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.

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Plan your trip

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

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

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

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

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

Eight Reasons to Explore the Smokies

Here you’ll find spectacular scenery as awe-inspiring mountain landscapes give way to cascading waterfalls, wildlife, and countless outdoor activities

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountain chain, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. The park offers visitors spectacular views, recreation, and natural wonders in each season.

Adjoined by three national forests, the 800-square-mile park is the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee. They called the area Shaconage or land of blue smoke for its natural bluish haze—which is caused by organic compounds given off by the mountains’ abundant vegetation.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural beauty and world importance. It’s also among the country’s most visited national parks, in part because it is easily accessible from major interstates and highways. In fact, half the population of the United States lives within a day’s drive from the park.

While getting to the Smokies is easy, here are eight other reasons to add this park to your must-see list:

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

1. Immense biodiversity

Great Smoky Mountains is the most biologically diverse national park in the United States—no other park matches its number and variety of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms. That’s because this land became a refuge for species displaced during the last ice age.

Its valleys and peaks range in elevation from about 875 feet to more than 6,600, creating safe habitats throughout the park for plants and animals we might consider common only to northern or southern regions of North America.

Abundant rainfall and high summertime humidity create a temperate climate in which species thrive—including 100 species of native trees, over 1,500 flowering plants, more than 200 types of birds, and over 9,000 species of insects.

About 80 types of reptiles and amphibians live here. The park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World for its 30 identified species—from the 2-inch lungless salamander to foot-long hellbender.

The nonprofit Discover Life in America, an official park partner, is conducting a massive effort to catalog every species living in the Great Smoky Mountains. Since 1998, the group has tallied more than 21,000 species including more than 1,000 that are new to science. Scientists believe there may be as many as 80,000-100,000 living species overall. Citizen science plays an important role in the project, giving the public opportunities to participate in research.

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

2. Stunning scenery

Geologists believe the Smokies were once as tall as the Rocky Mountains but wind, water, and time have worn them down to the sloping peaks and broad valleys we see today. About two inches of rock erode every thousand years. Forests of hardwoods and evergreens cover these mountains with different tree species growing at different elevations.

At Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point at 6,643 feet, visitors can take in this stunning scenery from an observation deck. The 360-degree view extends over 100 miles on a clear day but sometimes can be limited to around 20 miles.

Mountain views can also be seen throughout the park whether visitors tour by car or on foot. With 150 official trails in the park, hikers can find vistas at many points along their way. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles Cades Cove and is open for bicycle and foot traffic only each Wednesday from May through September. A drive over Newfound Gap Road compares to a trip from Georgia to Maine in terms of the varying forest ecosystems to see. Auto tours also can be taken along Foothills Parkway and through Cataloochee Valley.

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

3. Bears! And plenty of other wildlife

About 1,900 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where the bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. These Great Smoky icons along with deer, turkeys, groundhogs, and other wildlife can often be seen in the open fields in Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley during the morning and evening.

Among the spruce and fir forests on the park’s high-elevation ridges, you might spot the endangered Northern flying Squirrel, saw-whet owl, red crossbill, Blackburnian warbler, and other creatures.

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

In all, about 65 species of mammals and 50 native species of fish reside in the park. Before the park’s establishment in 1934, a number of native animals—such as bison, elk, mountain lion, gray and red wolves, river otter, Peregrine falcon, and several species of fish—were eradicated by hunters and trappers, among other reasons. Today, the National Park Service works to preserve native species in a condition similar to what existed before the presence of modern humans.

Some species have been reintroduced such as elk in 2001 after a 200-year absence as well as river otter and peregrine falcon.

To reduce the likelihood of vehicles colliding with wildlife on Interstate 40 in North Carolina, a series of wildlife-safe passages have been constructed. These overpasses and underpasses help animals move safely between the park and national forests as they search for mates, food, and habitat.

Replica of Cherokee Village, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. The ancestral home of the Cherokee

The Cherokee Nation once inhabited what now makes up the southeastern United States. Members lived in a matriarchal society of small communities. Among their hunting grounds were the mountains and valleys now part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In the 1700s, settlers encroached on Cherokee territory spreading disease, prompting conflict, and pressuring the Tribe to relinquish their land. Some Cherokee chose to migrate westward before President Andrew Jackson began their forced removal.

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

From the edge of what’s now the national park, the U.S. government placed the Cherokee in stockades and confiscated their homes and possessions. In 1838, nearly 14,000 Native Americans were forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas—a deadly, six-month walk that became known as the Trail of Tears. More than 4,000 Cherokee died en route from cold, hunger, and disease.

A small group, the Oconaluftee Cherokees were allowed to stay. Others hid deep in the mountains to avoid relocation. Together, they formed the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians which has about 15,000 members today. Many of them live in a 57,000-acre reservation known as the Qualla Boundary which borders the park. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconaluftee Indian Village tell the Cherokee story and are located just outside the park in Cherokee, North Carolina.

The Tribe is currently seeking to rename the park’s Clingmans Dome to Kuwohi which translates to the Mulberry Place.

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

5. Remains of settler villages

For a century before the establishment of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, European settlers lived on land that had been the home of the Cherokee. Visitors can explore remnants of settler villages in Cades Cove on the western end of the park and Cataloochee Valley on the eastern end.

In Cades Cove, families used the rich and fertile land to grow corn. They built log homes, barns, churches, and schools. As many as 685 people lived here in 1850. Neighbors assisted one another and turned seasonal chores into community events: corn husking, molasses making, and gathering of chestnuts. The National Park Service has restored several cabins and barns so Cades Cove looks as it did in the early settler days.

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

In Cataloochee Valley, visitors can get a glimpse into mountain life at the turn of the 20th century. About 1,200 people lived here in 1910 and based their economy on farming, commercial apple growing, and an early tourism industry. Historical buildings can be seen from the main road or by hiking a couple of miles: a school, churches, a barn, and a few homes.

This year, the park completed a renovation of the Walker sisters’ two-story cabin. The women refused to leave their farm when the park was created so the government granted them a lifetime lease. The cabin dates to the 1800s and the sisters lived there until 1964.

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

6. The ghost town of Elkmont

In the early 1900s, Elkmont was a logging and railroad town of more than 1,500 people. It was built by the Little River Lumber Company and Railroad which owned almost 80,000 acres of what is now the national park. In addition to laborers, the railroad and town attracted wealthy vacationers and social clubs. Elkmont Campground now occupies part of this area.

The ghost town moniker developed in the 1990s after numerous resort cabins from Elkmont’s heyday were abandoned. When the government established the park residents were given the choice of selling their homes at full value or selling to the Park Service at a reduced price in return for a lifetime lease. Many chose leases, most of which expired in 1992. The Park Service was left with dozens of empty buildings it could not maintain.

The Park Service demolished some buildings preserved others and opened them to the public. Among them is the 3,000-square-foot Appalachian Clubhouse which can be rented for events.

Something else worthwhile to see at Elkmont: fireflies. Elkmont is one of the best places in the world to view these lightning bugs each June.

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

7. Lodging at 6,400 feet

No roads lead to LeConte Lodge at the base of Mount LeConte so this backcountry accommodation requires a hike. Reservations must be made well in advance.

Mount LeConte is Great Smoky Mountains’ third-highest peak at 6,593 feet. Five trails—ranging in length from 5 to 9 miles—will get you to LeConte Lodge which is under Park Service jurisdiction. If you take the Trillium Gap Trail you might see the lodge’s pack llamas carrying the latest delivery of provisions.

LeConte Lodge sits at nearly 6,400 feet and is considered the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. It operates generally from mid-March through mid-November and is the only in-park lodging. Other lodging can be found in the park’s gateway communities.

The lodge predates the park. LeConte Lodge began as a tent camp in 1926 for visiting dignitaries from the nation’s capital when plans began to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

8. Free entrance

Unlike many national parks, Great Smoky Mountains has no entrance fee. However, a parking tag is required for each vehicle—with prices set at $5 for a day, $15 for a week, and $40 for the whole year. Parking tags are not required for motorists passing through the area or who park for fewer than 15 minutes.

The Park Service added this modest charge in March 2023 because the park has been operating on an inadequate budget for years while experiencing an increasing number of visitors.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking tags can be purchased online or in person at locations near the park’s three main entrances: Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

I hope this article piqued your curiosity and motivated you to pack up the RV and roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

Wait. What?! I’ve posted other articles on the Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations

Art takes nature as its model.

—Aristotle

Our adventures march on and become more and more surreal. One day we’re touring the UFO Museum in Roswell and the very next day we are standing inside our home planet, 750 feet underground beneath the Earth’s surface. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park can most adequately be described as living artwork. The stalactites hang from the ceiling like delicate chandeliers, the stalagmites rise from the ground like a forest of trees, and holding it all together is a limestone container—it’s a little like being inside of a geological cantaloupe.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First discovered by a curious teenager in 1898, Carlsbad Cavern is an incredible underground limestone cave in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, just north of the Texas border. The park is located 18 miles south of Carlsbad.

The closest nearby town is Whites City which is just outside the park’s entrance. Other cities in the area include Loving and Artesia. Some travelers may also choose to stay in or visit one of the tiny Texas towns outside the park such as Pine Springs or Orla. And for those interested in extraterrestrial life, the town of Roswell where a UFO supposedly crashed in 1947 is about an hour and a half north of the park.

Carlsbad Caverns Highway is the only road to access the park. The seven-mile access road is right off of U.S. Highway 62/180 in Whites City.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no overnight RV camping at Carlsbad Caverns National Park so you’ll need to make reservations at one of the private campgrounds in the area. However, the park does have plenty of RV parking available during the daytime in the front visitor center parking lot.

The national park contains over 119 limestone caves surrounded by the vast beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. Each year, about 400,000 people visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park to see the fossilized caverns or spot the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats that inhabit the park. Several hiking trails and a picnic area are also available for visitors.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main attraction of this national park is the show cave—the Carlsbad Cavern (and the Big Room in particular). Unlike most caves around the nation, one does not need a guided tour to explore the cave—visitors can walk on their own through the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitor center. 

Visitors can choose between the steep paved trail making its way down into the cave or the elevator directly down to the Big Room Trail. The 1.25-mile long Natural Entrance Trail is extremely steep (it gains or loses) around 750 feet in elevation. This is equivalent to walking up a 75-story building. It takes about an hour to complete. Once down in the caves there is the Big Room Trail leading to the popular Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is also 1.25 miles long but is relatively flat. It takes around 1.5 hours to walk it. If that seems a bit of a hike there is a shortcut that reduces the walking distance to around 0.6 miles and cuts the hiking time to around 45 minutes.

The unmistakable Big Room is the largest single chamber in North America and the undisputed star of this park. The variety and quantity of sculptures of tubes, spires, ribbons, drapes, curtains, stalagmites, stalactites, totem poles, soda straws, and other fantastic sounding organic shapes inside the 8-acre room forms a grand gallery of art. If you look long enough, your visual understanding of it evolves. A visit is like attending an unveiling of a master work by the greatest artist on Earth—Nature.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather at the park can be quite hot during the day, but don’t be deceived. The temperature inside Carlsbad Cavern is a consistent 56 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year giving visitors a chance to cool off—so be sure to bring a jacket along with you.

In the summers, temperatures can rise into the 90s and sometimes into the low 100s before cooling off to temps in the low 60s at night. Fall brings pleasant temperatures in the 70s during the day and lows that drop from the high 50s in September all the way down to the high 30s in November. Winters at the park are fairly mild ranging from highs in the mid-50s to lows typically no colder than the low 30s. One of the best times to visit the park is during the spring when temperatures warm up to the 60s and 70s during the day.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a number of regularly scheduled events throughout the year including the popular bat flight program. Every night at 6:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through October, visitors are invited to watch the park’s Brazilian free-tailed bats fly from the cavern at sunset. A park ranger guides the tour which is free and available without reservations although no cell phones, cameras, or other electronic devices are permitted.

During certain times of the year you can also reserve a spot for the guided star walks and moon hikes after the bat flight program. These free hikes are designed for stargazing and are first come, first serve with a maximum of 25 participants.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 46,766 acres

Date established: May 14, 1930

Location: Southeast New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains range

Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Park Elevation: 3,596 feet to 6,368 feet, visitor center is at 4,406 feet 

Park entrance fee: $15 per person

Recreational visits (2021): 349,244

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Carlsbad Caverns National Park was named after the town it resides near. The name Carlsbad was adopted in America (Carlsbad in San Diego is another to coin the name) during the late 19th century to mirror the elite European spa, Karlsbad in what was then Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.)  

Accessible adventure: Explore the cave system with a ranger on one of the guided adventures and see areas that are otherwise not accessible including King’s Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, and the Spider Cave. In some you will crawl, some you will carry a lantern, some you will climb down a ladder into the darkness—in all, you’ll have unusual underground fun. Group-led adventures are a great way to learn more than you ever could on a self-guided tour. Ranger guides are a wealth of knowledge and are happy when people show active interest in the parks—worthy of tapping into by asking great questions.

If caving isn’t your thing, the nearby above-ground Rattlesnake Springs Historic District picnic area provides a place to kick back and take in the incredible desert landscape of the Guadalupe Mountains and remnants of the ancient barrier reef that exists there.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: The self-guided Natural Entrance trail descends 750-feet down a paved pathway on a 1¼ mile trail that was blazed before you by early explorers of the Caverns (sans cement of course.) This first section gives you a real sense of what it feels like to be underground.

Continuing onto the second portion of the trail and you will find yourself in the “Big Room,” a flat 1¼ mile walking path that brings you face-to-face with ornately carved drapes, stalactites, stalagmites, spires, and other limestone formations.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know before you go: Elevator access from the visitor center to the famed Big Room has been out of commission since November of 2015 and a repair date is still being determined. At the time of writing this, there is only one way to get to this room located 750 feet beneath the Natural Entrance and that is on foot. Big adventure indeed, the climb down is steep and the climb back to the top is strenuous with no alternative route.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

The Carlsbad Caverns Park entrance is located just 25 miles from Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line. The Guadalupe Mountain range itself is home to both parks.

Carlsbad Caverns has 30 miles of mapped caves. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to the largest known cave system on Earth with more than 405 miles. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike many other caves, tripod photography is welcome at Carlsbad Caverns.

It’s cool underground! Seriously, temperatures in the caves of North America consistently hover around 55 degrees.

The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America by volume with the capability to swallow six football fields.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 The Bottomless Pit is one of the famed stops in the Big Room. It is a drop falling only 140 feet—but at the time of discovery, it was thought to be bottomless. (Note: wise men shall not throw debris into the pit to test its depth. Rangers have to repel down annually to clean out the bottom.) 

Worth Pondering…

The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.

—Will Rogers

The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park

Here’s everything you need to see and do at White Sands National Park—from sand sledding to stargazing

Some places are so stunning and surreal that they transport you to another world. White Sands National Park is one such place. Here, the sand is so white it resembles mounds of snow and the dunes are so big and rolling that they resemble giant white waves. The otherworldly effect is only enhanced by the New Mexico blue sky which makes the white of the dunes pop.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A long-standing national monument, White Sands National Park had its designation upgraded in December of 2019—and for good reason. This surreal field of gypsum sand dunes tucked into the south-central portion of New Mexico has dazzled visitors for decades. Along with its stunning beauty it also has a fascinating historical and cultural context: surrounded by military installments this part of the country is often used to test defensive technologies such as missiles lending it an even more otherworldly and perhaps even eerie, quality.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, White Sands is a cheerful place as well; families gather to sled down the dunes and adventurers take to the sands for hiking, horseback riding, and just taking it all in. The national park is located in a relatively remote stretch of the southwestern desert and the closest New Mexican communities are Alamogordo and Las Cruces.

As far as landscape characteristics, White Sands is known for—you guessed it—its white gypsum sand dunes which covering 275 square miles of the desert is the largest such gypsum dune field of its kind. A wonder of the natural world, gypsum very rarely appears in dust form because it’s soluble in water, so whenever it rains in the area the gypsum readily dissolves and rolls off the mountain as fast as water.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, since the dunes are in the Tularosa Basin, the gypsum stays within the park in a completely enclosed area. Also, gypsum is transparent but the scratches make the sand appear as white as snow because the particles keep rubbing against each other under the sunlight.

Unlike most inland sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so the sand remains cold even on the hottest day of the year. 

The illustrious white-sand-like gypsum dunes have existed for over ten thousand years and created an ecosystem wherein plants and animals have rapidly adapted to survive. Besides being a place of scientific marvel, it truly is scenery that’ll leave you speechless. 

Dune Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also home to a variety of plant and animal life with more than 800 animal species including the park’s endemic “white species”—mice, lizards, moths, and other insects that have gradually changed color becoming lighter in color than their relatives elsewhere.

It’s also been the site of fossilized footprint findings by which scientists have learned about a variety of its ancient citizens like dire wolves, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its southern desert location, it’s no surprise to most visitors that White Sands can get extremely hot during the summer months with temperatures frequently nearing (or reaching) the triple digits; the sub-freezing winter nights are often more surprising.

The region has gone through many phases in history to hold the historical and national significance it does today. It is believed that at the end of the Ice Age approximately 20,000 years ago Asian hunters and gatherers crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska along with large herds of domesticated animals and some now extinct species (like mammoths). The fossil footprints left by these animals can still be found on the Alkali flats along the edges of Lake Lucero (located on the southwest edge of the park). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 10,000 years ago, people reached the margins of Lake Lucero which at the time was a permanent salt lake. With the harsh climate, any spot of lush green gradually disappeared. It is believed the area became a low-range hunting ground.

It is claimed that a significant drought took place in the 1200s in the Tularosa Basin leading its inhabitants to abandon it. After a couple of centuries, it was reinhabited by Mescalero Apaches, a Native-American tribe joined by Hispanic New Mexicans in subsequent decades. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These public lands became of interest in the nineteenth century due to industrialization and the significant possession of gypsum in the area. However, none of the plans to extract the gypsum materialized and the area just gained scenic and scientific significance. 

The 275-square-mile area was formally recognized on January 18, 1933 when President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument. By the end of the 1940s, large parts of the region were set aside as defense areas that undertake system testing even today at the ​​White Sands Missile Range. The US Government reclassified it as a National Park in 2019.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only road in White Sands, Dunes Drive is an eight-mile scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. The scenic drive loops through the park past a picnic area, hiking trails, and educational exhibits with many stops along the way to take photos or explore the dunes on foot. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. The road is suitable for cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, and buses.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park has only one visitors center which greets visitors as they drive along Dunes Drive. It has restroom facilities, water supply, ranger information, and a small gift shop that sells water, snacks, sleds, and souvenirs. There are no gas stations or restaurants in the park and the closest are 13 miles away in Alamogordo.

Visitors to White Sand National Park can hike on and sled down the giant mounds of super-soft powder-like sand. Popular hiking trails include Dune Life Nature Trail, a moderate 1-mile self-guided loop hike. Though not difficult, this hike does require hikers to climb two steep dunes with loose sand. Follow the blue trail markers with a club symbol. Meet Katy the Kit Fox and learn about her friends on this family-oriented trail. Look for tracks of the animals that call these dunes their home. Kit foxes, badgers, birds, rodents, and reptiles all live in this area.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Alkali Flat Trail is the park’s most strikingly beautiful hike. Since the winds are ever-shifting, the 4.6-mile trail is marked by a series of red trail markers with a diamond symbol which guide hikers along the correct path. The Alkali Flat Trail skirts the edge of what is now the final remnant of Lake Otero. You will be hiking up and down dunes the entire way. It’s the trail to take to see the park’s famous endless white sand against (usually) clear blue skies. But don’t let the word flat fool you.

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Interdune Boardwalk for a short walk over a maintained boardwalk. Take the easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. It’s a great chance for small children, novice hikers, or anyone with mobility difficulties to enjoy the dunes. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers.

The Backcountry Camping Trail is a moderate two-mile loop. Though backpackers hike the trail most frequently it is also open to visitors who want a shorter hike through the heart of the dunes. Follow the orange trail markers with a spade symbol into an area of beautifully varied dunes and vegetation. The trail requires hikers to climb over several steep dunes and loose sand. There is no shade, no water, and no toilet facility along this trail.

White Sands is one of the few national parks in the country where the trails are dog-friendly so by all means, go for a hike with Fido by your side.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most popular activities in White Sands National Park is sand sledding. It’s exactly what it sounds like: riding down the dunes on a sled. It’s particularly popular for families with children but it’s a blast for anyone. The soft sand is usually more forgiving than hard-packed snow and you can pick up a plastic sled at the White Sands Trading Company gift shop in the visitor’s center.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And every month from April to October, visitors can stay in the park until 10 or 11 pm and enjoy a surreal nightscape lit by moonlight so bright it casts shadows. The atmosphere in White Sands becomes even more otherworldly as the moon rises over the dunes and reflects off the glowing sands. Visitors can stick to Dunes Drive or join one of the ranger-led full moon hikes. Since dates and times for these special evenings vary check with the park for more information. You might even spot some of the park’s nocturnal wildlife like the kit fox, coyote, or desert cottontail that hunt and forage when the sun sets.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit White Sands National Park is during September or October. The weather is cooler but not yet cold, the summer storms have subsided and there are slightly fewer crowds. In addition to ideal weather you can catch one of the full moon nights when the park stays open late if you time your visit. Those nights start in May and last through October. The twice-yearly open houses for Trinity Test Site are usually held in April and October.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring is the windiest time of year and blowing sand reduces visibility and can irritate your skin and eyes. The summer is a popular choice but visitors must be mindful of the heat and sudden the potential for sudden rainstorms.

White Sands has a typical desert climate—so, in a word: harsh. Summer temperatures can climb into triple digits and the landscape offers no shade whatsoever. Heatstroke is the most significant risk in this area and it can happen alarmingly fast. Ensure every person in your party carries adequate water (one gallon per person per day with no exceptions).

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day (from around noon to 3 pm) and don’t hike if temperatures are warmer than you had anticipated. Always wear adequate sun protection including sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and protective clothing.

Conversely, with little humidity to trap heat desert temperatures plummet as soon as the sun goes down. It’s common to experience temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit between the day’s highs and lows. Winter nights can be well below freezing and December lows average a chilling 21 degrees. If you plan to camp overnight dress in layers and be prepared for both extremes.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

July and August are the rainiest months known locally as “monsoon season.” Expect thrilling lightning displays and sudden, heavy rains during this time. Luckily, these storms usually pass quickly.

But no matter when you go, the odds are good you’ll have sunny skies for your trip as southern New Mexico averages 290 days of sunshine per year. The region can go more than 100 days without any measurable precipitation.

While there is no RV parking or camping inside White Sands National Park, the park does offer some backcountry camping options for those looking for a rugged, wilderness experience. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, if you’re looking for a quick upgrade to your road trip, it’s hard to beat an RV for style! You’ll be able to enjoy all the freedom and flexibility of the road while knowing exactly where you’ll lay your head each night and even make your own meals.

White Sands National Park is located to the east of Las Cruces and is accessible from that city via U.S. Route 70. It’s about midway between Las Cruces and Alamogordo along that road.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 146,344 acres, currently ranked at 37 out of 63 National Parks by size

Date established: December 20, 2019 (designated by President Herbert Hoover as a National Monument on January 18, 1933)

Location: Southcentral New Mexico

Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 3,887 feet to 4,116 feet

Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Backcountry camping fee: $3

Recreational visits (2021): 782,469

How the park got its name: White Sands was named for the glistening white gypsum sand dunes in the heart of the Tularosa Basin. Encompassing an enormous 275 sq mi, the dune field is the biggest of its kind in the world.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

The highest dunes are approximately 60 feet high.

White Sands is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune-field; it is so large that is can be seen from space.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dune-field has about 4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand. This is enough to fill 45 million boxcars which would make a train long enough to wrap around the earth at the equator over 25 times.

The sand here is not made of silica like most inland sand but rather of gypsum.

Unlike silica formed sand, the gypsum sand does not absorb heat from the sun and therefore remains cool to the touch and comfortable to walk on even in the heat.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, seven amphibians, and one fish species in White Sands National Park.

There are at least 45 endemic species meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. These include the Apache pocket mouse, White Sands wood rat, bleached earless lizard, two camel crickets, and 40 species of moths.

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

UNESCO Celebrates 50 Years of Protecting the World’s Natural and Cultural Sites

You may have been to a UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States or Canada without knowing it. Remember that Griswoldian summer vacation to the Grand Canyon?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known by the acronym UNESCO, was founded in 1945. Twenty-seven years later, on November 16, 1972, the organization’s World Heritage Convention rolled out a plan to protect the globe’s most valuable natural and cultural sites. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the milestone, UNESCO recently held a gathering in Delphi, Greece to discuss the next half-century of conservation and promotion of the essential properties.

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

Since 1978, when UNESCO anointed its first dozen, 1,154 attractions in 167 countries have earned the distinction. Of those, 897 are cultural, 218 are natural, and 39 are a hybrid of both categories. Italy boasts the most with 58 and several countries claim one such as Fiji, Mozambique, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States and Canada are in the middle of the pack.

Related article: Plan Your Travels around a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Twenty-four sites are in the United States including Yellowstone National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, the Statue of Liberty, and various buildings showcasing the iconic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Canada has 20 designated sites including Wood Buffalo National Park, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Historic District of Old Quebec, and Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo Jump.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

World Heritage in numbers

There are currently 1,154 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List:

  • 897 cultural sites
  • 218 natural sites
  • 39 mixed sites (both cultural and natural)
  • 43 transboundary sites (straddling the territories of two or more countries
  • 52 sites are currently listed as being in danger
  • In 50 years, three sites have been removed from the World Heritage List
  • World Heritage sites are to be found in 167 countries
  • The World Heritage Convention has been ratified by 194 countries

UNESCO at 50: World Heritage sites to see across North America

On this golden anniversary, the best gift you can give is to go. Here are five UNESCO sites in the United States and two in Canada.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Est. 1995 | New Mexico

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: More than 119 limestone caves beneath the Chihuahuan Desert including Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave dazzle and delight with speleothems (for example, stalagmites and stalactites), sculptural reef and rock formations, gypsum chandeliers, and geologic features partly shaped by bacteria. The park also contains a section of the Capitan Reef from the Permian Age (299 to 251 million years ago), one of the world’s best-preserved and most accessible fossilized reefs. From April through mid-October, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats hang out in Carlsbad Cavern.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The park entrance is 20 miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 150 miles eat of El Paso, Texas.

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Best time to visit: September, when the bats are still hanging around but the crowds aren’t.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Insider tip: Between mid-April and late May stake out a spot at the Bat Flight Amphitheater and watch the winged creatures stream out of the cave in search of dinner. On the third Saturday in July, join other crack-of-dawn risers to witness their flight in reverse as they return home for a nap. From Memorial Day weekend through October, park rangers lead nightly bat programs at the outdoor venue.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Est. 1979 | Arizona

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: At 18 miles wide and a mile deep the Grand Canyon is a history book writ in rock. Its geologic layers tell a tale that goes back more than 1.8 billion years including the period 6 million years ago when the Colorado River first raised its carving knives. The landscape is a study in maximalism with a frozen lava flow, waterfalls, and a white-water river rushing through its veins.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The South Rim which is open year-round is about 80 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona and 212 miles from the North Rim. The Grand Canyon Railway offers daily train service between Williams, Arizona and the park.

Best time to visit: Spring or fall when the wildlife is abundant, the crowds are thin, and the facilities on both rims are open. (Specifically, May 15-October 15 for the North Rim and year-round for the South Rim.)

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Insider tip: Native American artists such as Zuni stone carvers and a Hopi silversmith demonstrate their crafts and share their traditions at the Desert View Watchtower or South Rim Visitor Center depending on the season.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Est. 1983 | Tennessee and North Carolina

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The lush temperate zone is home to a wildly diverse assortment of plants, bugs and animals including 130 tree species, 65 mammal species (1,500 American black bears alone), more than 200 bird types, synchronous fireflies, and 30 salamander species. Hence, the park’s nickname, “Salamander Capital of the World.” The park extols the virtues of age: Many of the rocks were formed hundreds of millions of years ago.

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

How to reach it: The park straddles two states. Drive times from Knoxville, Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina are about 45 minutes (35 miles) and 50 minutes (37 miles), respectively.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Best time to visit: Fall for its firework display of autumnal color or spring for its heavy dusting of wildflowers.

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

Insider tip: The park contains one of the finest collections of log buildings in the East with more than 90 barns, churches, schools, gristmills, and other historic structures. Pick up an auto tour guidebook because these old walls aren’t talking.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Est. 1978 | Colorado

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The ancestral Pueblo people left their mark on the Mesa Verde plateau with more than 5,000 archaeological site, including 600 cliff dwellings dating from A.D. 450 to 1300. The park is also a canvas for petroglyphs which are visible along the Petroglyph Point Trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The park entrance is 10 miles east of Cortez, Colorado and 35 miles west of Durango, Colorado

Best time to visit: May through mid-October when five cliff dwellings welcome guests inside their rock penthouses. Tour months vary by site, so plan strategically.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

Insider tip: If you are more of a hermit than a pack animal, hike up to Step House, the rare dwelling that does not require a guide.

San Antonio Missions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio Missions

Est. 2015 | Texas

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: In the early 1700s, Franciscan priests built Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), their first, to help Spain and the Catholic Church colonize, convert, and defend New Spain. Over the next 13 years, four more missions (Concepcion, San Juan, San Jose and Espada) sprouted up along a 10-mile stretch of the San Antonio River. The missions stir up the melting pot of influences from the colonial settlers, nomadic Coahuiltecans, and other indigenous hunter-and-gatherer groups who were integral to the early Texas settlement. The site also encompasses two acequia systems (irrigation ditches), laborers (farm fields), and Rancho de las Cabras, the estate in Floresville that supplied goats to Mission Espada.

San Antonio Missions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The Alamo squats in the center of San Antonio; the other four missions are spaced about 2½ miles apart along Mission Road. Visitors can also access the sites by bike or foot on the Mission Hike and Bike Trail or partially by kayak on the San Antonio River.

Best time to visit: In the Texas spring (January to March) noted for its pleasant temperatures and shag carpets of bluebonnets.

Related article: Exploring What Is Old and Discovering What’s New along San Antonio Missions Trail

Insider tip: Praise the music at mariachi Mass, celebrated Sundays at San Jose.

Canadian Rocky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks

Est. 1984 | Alberta and British Columbia

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The contiguous national parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho as well as the Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks studded with mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, and limestone caves form a striking mountain landscape. The Burgess Shale fossil site well known for its fossil remains of soft-bodied marine animals is also found there.

Canadian Rocky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The Canadian Rockies more or less form the border between British Columbia and Alberta. The roads here are amongst the most beautiful in the world. Much of the Rocky Mountains of Canada lie within various national and provincial parks.

Related article: Doctors Can Prescribe Year-Long Pass to Canada’s National Parks

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi

Est. 2019 | Alberta

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: A provincial park, Writing-on-Stone is located on the northern edge of the semi-arid Great Plains on the border between Canada and the U. S. Dominated by the Milk River Valley the landscape is characterized by a concentration of pillars or hoodoos—columns of rock sculpted by erosion into spectacular shapes. The Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksikáíítsitapi) left engravings and paintings on the sandstone walls of the Milk River Valley. This landscape is considered sacred to the Blackfoot people.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: Writing-on-Stone is 25 miles east of Milk River which is 12 miles north of the U.S. border and 50 miles southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Related article: Summer 2022: 11 Best Things to Do in Western Canada

Worth Pondering…

The journey is difficult, immense. We will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or to learn all that we hunger to know.

—Loren Eiseley

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

Plan Your Travels around a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Discover these UNESCO heritage sites on your next RV road trip

Even if you’ve explored Everglades National Park in Florida and caught glimpses of alligators, manatees, and other wildlife, or visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia where important chapters in the birth of the United States were written, did you know that they’re among 24 places throughout America honored as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization?

And, there are 20 World Heritage Sites in Canada and each one is special in its own way.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

UNESCO designates natural destinations and cultural attractions that are “of outstanding universal value” and meet one or more of 10 criteria. Among these are to exhibit “exceptional natural beauty,” provide habitats for threatened species, and be associated with events of “universal significance.”

Among diverse places on the list are East Africa’s Serengeti region, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids of Egypt, and great castles and cathedrals throughout Europe.

Mission San Juan (San Antonio Missions) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

UNESCO sites in the United States and Canada are equally varied. They range from alluring mountain parks to an ancient pueblo, from architectural treasures to cultural icons. You might like to use them as a wish list of places to visit in the future.

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

It’s no surprise that Everglades National Park is included on the UNESCO list. It’s the largest tropical wetlands and forest wilderness in the country, the biggest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, and the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. It’s also home to 36 threatened or protected species.

Related: 7 UNESCO Heritage Sites for RV Travel

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The setting is very different in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park which straddles the Rocky Mountains along the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s an area of soaring snow-capped mountains, high-altitude lakes, and rushing glacier-fed rivers where cedar hemlock forests and alpine tundra provide habitats for more than 300 species of animals. The park serves as a symbol of goodwill between Canada and the United States.

Mission Conception (San Antonio Missions) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 54 World Heritage Sites in North America and each one is special in its own way. But, which ones are worth the visit? To help you figure out which sites to see, we’ve ranked each World Heritage Site based on quality of experience, RV accessibility, “wow” factor, popularity, and significance in history and culture.

However, it’s impossible to say one is better than the other. So, in the end, we leave the decision up to you.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sprawling below the Chihuahuan Desert is an extensive cave system waiting to be discovered. Bats are the primary residents of this site which UNESCO recognizes for both its beauty and ongoing geologic activity that scientists can study. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico include some 100 limestone caves that form an otherworldly underground labyrinth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One massive chamber, almost 4,000 feet long, is called the Big Room. Among names given to other caves are Kings Palace, Papoose Room, and Hall of the White Giant. The hundreds of thousands of bats that live in the caverns emerge around sunset to seek their evening meal. It’s also home to a section of the Capitan Reef, one of the world’s best-preserved and most accessible fossilized reefs.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pueblo people definitely left their mark on the American West, and their way of life remains intact at sites like Mesa Verde. The region is chalk full of thousands of archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings dating back to the 5th century. Carved into cliffs sitting 8,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by inhospitable desert landscapes, the tenacity and ingenuity of these ancient people is undeniable.

Related: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park entrance is about 45 minutes from Durango and the best time to see Mesa Verde is May through October when some of the dwellings allow the public to visit. Check out the tons of petroglyphs all along the Petroglyph Point Trail.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your visit to Texas, expect to see a lot of missions—they’re everywhere, especially in San Antonio. First up was Mission San Antonio de Valero, also known as the Alamo which Franciscan priests built to help Spain and the Catholic Church colonize, convert, and defend New Spain. Over the next 13 years, four more missions were built along a 10-mile stretch of the San Antonio River, and together they make up an impressive UNESCO site.

Mission San José © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Alamo is impressive, but if you want to see the best mission, check out the “queen” of all the San Antonio Missions—Mission San José. Once the heart of a vibrant Spanish community founded in the early 18th century, San José attracted people from all over the area. The church was built in 1768 and is still standing today.

Related: Wander the (San Antonio) River’s winding Path and Experience the Spirit of San Antonio

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

Tennessee and North Carolina share the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is home to the oldest mountains in the U.S. as well as over 3,500 plant and animal species. The park draws more visitors than any other national park in the country, and it’s not difficult to see why. Between rolling, mist-covered hills, crisscrossing trails, and expansive vistas, this gorgeous national park truly takes your breath away.

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

The best seasons to visit the park are autumn and spring when you’ll get a firework display of fall colors and a dense covering of wildflowers. Must-see spots include Mogo Falls, the park’s tallest waterfall and the peak of Mount Cammerer where you’ll be rewarded with incredible 360-degree views.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Grand Canyon National Park has been around for millions of years and is still going strong. The mile-deep canyon draws visitors from all over the planet to gaze into its depths, marveling at red and burnt orange rock formations and the carved work of the Colorado River. A visit to the park will awaken your spirit of the American Southwest as you learn about Native American culture and stand in awe of the canyon’s sheer magnificence.

The South Rim is open year-round, but to beat the crowds visit during the spring or fall when balmy temperatures offer a pleasant climate for activities like hiking and camping.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Renowned for their scenic splendor, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are comprised of Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes national parks in Alberta, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems, and deeply carved canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty attracting millions of visitors annually.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The unusual landforms of Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi resulted from the dynamic interaction of geology, climate, and time. In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples created rock art in what is today Southern Alberta. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From an extensive cave system and mile-deep canyon to an ancient pueblo and scenic splendor, UNESCO sites throughout the U.S. and Canada have varied and very intriguing stories to tell.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

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

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 Sixth Wonder of Alberta

A wide green valley, steep sandstone cliffs, strange rock formations called hoodoos, and rock art—all of these things make Writing-on-Stone a special place

You’re driving through the prairie and suddenly it drops away into a beautiful river valley. Alberta has many beautiful places to explore during the summer but there’s only one place that has rock paintings from the local indigenous population that can be dated back 2,000 years ago.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That very special place is the Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi Provincial Park and is located near the U.S. border in southeastern Alberta. It is a place of extreme cultural importance to the Blackfoot people and has the greatest concentration of Indigenous rock art anywhere on the plains. The rock art was likely created by the Blackfoot tribe whose territory traditionally includes the area. At least some of the art was likely being made by the Shoshone tribe which passed through the region.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples have created rock art for millennia. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle critical phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans. In fact, the arrival of horses, trade items, and even the first automobile in the region are creatively recorded.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a combination of culturally significant landforms, rock art, archaeological heritage, and dramatic views, Áísínai’pi (“it is pictured/written”) is a sacred place for the Blackfoot people. In Blackfoot traditions, Sacred Beings dwell among the cliffs and hoodoos, and the voices of the ancestors can be heard among the canyons and cliffs. To this day the Blackfoot feel the energy of the Sacred Beings at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi and their oral histories and ongoing ceremonial use attest to the living traditions of the Blackfoot people.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following more than a decade of advocacy by Indigenous groups and the provincial government, Writing-on Stone was recently (July 6) declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nomination was prepared by the provincial government in partnership with the Blackfoot Confederacy and with ongoing support from the Government of Canada.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to more petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) than any other place on the Great Plains in North America.

“Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is the site of many natural wonders and a testament to the remarkable ingenuity and creativity of the Blackfoot people,” Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, said in a news release. “It’s easy to see why the site is seen by many as an expression of the confluence of the spirit and human worlds. I hope all Albertans will take the time to explore this extraordinary part of the province and all it has to offer.”

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The designation of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site provides the Blackfoot Confederacy a basis for its future generations as to the strength and truth of our continuing relationship to this land and to our traditions, ceremonies, and cultural practices,” Martin Heavy Head, an elder with the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Society, said in a news release.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is about 4,400 acres and offers unique hiking and birding opportunities, plus a modestly-sized campground. The province estimates about 60,000 people visit the site each year.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1.3-mile Hoodoo Trail winds through various landscapes—hoodoos, sandstone cliffs, and rock art, upland prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley, and coulees. Most rock art sites are only accessible by guided tour. Park interpreters lead tours into the Archeological Preserve daily from mid-May to early September. Tour schedules and ticket prices are available by contacting the park’s visitor center.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is Alberta’s sixth world heritage site. The other five are Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (1981), Dinosaur Provincial Park (1979), Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1995), The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (1984, 1990), and the Wood Buffalo National Park (1983).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So if you’re a fan of exploration these are the six must see sites within Alberta.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes