A Journey of Incredible Beauty: Trail of the Ancients

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence

Far too often we consider the roads that we travel purely as a means to get from point A to point B. Most spend far more hours in their cars commuting and running errands than truly enjoying what lies beyond the edge of the asphalt or concrete. But once you hit the road in your recreational vehicle, why not get off the roads most traveled and take in the breath-taking splendor of America’s system of scenic byways?

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country of southeastern Utah, providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites, as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep (also in Colorado) national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists. An extension of this route continues into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence. Attempt this 482-mile drive (366 miles in Utah; 116 miles in Colorado) in a single day or two and you’ll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you’ll never appreciate it at 65 miles per hour. Instead, take a week or more, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization. Start at any point along the route.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on U.S. Highway 491 and continues to the junction in Monticello with U.S. Highway 191. Turn south onto U.S. 191 and travel to Blanding where you’ll find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area. Visitors can walk the paths through the ruins and climb into the kiva via a ladder, just as the original residents did. Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are at the heart of the museum exhibits.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Blanding the route follows U.S. Highway 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and continues west on Highway 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Butler Wash Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views. Eight miles further west along Highway 95 brings you to Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Adjacent to the road, the site contains dwelling units, a reconstructed open kiva, and round tower—all made of stone.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument about 35 miles west of Blanding. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa a nine-mile, one-way, paved loop road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons with scattered ancient cliff dwellings and three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges. Bridges differ from arches in that they are created primarily by stream action; whereas arches are created primarily by rain and wind.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridges in this monument are all easily viewed from overlook areas along Bridge View Drive, or you can hike down into the canyon and walk under them. Interpretive signing is present at each overlook. Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail is mostly level and leads over the mesa to the edge of White Canyon. The small cliff dwelling is unique in that it is still plastered. The doorways to the two granaries are shaped like the horsecollars used in harness equipment. A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet but an overflow area on the edge of the park has plenty of room.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Natural Bridges National Monument, the Trail of the Ancient Scenic Byway turns south at the junction with Highways 95 and 261. Along this route you’ll find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Prior to dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road 274, a 5-mile remote dirt road leading to Muley Point which has been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. From its magnificent overlook you’ll peer deep into the San Juan River Canyon and onto Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of unpaved road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. The dugway itself is a historic part of the trail, built during the uranium boom to accommodate ore trucks that traveled from the mines on Cedar Mesa to the mill near the Navajo community of Halchita across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. Never planned for public use, Moki Dugway is not recommended for RV travel.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway our journey continues past the entrance to the little-known Valley of the Gods and onto the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosenecks State Park. Although Valley of the Gods is not listed as a site on the Trail, it is worth visiting. The 17-mile loop drive on a native surface road leads among sandstone monoliths which have been given fanciful names such as Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Butte.  The valley allows a close-up look at towers and mesas of multicolored sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple. The sandstone monoliths here are reminiscent of Monument Valley. This route puts travelers on Highway 163, between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

Goosenecks State Park is another adventure in geology revealing the skeleton of the earth in the layers formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River is one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. Like a snake the river twists and turns and coils back on itself for a distance of over six miles while advancing only 1.5 miles west as it flows toward Lake Powell. Over 300 million years of geologic activity is revealed from Goosenecks State Park. Located at the end of Highway 316, Gooseneck is a wilderness park encompassing 10 acres.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Highway 261 continues to the junction with U.S. Highway 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions.

At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in countless Western movies directed by John Ford. An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

After exploring the wonders of Monument Valley retrace your route for 21 miles to Mexican Hat on U.S. Highway 163 and continue east to the pioneer-era town of Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Snuggled up against the San Juan River, the town was settled by the famous “Hole-In-The-Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s. Continue past Bluff and travel east on Utah Highway 262 towards the town of Aneth and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric clusters of Native American ruins. Established in 1923, the villages date from the Pueblo period of the mid 13th century. They are spread over a 20-mile area along the Utah-Colorado state line. Unlike the large ruins at Mesa Verde, these are approachable and the visitor can wander among the fallen walls and consider the people who built them.

From Hovenweep return to Aneth and drive southeast on Utah Highway 162 and Colorado Highway 41 to the Four Corners and northeast on U.S. Highway 160 to Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park has been set aside to preserve remnants of the Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures. The Park encompasses approximately 125,000 acres around a 25 mile stretch of the Mancos River. Within the park are hundreds of surface sites and cliff dwellings, Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs, and historic Ute wall paintings and petroglyphs.

Mesa Verde National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Ute Mountain, drive north on U.S. Highway to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park. Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde offers an excellent opportunity to see and experience the life of the Ancestral Puebloans. Spectacular cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages were built between A.D. 450 and 1300, when the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the area. 

The park is split into a series of sub-mesas all bearing different names. There are thousands of archaeological sites across the park and excellent interpretive loops and scenic pullouts. Hiking and climbing ladders in and out of cliff dwellings is one option, or walks through less rigorous self-guided routes are also available. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this note we end our fascinating discovery of an ancient land of incredible beauty.

Worth Pondering…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, French novelist

Imagine Life in a Hovenweep Village

On the border between Colorado and Utah lie some of North America’s most ancient and remarkable ruins

In the high desert country which straddles the border between southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, the Hovenweep ruins with their mysterious towers induce a strange silence, something you cannot quite explain.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk in ancient footsteps. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl. Experience the past at Hovenweep National Monument.

In our experience at Hovenweep (a Ute word meaning “deserted valley”), you hear nothing at all for long periods. When you see the occasional visitors, they seem to walk along the trails and among the ruins in deliberate quietness. They seem to speak with hushed voices, as though they were exploring the sanctuaries of the great old European cathedrals, many constructed at about the same time the early Pueblo people called Anasazi built the Hovenweep villages.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that is easy to miss, especially in the midst of southeastern Utah where national parks such as Canyonlands and Arches, Monument Valley, the San Juan River, and Cedar Mesa offer a myriad of recreational options.

Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. The six Hovenweep site groups are located within a 20-mile drive of each other along the Utah-Colorado border.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These units vary greatly in size, the largest of which is the 400-acre Square Tower Group. Both this group, where the Ranger Station is located, and Cajon Ruins are located in Utah. The Colorado sites are Holly Ruins, Hackberry Canyon, Cutthroat Castle, and Goodman Point. Altogether, Hovenweep National Monument encompasses 785 acres.

The visitor center contains exhibits and educational information for visitors. There is a small sales area with books specializing on the cultural and natural history of the area.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures evoke an ancient time—one filled with the sights and sounds of a vibrant and dynamic culture. Family groups built their homes at the heads of canyons, surrounding life-giving seep springs that provided water, cooler temperatures, and shade from the cottonwood and hackberry trees that grew there.

Perched on the canyon rims, these villages have weathered the centuries, owing to their solid foundations and careful construction. The towers and rooms of Hovenweep are unique in the style and quality of their masonry. Stones are carefully shaped and small rocks and mortar fill the gaps between, keeping out sun, cold, wind, and any small creatures.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied. Some are square, some D-shaped, some round, some almost four stories tall. The exact purpose of the towers is uncertain, but possibilities include celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, communications towers, and ceremonial buildings. Only limited archeological work has been done at Hovenweep. None of the structures have been rebuilt and remain standing after 700 years.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hovenweep people built increasingly larger and taller towers over time, an indication of the increasing importance of the structures. They built them (in cross section) in D-shaped, square, rectangular, circular, or irregular outlines. They located them, often with perilous entryways, on canyon ledges, canyon bottoms, even atop large boulders.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In some of them, they built viewing ports, suggesting lookout or, possibly, defensive structures. In some, they left ceramic vessels, stone tools, stone grinding basins, and food plant traces, suggesting living, working, and storage areas. In some, they incorporated wall openings which admitted shafts of sun at summer solstice, suggesting solar calendars. For some, they constructed tunnels which led from the towers to kivas, suggesting a ceremonial function.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why did the Hovenweep people, unlike other Anasazi, concentrate on building increasingly large towering structures with various cross-sectional shapes, in differing (even dangerous) locations, for apparently diverse functions? Why did they hold the towers in such importance? No one can say for sure.

The towers remain one of the enduring mysteries of Southwestern archaeology.

Worth Pondering…

I hope you dance because…

Time.

Time is a wheel.

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.

Tell me, who wants to look back on their years and wonder where their years have gone.

—Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, I Hope You Dance

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

Step into the past and experience the lives of one of America’s oldest cultures, the 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 5,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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.

Unique in the park system, Mesa Verde is the first and only park created for the protection and preservation of archaeological resources and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Colorado. Conde Nast Traveler chose it as the top historic monument in the world, and National Geographic Traveler chose it as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime— the World’s 50 Greatest Destinations”, in a class with the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. 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.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 National Park was established 18 years later, in 1906.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the short hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House, the only major Mesa Verde site available for self-guided tours. The paved trail leads to the 114-room, eight-kiva structure—the one initially discovered by Wetherill. One popular feature is a reconstructed and roofed kiva visitors can access by ladder.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tickets to tour other popular larger structures—Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House—must be obtained in advance at the Far View Visitor Center (15 miles south of the park entrance). Tour groups are limited in size.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Immediately south of the Visitor Center, a farming complex dates to about 1050. Two large surface pueblos—Far View House and Pipe Shrine House— and smaller settlements make up the complex.

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, Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Park Headquarters is the outstanding Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. With scores of exhibits and five unique dioramas, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the area’s ancient people.

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.

Our brief visit whetted our appetite for more. In the words of another time traveler from the future…I’ll be back.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mysterious Towers of Hovenweep Ruins

We know a bit about the people who built the Hovenweep Towers but much of their history remains unknown

In the high desert country which straddles the border between southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, the Hovenweep ruins with their mysterious towers induce a strange silence, something you cannot quite explain.

Walk in ancient footsteps. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl. Experience the past at Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In our experience at Hovenweep (a Ute word meaning “deserted valley”), you hear nothing at all for long periods. When you see the occasional visitors, they seem to walk along the trails and among the ruins in deliberate quietness. They seem to speak with hushed voices, as though they were exploring the sanctuaries of the great old European cathedrals, many constructed at about the same time the early Pueblo people called Anasazi built the Hovenweep villages.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss, especially in the midst of southeastern Utah where national parks such as Canyonlands and Arches, Monument Valley, the San Juan River, and Cedar Mesa offer a myriad of recreational options.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. The six Hovenweep site groups are located within a 20-mile drive of each other along the Utah-Colorado border.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These units vary greatly in size, the largest of which is the 400-acre Square Tower Group. Both this group, where the Ranger Station is located, and Cajon Ruins are located in Utah. The Colorado sites are Holly Ruins, Hackberry Canyon, Cutthroat Castle, and Goodman Point. Altogether, Hovenweep National Monument encompasses 785 acres.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center contains exhibits and educational information for visitors. There is a small sales area with books specializing on the cultural and natural history of the area.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures evoke an ancient time—one filled with the sights and sounds of a vibrant and dynamic culture. Family groups built their homes at the heads of canyons, surrounding life-giving seep springs that provided water, cooler temperatures, and shade from the cottonwood and hackberry trees that grew there.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perched on the canyon rims, these villages have weathered the centuries, owing to their solid foundations and careful construction. The towers and rooms of Hovenweep are unique in the style and quality of their masonry. Stones are carefully shaped and small rocks and mortar fill the gaps between, keeping out sun, cold, wind, and any small creatures.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied. Some are square, some D-shaped, some round, some almost four stories tall. The exact purpose of the towers is uncertain, but possibilities include celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, communications towers, and ceremonial buildings. Only limited archeological work has been done at Hovenweep. None of the structures have been rebuilt and remain standing after 700 years.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hovenweep people built increasingly larger and taller towers over time, an indication of the increasing importance of the structures. They built them (in cross section) in D-shaped, square, rectangular, circular, or irregular outlines. They located them, often with perilous entryways, on canyon ledges, canyon bottoms, even atop large boulders.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In some of them, they built viewing ports, suggesting lookout or, possibly, defensive structures. In some, they left ceramic vessels, stone tools, stone grinding basins, and food plant traces, suggesting living, working, and storage areas. In some, they incorporated wall openings which admitted shafts of sun at summer solstice, suggesting solar calendars. For some, they constructed tunnels which led from the towers to kivas, suggesting a ceremonial function.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why did the Hovenweep people, unlike other Anasazi, concentrate on building increasingly large towering structures with various cross-sectional shapes, in differing (even dangerous) locations, for apparently diverse functions? Why did they hold the towers in such importance? No one can say for sure.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers remain one of the enduring mysteries of Southwestern archaeology.

Worth Pondering…

I hope you dance because…

Time.

Time is a wheel.

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.

Tell me, who wants to look back on their years and wonder where their years have gone.

—Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, I Hope You Dance

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 National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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