Shrouded in mystery, Mesa Verde is a fascinating, if slightly eerie, national park to explore. It is here that a civilization of Ancestral Pueblo Indians appears to have vanished in AD 1300, leaving behind a complex civilization of cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde is unique among parks for its focus on preserving this civilization’s cultural relics so that future generations may continue to interpret the puzzling settlement, and subsequent abandonment, of the area.
Mesa Verde rewards travelers who set aside a day or more to take the ranger-led tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House, explore Wetherill Mesa or participate in one of the campfire programs. But if you only have time for a short visit, check out the Chapin Mesa Museum and walk through the Spruce Tree House, where you can climb down a wooden ladder into the cool chamber of a kiva.
The park entrance is off US 160, midway between Cortez and Mancos. From the entrance it is 21 miles to the park headquarters (970-529-4461; www.nps.gov/meve; 7-day park entry per vehicle $10, bicyclists, hikers & motorcyclists $5), which has road information and the word on park closures (many areas are closed in winter).
The Chapin Mesa Museum (970-529-4631; admission free; 8am-6:30pm, 8am-5pm winter) is near the park headquarters. Along the way are panoramic Park Point (10 miles from the entrance) and the Far View Visitor Center (970-529-5034; 8am-5pm), 15 miles from the entrance, where visitors must buy tickets ($2.50) for tours of the magnificent Cliff Palace or Balcony House.
The largest concentration of Ancestral Puebloan sites is at Chapin Mesa, where you’ll see the densely clustered Far View Site and the large Spruce Tree House. At Wetherill Mesa, the second-largest concentration, visitors may enter stabilized surface sites and two cliff dwellings, including the Long House, open late May through August. South from Park Headquarters, the 6-mile Mesa Top Road connects excavated mesa-top sites, accessible cliff dwellings and vantages of inaccessible dwellings from the mesa rim.
The park concessionaire, Aramark Mesa Verde (970-529-4421; www.visitmesaverde.com; PO Box 277, Mancos, CO 81328; adult/child from $36/25), offers guided tours to excavated pit homes, cliff dwellings and the Spruce Tree House daily from May to mid-October.
The nearby towns of Cortez and Mancos have plenty of midrange places to stay. Within the national park, visitors must choose between camping or a lodge.
The Far View Lodge (970-529-4421; r $100; mid-Apr–Oct; ) is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over Ute Mountain – it is perched directly on the mesa top, 15 miles from the park entrance. Rooms have Southwestern furnishings, private balconies and the same outstanding views.
Campers can head to Morefield Campground (970-529-4421; campsites/RV sites $19/25; May–mid-Oct), 4 miles from the park entrance. With 445 campsites, this place has plenty of capacity for the peak season. Grassy campsites at Navajo Loop are conveniently located near Morefield Village (which offers a general store, gas station, restaurant, showers and laundry). Free evening campfire programs take place nightly from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater.
The Metate Room (970-529-4421; Far View Lodge; dishes $15-25; dinner) features an innovative menu inspired by Native American food and flavors. Palates are titillated by such mains as oven-roasted chicken breast with green chili stuffing and buffalo fajitas.