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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

High-Elevation RVing: How to Beat the Heat and Camp in Perfect Weather

As another camping season approaches I want to share how you can beat the heat and camp in perfect weather all year. The solution is high-elevation RVing.

Let’s face it, summer camping is great but it also brings 90-degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity.

Even in northern climates, it gets very hot during the dog days of summer. 

But by moving about in your RV and using high altitude camping to regulate the heat you experience, your summer locations can be much more agreeable—and scenic.

Let me show you some examples of how to do this when the temperature rises and some peculiarities of high-altitude RV operation.

The goal is to camp in perfect weather, to experience daytime temperatures in the low to mid-70s which we have found to generally be the most comfortable camping climate there is.

High elevation camping at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The formula to camp in perfect weather: Keep it around 70 degrees

New Mexico is a great state to begin a summer’s travels and by April you can pretty much always find those sweet seventies.

That will last close to Memorial Day if you move around a bit. A good place to be in late May is around Farmington, New Mexico waiting for the snow to melt and the mountains to open up.

Eventually, when you see the snow line climbing higher on those peaks, you’re starting to sweat at lower altitudes and experience those 80 degree days.

Head up the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) into the Colorado high country when the weather is so warm you need the A/C on.

Try Haviland Lake in Colorado at 8,100 feet assuming the snow has melted. Daytime highs in early June will probably be upper 60s to low 70s. Once the holiday crowds dispersed, you should have lots of places to boondock. It’s a National Forest campground with electricity and water and online reservations for maybe half the spots.

High elevation camping at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it slow when high-altitude RVing

I recommend spending about a week and a half getting acclimated to the altitude. Watch the snowline on the mountains. The elevations will undergo a remarkable transformation. Feet of snow will quickly start melting away and in rapid order those low 70s at Haviland Lake will start to hit the 80s and you’ll know it’s time to start climbing again.

You can follow the hummingbirds also looking for perfect weather. A good place to stay in the 70s in mid-June is around Silverton, Colorado.

Mineral Creek has great high-altitude RVing spots to camp in perfect weather.

There are numerous boondocking locations here. Mineral Creek dispersed camping in the San Juan National Forest is a favorite for many of those chasing perfect weather.

High elevation camping at Dillon, Montana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Up there, you’ll now be at 9,600 feet and the weather for what will not be full-on summer should be ideal. High temperatures that high will seldom get above 70. At night you may need the heater as it will regularly dip into the 40s.

Since the Forest Service will allow you stay a maximum of 14 days, it’s a simple matter of moving over to the other side of Silverton which is BLM land (Bureau of Land Management, another Federal agency) to Maggie Gulch at 9,800 feet.

It’s time to reset the 14-day clock in another spectacularly beautiful place with near-perfect camping weather.

There are some quirks to being up where the air pressure is 70 percent of normal—if you make biscuits they’ll be things of beauty. 

But your potato chip bags may have popped those air seals as you climbed up to this altitude. Fortunately, the low humidity will keep them from going stale. The downside is that water boils 20 degrees cooler so potatoes will take forever to cook. 

Forget about cooking rice. Plus you’ll need to add more coffee and boil it longer if you prefer it strong.

High elevation camping at Fish Lake, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your camper appliances may be affected when you are high-altitude RVing

RV appliance operation can also be affected by altitude. If you have a generator you may find it has a hard time warming up and running smoothly.

The key is to get out the manual and make an attitude adjustment on it. Pull the generator access cover and look for a black plastic set screw cap with a line on it pointing to a 0-10,000 foot scale.  Rotating the set screw clockwise until the line in the black plastic cap corresponds to your altitude will make your generator a lot happier.

A propane hot water heater could develop the mechanical equivalent of emphysema at 9,800 feet with the flame popping and going out requiting much relighting and lean-burn smells.

Alas, this is something that you probably need to leave alone and turn off. You can heat water on the propane stovetop just fine in a pot. 

When it really gets hot down below, head to the Beartooth Pass

There’s one more climb you may want to take if the weather gets really hot in late July and August; head north toward Montana and the Beartooth Plateau at 10,164 feet. Up that high, 70 is about the highest temperature you can expect even when it’s 90 a few thousand feet lower.

High elevation camping at Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Again, get acclimated to the higher elevations

All that altitude does require acclimation.

Ascend gradually and stop for a week or so on your way up through successively higher altitudes. If you climb slowly you won’t suffer any adverse altitude sickness consequences other than shortness of breath with sustained exertion. Everyone notices that.

You aren’t the only species looking for perfect weather

One other possible downside of high-altitude camping is that you aren’t the only species up there.

Bears will almost always be found at altitude in the summer. Practice keeping a clean camp and secure your vehicle, especially at night. 

To be extra cautious, I suggest you never take any food outside the vehicle when you’re in bear country and be sure to read Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know.

Whether you’re fulltiming or just hot, head for the mountains and enjoy a break from the oppressive summer weather. 

Worth Pondering…

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know that place for the first time.

— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Discover Native American Cultures on the Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway traverses a portion of the American Southwest that once experienced cannot easily be forgotten

The Trail of the Ancients is the ultimate American Southwest road trip into the Native American history of the region running through four states.

Long before the United States existed there were many civilizations throughout the lands that now make up the country. Today, visitors can learn about the history and heritage of these lands in the Four Corners region on the Trail of the Ancients. The route is found in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Trail of the Ancients explores many of the state parks, Indian reservations, national parks, and national monuments of the region. On this trail, travelers can see some of the best landscapes of the region along with some of the land’s deepest history. But it’s not all about history; you will also see the enduring traditions and practices of the Ancient’s living descendants today.

The Trail of the Ancients is a collection of Scenic Byways that highlight the archeological history of the region. Along this route, visitors can delve into the cultural history of the Native American peoples of the Southwest.

Here are some helpful resources:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients Byways

  • Utah: Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
  • Colorado: Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway
  • New Mexico: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
  • Arizona: Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road

The Trail of the Ancients connects historic points of interest of the Navajo, Utes, and early Puebloan peoples. Along the way, visitors see snow-capped mountains, red rock landscapes, green valleys, canyons, and some of the most iconic landscapes of the Southwest.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Colorado

The Colorado section of the Trail of the Ancients has been a National Scenic Byway since 2005. It traverses the arid and cultural terrain of the Ancestral Pueblo. This is a land with cliff dwellings, rock art, and broken pottery sherds.

The scenic drive starts on US 160 at Mesa Verde National Park, home to over 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi People between 450-1300 AD. Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park designated by UNESCO and you can spend days here exploring over 4,500 archaeological sites and extraordinary setting. 

From the park, the drive heads to the town of Dolores by following the US 160 west and CO 145 and CO 184 north. The premier archaeological museum, Anasazi Heritage Center honors the history of the Anasazi People and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region with exhibits on archaeology, local history, and lifestyle including how they weaved and prepared corn. A short trail will bring you to two pueblos. The Anasazi Heritage Center is also the visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which protects more than 6,000 ancient ruins.

From Dolores, head west on CO 184 and then north on US 491 passing pastoral farmland with mountain peaks in the distance. As you approach the town of Pleasant View, turn right onto Country Road CC. Heading west for 8.5 miles, you arrive at Lowry Pueblo, an Anasazi ruin constructed around 1060 AD. It housed approximately 40-100 inhabitants who subsisted as farmers and made elaborately decorated pottery.

Retracing back a few miles, you arrive at Country Road 10 which heads southwest towards Utah for 20 miles on a dirt road. After crossing the border into Utah, stop at the Hovenweep National Monument. Along the canyon rim stand two, oddly-shaped stone towers created by the master builders of the Anasazi’s people, the meaning of which are still unknown.

The Monument also has a total of six groups of ruins and is known for its square, oval, and D-shaped towers. Explore the Square Tower Group by walking the two mile loop trail from the Visitor Center. Stargazing is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this peaceful and moving setting. Make a night of it with camping which is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

The scenic drive comes to an end as you arrive at the US 191. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Utah

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on US Highway 491 and travels to the junction in Monticello with US Highway 191. Turn south onto US 191 and travel to Blanding where you find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Musuem, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area.

From Blanding the route follows US 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and west on US 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument along the way. It then turns south at the junction with UT 95 and UT 261 and proceeds to the top of the Moki Dugway, a 3 mile stretch of gravel road that descends the 1,000 foot cliff from Cedar Mesa to Valley of the Gods. Along the way you will find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Just before dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road #274 leading to Muley Point and views into Johns Canyon.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway the route continues past the entrance to Valley of the Gods and on the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosencks State Park. At Goosenecks you encounter a view of the largest entrenched river meander in North America.

UT 261 continues to the junction with US 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat or turn left to drive to Bluff. Turning right will take you to Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley; turning left will take you to Bluff and back to Blanding.

Along US 191 between Bluff and Blanding is the junction with Utah Highway 262 where you turn east and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument OR you can access Hovenweep from Bluff on US Highway 162 and follow the signs.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-New Mexico

The Trail of the Ancients passes through the unique geology of the Colorado Plateau high desert offering a rich but fragile mix of natural resources. The stunning rock formation, Shiprock, is a central scenic point that is visible from most places on the Trail of the Ancients. Shiprock provides a focal point for the interpretive theme of the landscape and helps to integrate the trail stops. The visible cultural heritage of the Four Corners area boasts numerous archaeological sites, modern communities, and Indian lands.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a USESCO World Heritage Site, is the centerpiece of the New Mexico segment of the byway. Occupied at the height of Ancestral Pueblo culture between around 850 and 1250 AD, it served as a major center of the ancestral Puebloan civilization. Remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, astronomy, artistic achievements, and distinctive architecture, it was a hub of ceremony/trade for the prehistoric Four Corners area for 400 years.

The Navajo people arrived late on the scene. Their roots trace back to the Athabascan people of northwestern Canada. Spanish explorers first used the name Navajo. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ meaning The People. Contact with other groups and the introduction of farming and ranching brought lasting changes to the lives of the Dine’. The Navajo reservation is the largest in the continental United States both in size and population.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic turnouts along the Trail of the Ancients reveal vast valleys, towering mountains, badlands, clear blue lakes, raging rivers, and gentle streams.

The route traces a massive hook shape on the New Mexico northwest as it explores some of the loneliest parts of the state. Sites along the way include the El Morro National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Crownpoint (stop here for the monthly Navajo Rug auction), Casamero Pueblo, El Malpais National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Here are some helpful resources:

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

Trail of the Ancients-Arizona

In Arizona, Trail of the Ancients consists of two distinct roads, The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road.

The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road consists of two sections of a single road. The road crosses the state line between New Mexico and Arizona. The official scenic road is only on the Arizona side of the line. The southern section runs from Lupton north through the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to the state line. Then it picks up again further north in the Lukachukai Mountains when the road crosses back into Arizona wraps around the north side of Canyon de Chelly National Monument and turns southwest to end at Chinle. At no point does the route leave the Navajo Nation.

The Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road is a 27-mile route along US Highway 163 from Kayenta to the Utah state line. Monument Valley is known as Tse’ Bii’ Ngzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks) among the Navajo.

Forrest Gump Road in Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arguably, Monument Valley offers one of the most iconic drives of the entire American Southwest with Route 163 (featuring the Forrest Gump Road) being one of its most scenic. This area has been the backdrop of countless Western movies (as well as where the character Forrest Gump in the famous namesake movie decided to give up running as the road’s nickname suggests). These roads in Arizona are not designed as national scenic byways but they are of immense cultural and scenic value.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Native American Proverb

2024 National Park Free Entrance Days: Top 10 States to Visit

NPS has announced its free entrance days for 2024 so here are the states with the highest number of national parks and the highest concentration of national park sites

The National Park Service (NPS) sites which include national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, national historic sites, and other protected areas are incredible public spaces to enjoy and learn about nature. Some national park sites charge entrance fees but NPS has announced six fee-free entrance days in 2024:

  • January 15: Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr
  • April 20: First day of National Park Week
  • June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Act anniversary
  • September 28: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

A great way to take full advantage of these free entrance days is to visit multiple national park sites in one day. While that may be difficult or even impossible in many areas there are several states with a high concentration of national park sites.

10 best states for national park sites

The following states are great places to travel to visit national parks at any time of the year whether or not you make it for the free entrance days.

1. Alaska

The Last Frontier has eight national parks and a total of 23 NPS sites including national monuments and other federally preserved areas. While Alaska is the largest state, three of the national parks are fairly close together—you can visit Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks within one day.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. California

The Golden State has nine national parks, the most of any state. The most popular national park in California is Yosemite but even the park with the smallest number of annual visitors, Pinnacles, is incredible and worth a visit. With a total of 28 national park sites, there is no shortage of beautiful locations to visit.

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Utah

The Beehive State has five national parks (The Big Five) and they are much closer together than those found in Alaska and California—in fact, it takes about seven hours to drive from Zion to Canyonlands and stop at the three other national parks in between. However, it’s worth it to slow down and spend more time at each park so consider sticking to one park each day.

Here are some articles to help:

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Arizona

Arizona and Colorado, the next state on the list, both have four national parks. However, Arizona has a higher total of NPS sites at 22 making it a great place to take a national parks road trip. Grand Canyon National Park is the best known in Arizona but Saguaro National Park and the lesser known Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area also offers incredible vistas and outdoor opportunities.

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Colorado

With four national parks and a total of 13 NPS sites, Colorado is another great option for national park enthusiasts. Mesa Verde National Park is remarkable because apart from its national park status it is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it preserves the rich cultural history of many indigenous tribes.

Here are some articles to help:

6. Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands have two national parks and a total of eight national park sites which is especially impressive when you remember that’s within an area of 10,392 square miles per the United States Census Bureau. One of the parks, Haleakalā, is located on the island of Maui which was recently devastated by fires so make sure to avoid the areas closed to tourism.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Washington

The crown of the Pacific Northwest is home to three national parks and a total of 15 NPS sites. Mount Rainier is perhaps the best known of the three but North Cascades and Olympic both protect a huge array of diverse wildlife. Washington is also home to a former plutonium factory that makes up one-third of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Read more:

8. Florida

This state is home to three national parks including Dry Tortugas which can only be reached via plane, ferry, or boat. The other two, Biscayne and Everglades are within about an hour’s distance of each other meaning you can visit both in one day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Virginia

Although Virginia only has one national park, it is home to a total of 22 NPS sites. Given its area of 42,775 square miles that means there is a fairly high concentration of NPS sites within the state making it an excellent area to explore for national park lovers.

Here’s an article to help you do just that: The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. New Mexico

Set in the Southwest, New Mexico boasts many breathtaking landscapes that are often overlooked by visitors. Besides all its desolate yet dramatic desert scenery, the state is home to the rearing Rocky Mountains, the roaring Rio Grande, and plenty of colorful canyons, cliffs, and caves. New Mexico has two national parks (Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands), three national historical parks (Chaco Culture, Pecos, Manhattan Project), one national heritage area (Northern Rio Grande)m, and 11 national monuments including four administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

That’s why I wrote these seven articles:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Tennessee

Tennessee is home to part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which welcomes the most annual visitors of any national park site in the United States. It also has a total of 13 NPS sites meaning there are a plethora of exploration opportunities.

By the way, I have a series of posts on the Great Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Mesa Verde: A Home in the Cliffs

Some of the most remarkable structures in the U.S. are a millennium old

Imagine living in a home built into the side of a cliff. This dream-like place really does exist. Built way back in the 12th century there is a vast dwelling made up of almost 200 angular and circle-shaped rooms like something straight out of a Game of Thrones episode.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of all the cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace, has about 150 rooms and more than twenty circular rooms. Due to its location it was well protected from the elements. The buildings ranged from one to four stories and some hit the natural stone ceiling. To build these structures people used stone and mud mortar along with wooden beams adapted to the natural clefts in the cliff face.

This building technique was a shift from earlier structures in the Mesa Verde area which prior to 1000 A.D. had been made primarily of adobe (bricks made of clay, sand, and straw or sticks). These stone and mortar buildings along with the decorative elements and objects found inside them provide important insights into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people during the thirteenth century.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can in fact visit Cliff Palace by climbing a ladder in the very same way its original inhabitants did. It’s not known for sure why those farmers—the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area from 500 to 1300 A.D. made their home high up above this land. What is known is that they put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into constructing these stone and mortar buildings—often with their bare hands. Those who travel from around the world to see this archaeological wonder with their own eyes are able to spot handprints and fingerprints preserved in the walls.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Found in southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde, a national park famous for its flat-topped mountains, Cliff Palace forms part of a collection of 600 cliff dwellings built by these ancient peoples. Not all Ancestral Puebloans chose to live this way, though. Only an estimated 100 people inhabited Cliff Palace, the largest of several high-up structures, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cliff Palace Overlook is the first stop on the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75 percent contain only 1-5 rooms each and many are single room storage units. If you visit the Cliff Palace you will view an exceptionally large dwelling which had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Open 8:00 a.m. to sunset, the Cliff Palace Loop Road takes you past Cliff Palace and Balcony House and overlooks to other cliff dwellings. You may enter Balcony House or Cliff Palace by ranger-guided tour only.

They cleverly employed wooden beams wedged into the sandstone rock to help support the buildings each with between one to four stories. Families lived in a collection of rooms formed around ingeniously designed, circular rooms called kivas which extend down below ground.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical features of a kiva included a fire pit or hearth, a ventilation shaft, a deflector (low wall designed to prevent air drawn from the ventilation shaft from reaching the fire directly), and a sipapu (a small hole in the floor that is ceremonial in purpose). They developed from the pithouse, also a circular, subterranean room used as a living space.

Kivas continue to be used for ceremonies today by Puebloan peoples though not those within Mesa Verde National Park. In the past, these circular spaces were likely both ceremonial and residential. If you visit Cliff Palace today, you will see the kivas without their roofs but in the past they would have been covered. The space around them would have functioned as a small plaza.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The builders of these structures plastered and painted murals although what remains today is fairly fragmentary. Some murals display geometric designs while other murals represent animals and plants.

The creators of the murals used paint produced from clay, organic materials, and minerals. For instance, the red color came from hematite, a red ocher. Blue pigment could be turquoise or azurite while black was often derived from charcoal. Along with the complex architecture and mural painting, the Ancestral Puebloan peoples produced black-on-white ceramics and turquoise and shell jewelry. Goods were imported from afar including shell and other types of pottery. Many of these high-quality objects and their materials demonstrate the close relationship these people had to the landscape. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another interesting insight that can be gleaned from this spectacular historic site is the stature of the Ancestral Puebloans some 750 years ago.

The size of the doorways confirms that the average man stood from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 5 inches tall while an average woman was 5 feet to 5 feet 1 inch tall—similar to Europeans of the same period.

Although earlier Ancestral Puebloan villages were built in the open these people began to build cliff dwellings about 1150 perhaps as a defense against invading groups of ancestral Navajo and Apache. 

In addition to the natural protection provided by a cliff, the absence of doors and windows to the rooms on the ground floor left a solid outer stone wall that could be surmounted only by climbing a ladder which could be whipped away in the event of an attack

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why were the cliffs abandoned?

As the 13th century ended, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde for other sites. After all the time and effort it took to build these beautiful dwellings, why did people leave the area? Cliff Palace was built in the twelfth century. Why was it abandoned less than a hundred years later?

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These questions have not been answered conclusively though it is likely that the migration from this area was due to either drought, lack of resources, violence, or some combination of these factors. We know for instance that droughts occurred from 1276 to 1299. Often referred to as the Great Drought this climatic event probably occasioned crop failures and shortages of drinking water creating difficulties in provisioning the concentrated population living in the cliff dwellings.

The cliff dwellings remain though as compelling examples of how the Ancestral Puebloans literally carved their existence into the rocky landscape of today’s southwestern United States.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting a Cliff Dwelling

To enter all cliff dwellings you must be on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The 2023 tour season runs from May 14 through October 21.
Tour tickets can be purchased on recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Tickets are available 14 days in advance 8:00 am MST on a rolling daily window. For example, tickets for May 14 will be available starting April 30 at 8:00 am MDT. Demand for tour tickets is high. The park recommends reserving tickets as soon as they become available.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

>> DIG DEEPER

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. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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!

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Far View Sites Complex, Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.)

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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