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

Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Ancestral Puebloans and their world

The sites of the Ancestral Puebloans are many and include Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. All combine to form The Circle of Ancients—a theme some have spent a lifetime exploring.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud often with a pithouse or two in front. (Pithouses would later evolve into kivas.) From here on, these people are known as Puebloans, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”

By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls. These stone walls are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before giving rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1110, a wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home selected a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas River, opposite the present town of Aztec, New Mexico. They constructed a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places. About 85 years later, the residents of Aztec abandoned the region, and Aztec lay deserted.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex. Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about 1275, they also began to drift away and by 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements and probably more considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. The pueblos tell of a sophisticated knowledge of a sun-Earth relationship.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1300 the site was deserted and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

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

While Chaco’s heyday had come and gone by the end of the 12th century, many other communities continued to thrive until the late 13th century, such as those found in the canyon walls of Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

Visit a National Park but Skip the Big Name Ones

America’s big name parks are attracting major crowds. Here’s where to avoid them.

As summer creeps into full swing and cities across America do the dance of easing and then reinstating COVID-19 restrictions, people are clamoring to be someplace—most anyplace—besides their own homes. While there is no form of travel that’s 100 percent safe right now, there are certainly more responsible options than others for scratching the itch.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks with their wide-open space are more befitting a socially distant vacation than, say, popular resort towns or theme parks. But even vast wilderness expanses have potential for riskier areas—visitor centers, for one, and popular trailheads near crowded parking areas. And then there are the crowds at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or the scenic drive at Zion National Park which has been so popular since reopening that the park had to cap access at 6:30 a.m.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now more than ever, this is the time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks. Steering clear of the hoard of tourists at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, exploring new territory provides a sense of discovery with the added benefit of fewer people. The adventure doesn’t stop at park boundaries, either, as these less-famous parks are often surrounded by small communities rich with their own charms.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As enticing as all this sounds, it’s important that travelers tread carefully in and around all national parks since these smaller gateway communities are not equipped to handle a potential outbreak brought in from visitors. It’s a double-edged sword for small businesses that rely on tourism dollars to survive. That is why it’s important to maintain the same caution on your road trip as you maintain at home. Wherever you are, social distancing and adherence to health mandates are important in order to support these communities while keeping them safe.

So, with safety top of mind, here are some alternative parks to consider for your 2020 summer escape.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Judging by the fact that Congaree sees about 3 percent of the annual visitors of parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, it seems many people don’t even know this South Carolina park exists. Located in the middle of the state, the swamp-like terrain feels part Everglades and part Sequoia with the tallest trees east of the Mississippi and intertwining waterways ripe for paddling.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s front and backcountry areas are open including all hiking trails, Boardwalk, restrooms, picnic shelter, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, and canoe landings. Note that parts of the Boardwalk and Weston Lake Loop Trail remain closed due to flood damage. Cedar Creek is a narrow waterway that weaves through hardwood forest so tall and dense that it blocks out the sun. For easy hiking, out-of-the-way trails like the River Trail and Oakridge Trail are currently accessible. The park is within 20 miles of the state capital of Columbia. The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington offers a convenient home base for exploring the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding communities are rich with character but low on crowds like the dusty ghost town of Terlingua which is emerging as a tranquil artist’s enclave and the peaceful riverside town of Lajitas. There are several campgrounds and RV parks in Big Bend and surrounding communities.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is once again beckoning visitors itching to hike, drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road, and marvel at the park’s famed cliff dwellings and structures. At just over 50,000 acres, the park is perfect for its mesa-skimming scenic drives and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re traipsing through the clouds surrounded by panoramic views of the surrounding valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has reopened using a phased approach. Some areas are open on a self-guided basis while other facilities and areas remain closed. Cliff dwellings are closed and tours are canceled until further notice. But there are many superb viewpoints along the Mesa Top and Cliff Palace Loop Roads

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Badlands, petrified wood, bison, pronghorns, and wild horses make it clear what endeared President Theodore Roosevelt to this tranquil part of the country. And you’re more likely to encounter chirping prairie dogs on your hike than people.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, eroded sandstone formations, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, and the meandering Little Missouri River. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

Visitors can access South Unit Visitor Center, trails, picnic areas, roads, and backpack camping. Painted Canyon and North Unit visitor centers and all campgrounds remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The world-famous caverns—brimming with stalagmites, stalactites, and a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats—has partially reopened. The visitor center is open from 8 am to 5 pm daily. For social distancing entrance tickets to the cavern are limited to 575 visitors per day and available on a first-come, first-served basis at the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bat flight amphitheater is closed to protect the bats and social distancing for visitors and staff. Bat flights can still be observed from the visitor center parking lot and a ranger presented Bat Flight Program can be listened to on a vehicle radio.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With nearly 50 miles of trails through the peaceful Chihuahuan Desert, from Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge, there’s plenty to explore, and plenty of opportunity to break away from crowds and convene with cacti and roadrunners.

Worth Pondering…

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

— John Muir

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

The Least Visited National Parks and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s national parks at these lesser-known sites

Among America’s 61 national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

We’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Those dwellings were once the homes that native peoples used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the dwellings, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The only cave system on our list of least-visited parks is located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, Carlsbad Cavern itself forming the natural entrance to the park as the tallest cave. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic is best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds. Many established trails take you past—and through—those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption in 1917.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. In spite of its remote location, Big Bend is worth the drive. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here. Visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking and it’s a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago. Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree offers the opportunity to explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau