the arid scape. And the Cliff Palace, wow!!

    1. I should have added that the burned trees are from a huge wild fire that swept through the park in the year 2000.

  4. What a trip! The only thing that would make it better would be a final stop in St. Louis -- it's only another 13 hours or so, right? ;-)

    Beautiful stuff in every post, but I have to admit I like the natural posts more than the city ones.

    Hard to believe those burned trees are over a decade old -- I would have expected new trees by now!


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