While in Colorado last month I got a chance to visit Mesa Verde National Park, located about an hour west of Durango, CO. While the park is massive (over 80 square miles) there aren’t a lot of hiking trails for visitors to explore. But what Mesa Verde lacks in hiking trails, it more than makes up in archaeological sites: more than 4,000 of them within the park boundaries!
There’s only one road in and out of the park and from the gate the asphalt quickly takes you up onto the mesa with incredible views of the valley below. The vegetation on the mesa is pretty sparse which adds to the openness and the 360-degree views. But most visitors don’t come to Mesa Verde just for the views from behind a windshield: they come to see the cliff dwellings.
About half a dozen cliff dwellings are open to the public in Mesa Verde, though some sites require a tour ticket purchased ahead of time. Most folks stop off at the Far View visitors center, about a 25 minute drive inside the park, to buy tickets. The whole ticket system was a little confusing to our group and it wasn’t clear which cliff dwellings did NOT require a ticket. After standing in a long line at the ticket office and reading the posters, we realized the third largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, the Spruce Tree House, didn’t require a ticket. Since the line didn’t seem to be moving very quickly, we hopped back in the car and headed toward the Spruce Tree House.
All the cliff dwellings are located about an hour’s drive from the main park gate so it’s important to plan your trip in advance. Add to that the time it takes to get tickets and the time you have to wait for your tour to start and a visit to Mesa Verde quickly becomes an all day affair. Not only that, some cliff dwellings, like the Long House, require another 45-minute tram ride just to get to the site.
On our way to the Spruce Tree House we spotted some wild ponies getting a little shade underneath wind-beaten pines atop a ridge and passed by a large picnic area where we’d later stop at for lunch. From the parking lot at Chapin Mesa we spotted the cliff dwellings in the canyon below us and we couldn’t wait to hike down!
The half mile trail to the Spruce Tree House is paved but it’s actually pretty steep in places despite the switchbacks. Once we descended a bit the arid, exposed terrain melted around us into a lush and temperate oasis. No wonder the Anasazi chose this canyon for their home!
At the cliff dwelling we were able to get up close to the structures, though no one is allowed inside any of the rooms. Like the other dwellings at Mesa Verde, the Spruce Tree House features several “kivas,” small underground rooms thought to be used by Native Americans for religious rituals. All but one of the kivas at Spruce Tree House are roof-less, allowing visitors to peer down into the round holes that look like giant cisterns. One of the kivas has been restored and visitors can actually climb down a wooden ladder into the dark, underground room.
After visiting the Spruce Tree House we headed up to the Chapin Mesa Museum which features many exhibits and artifacts from the area. I found the historical photos of the cliff dwellings very interesting to compare how the sites looked when they were first discovered vs. how they’ve been restored today. It turns out the Spruce Tree House was actually the most well-preserved of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and required the least amount of restoration.
If you visit the four corners region, Mesa Verde is a must see! And if you have some more than a day to spend in the park, there is a campground and several miles of hiking trails on site too.