Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mesa Verde–Day 1


Mesa Verde National ParkSaturday was the day we had set aside to explore Mesa Verde.  By the time we got moving, though, it was already pretty crowded and the ranger-led tours were sold out until late in the afternoon.


We decided that there were enough self-guided areas to keep us busy for a good part of the day, so we began the drive towards the Chapin Mesa.













As we drove into the park, we were climbing in elevation until we reached the highest point in the park – Park Point Overlook.


From this point, we could see Shiprock in the west (faintly, through some haze), and Hesperus Peak in the east.



At the overlook, there was also a fire tower that the Park Service Rangers use to keep an eye on wildfires – several of which have burned in Mesa Verde in past years.  We saw some evidence of fire damage, but luckily we’ve been fire-free so far this season.

Looking back over the “green table”, we could see the roads we had taken to get to this point.







From here, we drove back down in elevation until we reached the Chapin Mesa, around 7000 feet.  We were all getting hungry, so we stopped in the picnic area to have our lunch before we explored the cave dwellings.  The picnic area was almost like a small camping loop, with little individual parking spaces and picnic tables scattered throughout.  We found a spot that had a table in the shade, and enjoyed our lunch.

Our picnic spot

Cute little blue bird

Bryce and I spotted this little blue bird, and I just had to take his picture . . . I don’t know what he is, though!





After lunch, we parked in the overflow parking lot (yes, it was THAT crowded!), and walked to the Chapin Mesa Museum to watch the Mesa Verde Orientation video.  We learned about the various dwellings that have been found at Mesa Verde . . . mesa top houses, pit houses and villages, and finally cliff dwellings.  Our visit today will take us to all three of them!

There are 5 cliff dwellings accessible to the public, 3 of them on ranger tours, and 2 that are self guided.

At this location, the Spruce Tree House is available as a self-guided tour . . .

Spruce Tree House

it’s a 1/4 mile hike and a 100 ft. decent to the cliff dwelling . . . pretty easy going down, but challenging on the way back up!

Spruce Tree House in the background

Canyon Walls

It was a beautiful walk down into the canyon, and we even spotted some wildlife!






Little Lizard

On the trail



We reached the bottom pretty quickly, and even though we could not enter the dwelling, we were able to look through a few windows,

One of many rooms

and even climb down into a Kiva (religious ceremonial room).

Going Down into the Kiva

Bryce, too!

Kivas are always below ground, and they may have been used for healing rituals, or praying for rain, successful hunts or good crops.

Tom going into the Kiva


The small opening in the ground, and the wooden ladder are exactly how the ancient Puebloans entered the ceremonial room.

Mom climbing up

Down below was a small dark room, with seats around the circumference, and a place for a fire in the middle.

Another Kiva - no roof

Most of the remaining kivas are open, without ceilings, but the one that we went down into was recently restored so that visitors could have the experience of entering the ceremonial room.

Inside the Kiva


Inside the Kiva










Back above ground, we explored the rest of Spruce Tree House,

800-year-old walls


Lots of people exploring Spruce Tree House


then it was time to make the climb back up 100 feet to the Museum!    On the way down, we had heard a Ranger describe the walk as 1/4 mile down and 6 miles up!!  Actually, it wasn’t too bad . . . we took it slow, drank our water, and stopped for breaks in the shade . . . and before long we were back to the parking lot.

Since we didn’t have tickets for either of the Ranger-led tours at this location, we got back in the car and drove the Top Mesa Loop . . . a 6-mile loop that took us through 600 years of Ancestral Puebloan development, and included overlooks of numerous cliff dwellings.



Our first stop on the loop was the Square Tower House Overlook.  The Square Tower House is another cliff dwelling from the same time period as Spruce Tree House.

The construction was similar, but the Square Tower House included a section of dwelling that was multiple stories high.




Square Tower House

The next stop were the Pit Houses, from the 750 – 1100 AD time frame.  There are several along the loop, and the construction of the pit houses resembles the Ceremonial Kivas.

Pit House

They are circular in shape, with a hole in the center of the roof for entering, and a ventilation shaft to bring in fresh air.

Ventilation Shaft








From the Sun Point View, we could see several cliff dwellings across the canyon from us.

View from Sun Point


More cave dwellings










Two-Story Dwelling


Dance Plaza










New Fire House

DSC_0384We could also see the remains of the Sun Temple, which is similar to the oldest structures in the park, the Mesa Top Houses.






Sun Temple from across the canyon

Continuing along the loop, we reached the Sun Temple, and from there we had a really great view of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is one of the dwelling accessible only on a ranger-led tour, and as we sat at the observation point, we could watch the tours as they made their way down into the canyon.

Tour Group









The Cliff Palace Tour was the one that we thought we would go on, but since we got such a good look at it from across the canyon, Tom and the boys are thinking they would rather do the Balcony House tour, since it is only visible on the tour, and not from any of the overlooks.  It’s a bit more challenging, though, so I may not join them!

We sat for a bit, watching the tour group progress through the dwelling, and enjoying the view of the canyon,


and then we made our way out of the Top Mesa Loop, and back towards the Visitor Center.  On the way out we stopped at the Far View Sites, which we had missed on the way in, and explored the mesa-top farming community and the dry water reservoir.

Far View Archeological Sites


Pipe Shrine House













Water Reservoir



By the time we finished the walk through the Far View sites, we had pretty much had our fill of archeology and history, and were ready to head out.

We still had a 20-mile drive down from the top of the Mesa, and we admired the surrounding vistas as we made our way down.

Varying Landscapes











Mancos Valley

The view back toward Mancos was especially amazing!

Farms in the Valley



We finally made our way back to the Visitor Center, and since we were all pretty hungry we decided to go into Cortez for dinner, before going back to the ranch.

Even without getting into a ranger-led tour, we had a pretty full day at Mesa Verde!  Now we just need to come back to visit the other half of the park!


  1. Great Photos and spectacular views!!! Now that's the way to get an education...hands on;o)) Thanks for the tour!

  2. What wonderful photos and a great place to visit.

    I think that is an Eastern Bluebird, but it was a little difficult to see. The beak didn't look quite right and it's not really where it belongs, but it sure had the rust colored breast like an eastern Bluebird.

  3. that was only half of the park?..quite the day you all had!!

  4. Beautiful Marci! Its hard for me to remember Colorado, since it was SO long ago! Tina.

  5. That picnic area is the old camping area ... that is why the nice spacing and there is an old amphitheater there too where the rangers used to give talks.


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