While the other three national parks all focus on natural features, Mesa Verde is the lone Colorado park (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) highlighting manmade structures. Sited in the Four Corners region in the southwestern quadrant of the state, Mesa Verde is home to 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings hidden in the steep walls of the tree-covered mesa. These dwellings were the homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there between 600 and 1300 CE before leaving the region entirely. Today, these sites are some of the best-preserved dwellings in the United States, according to the Park Service.
Tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House
Here’s the thing: Many visitors to national parks seek solitude and peace and may cringe at the thought of an organized tour. But for Mesa Verde, these tours are the best way to see the heart and soul of the park since you can visit the inside of the cliff dwellings. Jump right into these spectacular ruins by booking a tour of Balcony House, arguably the most adventurous tour of the group. The Balcony House tour isn’t for the timid, but if you enjoy history and relish the thought of exploring the dwellings via ladders and tunnels, this is for you. Guided by a park ranger, you will climb up and down 30-foot ladders and steep stone staircases, and scramble through tight tunnels as you learn more about the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in Balcony House. Tours are offered all day (book in advance through recreation.gov), but if you can stomach it, I’d recommend booking the Balcony House Sunrise Tour. It lasts 90 minutes and you will get to view this beautiful site as the early sun rays streak across the dwelling.
After the tour, spend some time (and get out of the heat of the day) exploring the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to learn more about the Ancestral Pueblo. Enjoy the film and soak in some air-conditioning before heading back out for another tour: Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace is the largest dwelling in the park with 150 rooms. Like Balcony House, it does require an adventurous spirit but it is certainly mellower. Still, you will be required to walk 120 stone steps and climb five 10-foot ladders, so be sure you’re up for the challenge. Of course, the workout is well worth it to learn and appreciate more about this dwelling. Tours are available all day, but I recommend Cliff Palace Twilight Tour. If you time it right, the glowing evening sunshine warms everything in the dwelling, making for wonderful photo opportunities for talented and amateur photographers.
Petroglyph Point Trail and Mesa Top Loop Road
While cliff dwellings like Balcony House and Cliff Palace may seem like the most exotic sites, there is plenty more to see in Mesa Verde. Head back to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, where you will find the trailhead for Petroglyph Point Trail. From there, set out on this 2.4-mile roundtrip hike that steeply descends before gradually climbing back up to the petroglyph panel. Here you can see a number of petroglyphs carved into the rock. Complete the loop as it climbs up a stone staircase before leveling out and returning back to the museum.
Before heading home, hop back into your car and finish your weekend with a scenic drive on the Mesa Top Loop Road. This 6-mile driving tour showcases 12 different sites and includes surface dwellings and viewpoints of various cliff dwellings. After previously viewing Cliff House up close, it is a marvel to see it from afar and truly grasp its immense size.
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