Located in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde is one of the best places to view the ancient cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi. They lived throughout the area from about AD 550-1300, when their dwellings were suddenly abandoned. (Other popular sites are at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and Hovenweep National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border.) Mesa Verde is special because the cliff dwellings can be viewed at close range. Some tours even let visitors enter the structures.
As the name suggests, Mesa Verde is on a mesa; therefore, visitors must make a long but beautiful drive across the upland plateau to reach the ruins. There are great views of the distant San Juan Mountains from scenic pull-offs along the way. The Mesa Verde Research and Visitor Center sells tickets for the guided tours, and the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum offers an introduction to the Anasazi culture and its communities at Mesa Verde. Most of the park attractions are open mid-April to mid-October.
More than 600 cliff dwellings can be viewed in the park, but there are three standouts: Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Spruce Tree House is tucked beneath a cliff just a short walk from the museum; however, rock falls and unstable pueblo architecture have forced park officials to restrict access to this ruin. Visitors can still view it from overlooks near the museum. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and can only be reached on a guided tour. A tour is also required to see Balcony House, perched in a cave high above the valley floor. The tour involves climbing up and down several ladders.
In late May-early June, the Indian Arts and Culture Festival celebrates Mesa Verde's cultural heritage with an art market, auction, music, dance and dramatic performances, and special tours.
A visit to Mesa Verde could fill two days, but a half-day is enough time to make the drive across the plateau and see one or two of the ruins. There's a campground and a lodge in the park for those spending the night.
The park is open daily, and the entrance fee is US$15 per vehicle November-April, US$20 per vehicle May-October for a seven-day pass. Phone 970-529-4465. https://www.nps.gov/meve.
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