The Complete Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

A thrilling collection of ancient canyon-carved cliff dwellings welcomes visitors in Colorado

Most of the country’s 63 national parks are beloved for their wild and rugged beauty but Mesa Verde National Park is a cultural treasure unlike any other.

Located in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado it preserves the heritage and hand-built architectural accomplishments of the Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient civilization that produced awe-inspiring handiwork between 550 and 1300 A.D. Home to 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 canyon-carved cliff dwellings, the 52,485-acre park strewn with verdant clusters of pinyon, juniper, and Gambel oak trees safeguards the United States’ largest archaeological preserve. ​

President Theodore Roosevelt established the park in 1906 and in 1978 Mesa Verde National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Yellowstone National Park, the first such accreditations given in the United States.

The region’s first Spanish explorers gave the area its name—Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table—inspired by its vast and lush mountainous shrublands. Geologists will tell you that Mesa Verde National Park is technically a cuesta (not a mesa) due to its sun-tilted topography which the Ancestral Puebloans used to grow corn, their primary food.

​For reasons unknown, by the late 1200s following seven centuries of building and harvesting the Ancestral Puebloans had all but deserted the cliffs, canyons, and villages of modern-day Mesa Verde National Park.

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While there were surely plenty of explorers in the area in the years after, it wasn’t put on the map until a snowy December day in 1888 when local ranchers Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace—the largest cliff dwelling in the park and the main attraction. Fast-forward to 2022 and this sacred Indigenous site where 100-mile views into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico can be had on clear days attracts close to 600,000 visitors annually. ​

An interpretive sign in the park offers this plea to visitors from T.J. Atsye, a park ranger and direct descendant of the people who once lived here: “To Pueblo people, this is still a living place. We make pilgrimages back to Mesa Verde to visit the ancestors and gather strength and resilience from them. I ask you to please visit with respect. If you’re genuine, and true, and respectful, the ancestors will welcome you.”

​Easy to navigate, Mesa Verde National Park is divided into two distinct sections: Chapin Mesa which features two short, drivable roads and where parkgoers spend most of their time and Wetherill Mesa highlighted by a paved 5-mile walking loop. You won’t need more than a day to experience the park but to explore its best sites—Cliff Palace, for example—you need to purchase tickets for ranger tours in advance of your arrival.

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Plan your trip

The gateway city of Cortez is 10 miles west of the park.

​Most visitors drive to Mesa Verde National Park as part of an extended road trip that includes stops in Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and other attractions in scenic southwestern Colorado including national monuments and the San Juan Skyway, a scenic 236-mile mountain loop through Telluride and other charming former mining towns.

​Mesa Verde National Park’s entrance is on the park’s northern edge directly off U.S. Highway 160 with the lone visitor center nearby. To maximize your day give yourself 30 minutes at the center to take in its interactive exhibits, small museum, bookstore, and gift shop before venturing into the park.

​From the entrance, it’s about an hour’s drive on Mrsa Verde National Park’s slow and serpentine main thoroughfare to the cliff dwellings at Chapin and Wetherill mesas in the park’s far southern quadrant. Be sure to stop at the Park Point overlook, Mesa Verde National Park’s highest point (8,572 feet) for scenic views of the San Juan Mountains’ 14,000-foot peaks. You might even spot a golden eagle riding the warm air currents above the Mancos Valley.

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​The thoroughfare forks at mile marker 15 (near Far View Lodge) with offshoots leading to each of the two mesas. From Far View Lodge, it’s a 5-mile drive to Chapin Mesa’s two loop roads and 12 miles to Wetherill’s loop trail. The road to Wetherill Mesa, the park’s less-visited side closes at the end of October and reopens in May. Chapin Mesa is open year-round; its cliff dwellings can’t be toured in the winter but many of the dwellings in both mesas can still be seen from the park’s overlooks.

​The season is crucial when planning your trip to Mesa Verde National Park. April and May are pleasant and the temperatures are comfortable but you can get snow. September is going to give you the best, most consistent weather in the unpredictable Rockies.

​Summertime temps range from the mid- to upper 80s so bring plenty of water (you’ll be driving at between 7,000 and 8,400 feet) and stay hydrated. With cool mornings and 65- to 75-degree temperatures early fall delivers prime camping conditions. Frigid mountain air sweeps through Mesa Verde in winter shutting down the park tours. When the most popular sites reopen for tours in April temperatures are still chilly (with highs in the low 50s) before jumping into the 70s in May.

​There’s limited to no cell phone service inside the park.

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Where to stay and eat

The closest hotel is the moderately priced Far View Lodge in the heart of the park 15 miles from the entrance and perched atop a mesa, 8,250 feet above sea level. Its 150 rooms sport private balconies perfect for sunset and wildlife viewing (elk, coyotes, mule deer). Metate, the hotel’s signature restaurant (it serves only dinner) offers contemporary American plates including pan-seared rainbow trout.

​Far View Terrace just a short walk from the hotel serves coffee and snacks at the Mesa Mocha Espresso Bar as well as cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch (think omelets and sandwiches). Both the hotel and terrace are open from April to late October. In Chapin Mesa, the Spruce Tree Terrace Café serves basic concession food and stays open through December then reopens in spring.

​Four miles beyond the park entrance, in a picturesque canyon of native Gambel oaks, you can sleep under some of the darkest skies you’ll experience in a national park at the 267-site Morefield Campground (open April through October). Amenities include picnic tables, firepits, and 15 electrical hookups for RVs.

There’s also a full-service village with a gift shop, grocery store, showers, and all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Knife Edge Café. Outside the park in nearby Cortez the affordable Retro Inn open year-round offers brightly colored, accessible rooms and complimentary breakfast.

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Things to do

​See the biggest cliff dwellings

These ancient marvels are the park’s main draw. You can explore a handful of them but only on ranger-led tours (the one exception: the self-guided Step House tour in Wetherill Mesa) most running from mid-April to late October. Tickets cost $8 to $25 per dwelling and can be purchased up to 14 days in advance. While the tours are not wheelchair-friendly or suited for those with physical limitations, anyone can view the dwellings from good vantage points. 

​The park’s absolute must-see is Cliff Palace in Chapin Mesa near the start of the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. This rock, mortar, and timber-constructed village built in the 13th century is jaw-dropping with its 150 rooms, 23 circular kivas used for ceremonial gatherings, intricate ventilation system, and remarkable dry stack masonry. Their walls are within 2 degrees of square but without any builder’s squares. It’s a testimony to how well the Ancestral Puebloans could lay stone.

At its peak, the alcove settlement could have housed upwards of 150 people. Touring it involves climbing uneven steps and ladders but those with physical limitations can get a good view of the site and a terrific postcard shot from Sun Temple on Mesa Top Loop Road.

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​Just shy of 2 miles farther down Cliff Palace Road is Balcony House with 38 well-preserved rooms as well as kivas and plazas. Another 13th-century masterpiece it’s considered the park’s most adventurous tour due to its tight passageways, 32-foot entrance ladder, jagged stone steps, and 60-foot ascent up an open cliff face. It’s for thrill seekers and the physically fit but the easy Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (1.2 miles round trip) affords an alternate view.

​Square Tower House on Mesa Top Loop Road in Chapin Mesa, the park’s tallest dwelling, stands 26 feet high. Inhabited during the mid-1200s the three-story structure features intact wooden beams and an original clay kiva roof. If the strenuous mile-long hike to tour the house deters you, get a bird’s-eye view of the dwelling from the overlook here which provides one of the best vistas in all of Mesa Verde National Park.

​Due to rockfall, Spruce Tree House in Chapin Mesa, the park’s best-preserved dwelling has been closed since 2015. But snag a stellar aerial view of the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling from the wheelchair-friendly porch at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum located less than a mile before the start of the two loop roads.

Tucked beneath a sandstone archway, the dwelling was constructed between 1211 and 1278 A.D. When ranchers discovered it in 1888 they climbed down a large Douglas spruce tree (now called a Douglas fir) to enter it, thus the name.

​In Wetherill Mesa tour Long House, the park’s second-largest dwelling highlighted by a dance plaza and multiple seep springs that provided the Ancestral Puebloans with water. From the beginning of the paved, 5-mile Long House Loop Trail near the mesa parking lot walk 1.5 miles to the Long House trailhead. From there it’s an arduous 2.25-mile hike (round trip) to the dwelling.

​For a more leisurely stroll (just a 1-mile loop) the mesa’s wheelchair- and bike-friendly loop trail passes through an eerie-looking burned forest that leads to the Nordenskiöld Site No. 16 trailhead. To view the two-level, 50-room village excavated by a Swedish geologist in 1891 walk the flat, half-mile gravel path to an overlook.

​Near the parking lot is Mesa Verde National Park’s only cliff dwelling that doesn’t require a tour ticket, the easy-to-walk-around Step House carved inside a 300-foot alcove. When excavated, the dwelling housed stunning handcrafted baskets in its six pit houses (insulated semisubterranean homes) evidence that Ancestral Puebloans occupied it six centuries before the park’s most famous dwellings were constructed circa the 13th century. Access it via a moderate, half-mile offshoot (1-mile round trip) at the beginning of the loop trail.

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​Drive the Mesa Top Loop

This 6-mile, 11-stop scenic road which runs parallel to the Cliff Palace Loop in Chapin Mesa traces the Ancestral Puebloans’ seven-century footprint in and around the park with rousing overlooks and stops at various archaeological sites. At the loop’s end you’ll see Sun Temple (1275 A.D.), a large D-shaped complex that experts believe served as an observatory for astronomical events such as the winter solstice that guided the Puebloans’ planting and harvesting activities.

​Go hiking

Mesa Verde National Park has a few noteworthy short hiking trails though the rough, challenging terrain means they aren’t suitable for the mobility-impaired. In Chapin Mesa, the half-mile Farming Terrace Trail near Cedar Tree Tower provides a window into the Ancestral Puebloans’ unique agricultural system with its check dams and terraces.

From the Spruce Tree House Overlook in Chapin Mesa the steep Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles) loops through a fragrant pinyon-juniper forest where hikers slip between mammoth boulders en route to a 35-foot-wide rock-art panel with more than 30 figures (human and animal), spirals, and handprints.

​Closer to the park’s entrance three trailheads ranging from easy to difficult start at the Morefield Campground: Knife Edge (2 miles), an ideal trek for savoring Colorado’s pastel sunsets; Point Lookout (2.2 miles), replete with views of the snowcapped San Juan and La Plata ranges; and Prater Ridge (7.8 miles), a challenging, two-loop combo that splits Prater and Morefield canyons above Montezuma Valley where an estimated 35,000 people lived in the 1200s.

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Gateway towns

The Old West town of Durango, 36 miles east of Mesa Verde National Park on U.S. Highway 160 lures the bulk of parkgoers with its charming shops and art galleries, eclectic restaurants and microbreweries, outdoor recreation options, and rich railroad history. Indeed, a train ride aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a must.

From downtown Durango, the 1880s steam engine winds through the spellbinding San Juan Mountains skirting the edge of cliffs and crossing lofty bridges over the clear and ever-flowing Animas River chugging its way to the historic mining town of Silverton. It’s a thrilling nine-hour, round-trip adventure (May-October) with two hours spent exploring Silverton. Even the vision-impaired enjoy the ride hearing the steam whistle as the vintage locomotive pulls the train up steep grades. For alpine aromas and the best views, book a gondola seat.

​Splurge on a stay at the 15-room Rochester Hotel (with multiple wheelchair-accessible rooms). Built in 1892, the former boarding house-turned-boutique hotel recently reopened downtown following a modern makeover. Just two blocks away, the 88-room Strater Hotel is moderately priced and feels like you’re sleeping in a museum with period wallpaper and American Victorian walnut antiques awash in a building dating to 1887.

​Start your morning with a breakfast burrito at Durango Coffee Company on downtown’s Main Street. Around the corner, for lunch, munch on mouthwatering al pastor tacos or a chicken torta at the Cuevas Tacos food truck. Come dinnertime sink your teeth into a juicy grass-fed burger topped with Belford cheese at the James Ranch Grill, 10 miles north of downtown on U.S. Highway 550. Cream Bean Berry’s delicate artisan ice cream on Main Street will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. Across the street, sip a cold one at Carver Brewing Company, one of Colorado’s first brewpubs.

​Blink twice and you might miss the closest town to Mesa Verde National Park—Mancos, a sleepy dot on the map 8 miles east of the park on U.S. 160. Accommodations are sparse here but the moderately priced Western-themed lodge rooms at the Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast make for a homey overnight.

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Before heading into the park fuel up for the day at the Absolute Bakery & Café on the Mesa Verde Stack, an egg-and-hash browns combo slathered with homemade green chile. At lunchtime, Chef Ben’s Cubano Sandwich is a must-try.

​Ten miles west of the park on U.S. 160 is Cortez, a terrific launch point for driving the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway with its multiple national landmarks. The town’s lodging options are mostly hotels—the Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez has a pool and wheelchair-accessible rooms. For home-cooked comfort foods order the country fried chicken or elk shepherd’s pie at the Loungin’ Lizard cantina.

Mesa Verde National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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Fact box

  • Park location: The Four Corners region in southwestern Colorado
  • Size: 52,485 acres
  • Highest peak: Park Point’s Fire Lookout Tower at 8,572 feet above sea level
  • Lowest valley: Soda Canyon, about 6,000 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails: 20-plus miles over 12 trails
  • Main attraction: Cliff Palace
  • Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee May until October, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 per vehicle from November through April
  • Best way to see it: Ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings
  • When to go: May through September when the park’s most significant sites are open. September has the best weather.

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

At over 52,000 acres in size, Mesa Verde preserves more than 4,300 archeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings

During our stay at Farmington, New Mexico, we did day trips to Aztec National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park in the southern portion of Colorado.

We had high expectations for the first visit to Mesa Verde National Park, which was far exceeded. Mesa Verde in Spanish means green table, a high, broad Mesa averaging about 18 inches of precipitation each year between winter and spring snows and summer thunderstorms. Ancestral Puebloan peoples had discovered it hundreds of years before European explorers visited the area. 

There are 63 national parks in the United States and Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado is the only one that was created to safeguard the history of a people and a cultural resource. When Teddy Roosevelt signed the bill into law establishing Mesa Verde as a national park in 1906, his remarks were clear: the park would ‘preserve the works of man.’ The works he was referring to were, most notably, ancient villages built upon sandstone ledges on cliffs perched 2,000 feet above the Montezuma Valley.

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Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table”—named for the pinyon pine and juniper forests that blanket the ceiling of the Navajo Canyon—where nearly 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Puebloan people between 550-1300 A.D. remain today.

The sophistication of the dwellings is notable as only sticks, stones, and bones were used to create all of the sites; the tools evolved to advance the architectural methods of the day. Some of the sites are small, containing one-room units found atop the high surfaces of the canyon walls (the green table) and others are multi-story palaces (some with up to 200 rooms) found nestled in the steep rock faces somewhere between the mesa and the canyon floor.

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The location of the dwellings was strategically chosen and served multi-functional purposes—positioned far enough from the flat-top above that they protected from invading groups while enclosed enough that they maintained solar warmth and energy within the enclosures. To navigate between the mesa, the dwellings, and the canyon floors, the ancestral Puebloans would climb (they are arguably among the first free-climbers in North America) while also making use of hand-made ladders that allowed them to travel to and fro. The structures were also used for ceremonial purposes.

The end of an era…

For seven centuries, the ancestral Puebloans thrived until they abandoned their homes around 1300 A.D. Archeologists have multiple theories as to why they left the area, the most likely determination being that drought wiped out their crops while impending war with invaders subsequently drove them south to the area that now belongs to the state of New Mexico. Another contributing factor to their departure was possible because they over-hunted and overused natural resources in the area.

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

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Whatever the reasons for their complete departure, by 1300 the natives had moved on from their dwellings, never to return. After that, what was once a bustling community and home to tens of thousands of people fell into silence where their homes remained undiscovered for nearly 600 years.

Exploring today…

One of the coolest aspects of Mesa Verde is the sheer volume of cliff dwellings that are preserved inside the park. There are also thousands of archeological sites on record and there are certainly more that are yet to be found. For this reason, Mesa Verde is one of the most highly restricted parks in the entire system (walking off of established trails is entirely prohibited.)

The beauty of such restriction is two-fold: 1.) you are blessed with the knowledge of impassioned rangers who seem to know everything about the past, present, and near-future of the park; and 2.) you know that this lone cultural resource is being fiercely protected—as we want all of the parks to be!

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The archeological sites can be found on two mesas: Chapin and Wetherill Mesas are separated by the Navajo Canyon where dwellings line the walls. Access to the best-known dwellings is by ranger-led tours where visitors enter the ruins by ascending and descending ladders and stone-made steps.

Some of the most popular guided tours include the Balcony House, Long House, and of course, the Cliff Palace. To go to any of them you will want to get tickets at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center in advance. The Spruce Tree and Step Houses can be explored freely.

Other cool areas include the Far View Sites Complex where visitors can wander among archeological sites to survey well-preserved kivas and their inner workings and catch a glimpse of a petroglyph of a sundial.

Spend a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents, trailers, and RVs including 15 full-hookup RV sites.

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

The campsites are located within a high grassy canyon filled with Gambel oak, native flowers, deer, and wild turkeys. A camp store offers registration, food, and camp supplies. Firewood, gasoline, showers, a coin-operated laundromat, and a kennel are located nearby.

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Fact Box

Size: 52,074 acres

Date established: June 29, 1906

Location: Southwest Colorado in the Four Corners area where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site, U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 6,015 feet to 8,571 feet

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days ($20 in winter)

Park camping fee: $36 (dry camping), $50 (full-hookups)

Recreational visits (2021): 548,477

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Mesa Verde is Spanish for the green table which refers to the green blanket of vegetation, pinyon, and juniper that lies across the top of the Navajo Canyon. The name was given by Spanish explorers. 

Iconic site in the park: The best-known cliff dwelling in the park is Cliff Palace, the largest of all of the dwellings and the crown jewel of the national park. The first stone was mortared in 1200 A.D. and over 20 years the settlement would grow to include 150 rooms and 23 kivas that would house an estimated 100 people until the site was abandoned in 1300 A.D. Among the most celebrated structures in the palace is the 26-foot Square Tower House, the tallest internal structure found in any of the dwellings at Mesa Verde. The natural sandstone that the village was carved out of is believed to have once been painted in bright colors.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

On the 30-minute ranger-assisted tour, you will descend uneven stone steps and climb four ladders with an elevation change of 100 feet. The total walking distance is ¼ mile.

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Accessible adventure: There are two different auto tours in the park that follow roads along mesas on either side of the Navajo Canyon. The most popular of the two is the 6-mile route on Mesa Top Loop Road which offers stops at accessible sites throughout where you can join park-led tours and step onto overlooks that peer onto ancient villages of the ancestral Puebloan people (including the Sun Point Overlook from where you can see Cliff Palace in a distance.)

The 12-mile Wetherill Mesa Road on the other side of the canyon is a wild ride bringing visitors from Far View to many scenic views that overlook four states. Wetherill is open only from May through October and vehicle size and weight restrictions are in effect on both park roads so check National Park Service access areas on the official website to get more info before heading out.

Both roads have steep grades, and sharp turns, and offer great opportunities to see wildlife. Approximately 40 cliff dwellings can be seen from national park roads and overlooks.

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Big adventure: The ranger-led Balcony House tour brings visitors through a variety of strenuous sections—down a 32-foot ladder, through a 12-foot tunnel on hands-and-knees, and on a crawl up a 60-foot open rock scramble before exiting a 10-foot ladder climb. The tour is only one hour long but it is the most adventurous dwelling tour available and allows visitors to explore kivas and plazas in one of the best-preserved sites in the park while breaking a sweat at the same time.

Did you know?

President Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906, the first park of its kind established to protect cultural artifacts and preserve Native American Indian history in North America.  

It is estimated that 30,000 people lived in the area before it was abandoned around 1300 A.D.

Mesa Verde has the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan artifacts ever found—there are more than 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings documented in the park.

Related article: Imagine Life in a Hovenweep Village

Common sites in dwellings and in archeological sites include terraces, kivas, farming terraces, field houses, reservoirs, ditches, shrines, ceremonial features, and rock art. Kivas are keyhole-shaped rooms used for ritual purposes rather than for daily activity.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kiva is Hopi for “room underneath,” adapted by anthropologists and archeologists to refer to ceremonial rooms. They are found throughout Mesa Verde. Kivas are well engineered with ventilation systems to bring fresh air into the structures where ceremonial fires once burned in the center—also in the center is a small hole called a sipapu which represents an opening to the otherworld. Some kivas have underground passageways leading to other areas in the settlements.

Hopi Indians in Arizona and New Mexico are descendants of the Mesa Verde Ancestral Pueblo peoples.

There is more to this park than archeological sites and dwellings. Forested areas are made up of Utah juniper, pinyon pine, and scrub oak and provide a healthy habitat for a variety of wildlife species including deer, elk, bobcat, mountain lion, skunk, and badger, and the birdlife in Mesa Verde is teeming (more than 200 species have been documented in the park.)

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural.

There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 4,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park, 10 miles east of Cortez off U.S. Highway 160. More than 4,000 archaeological sites have been preserved, including hundreds of homes and villages that date back to the 12th century.

These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park, a designation granted by UNESCO to preserve and protect the cultural and national heritage of certain international sites. Mesa Verde has also been selected the number one historic monument in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, and was chosen by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime—The World’s Greatest Destinations.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. To truly appreciate the park and to visit several of the cliff dwellings, plan to spend a minimum of two days at the park. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde was designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 18 years later, in 1906.

From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House (closed to the public), Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Spruce Tree House is the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, but falling rocks from a sandstone overhang have kept the more than 700-year-old structure closed since October 2015.

Due to the complexity of the project and the significance of Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, there is a four-phase sequential approach planned.

In early 2017, the park service contracted with a geotechnical firm to conduct Phases One and Two. This assessment will result in recommendations for treatment that, if necessary, will use modern engineering technology to ensure that the alcove is stable and safe for public visitation.

Currently, Spruce Tree House can be seen from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Mesa Verde is open year-round, but actual schedules vary with the season. The campground and some sites are closed during the winter. The current entry fee to visit Mesa Verde National Park is $15-25 (fee is good for 7 days); all federal lands passes are accepted.

Worth Pondering

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time