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Mesa Verde National Park/other parks, Colorado

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Did You Know … ?

  • The Ancestral Puebloans occupied cliff dwellings for only 100 years of their 700-plus years at Mesa Verde.
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park has North America’s tallest dunes (the highest, 750 feet).
  • The Painted Wall in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is 1,000 feet taller than the Empire State Building.
  • Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace, housed 100 to 120 in 150 rooms.
  • In spring, it takes 42 days on average to open the high-altitude Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

On the trail of cliff dwellers

Mesa Verde National Park, created in 1906, was the first U.S. national park established specifically to “preserve the works of man” rather than those of nature. Nevertheless, the park is like many of its neighbors in providing a haven for wildlife and protecting unique natural features.

The 52,000-acre park in Colorado’s southwest corner is a type of mesa (called a cuesta) that tilts in one direction, in this case, to the south. It was eroded over the eons into canyons and mesas that bottom out at 6,000 feet above sea level on canyon floors in the south to about 8,500 feet at the park’s highest point in the north.

These are the dramatic formations that visitors admire today — and that American Indians, the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called the Anasazi), chose for their home for more than 700 years. The ancestors of today’s Pueblo people, they abandoned this area by about 1300.

Ancestral Puebloans left behind the richest collection of archaeological sites in the U.S. This park contains more than 4,700 sites including 600 cliff dwellings, but there are many more in nearby national monuments and beyond.

Mesa Verde’s oldest sites are pueblos, pit houses, towers and other stone structures found atop the mesas. However, it is the more recent (13th century) cliff dwellings, constructed inside natural caves below the mesa tops, that most engage the visitor. Fortunately, the overhanging cliffs helped to preserve them, too.

Tourists zero in on Mesa Verde because of its unique human story, but are also drawn to many parts of Colorado for scenery that is both beautiful and excellent for outdoor activities, particularly in the mountains, rivers and lakes.

Colorado is home to that most quintessential of parks in the West, the Rocky Mountain National Park. It has two additional national parks, one that celebrates sand dunes, the other a scary-but-stunning canyon; six national monuments — two devoted to fossils and three to Ancestral Puebloans; huge acreages set aside as national forests and grasslands, and 42 state parks.

The lists of things to do, below, shed more light on the variety offered by such extensive stretches of protected places.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Shoot the rapids on Yampa River between the fossil-rich canyon walls in the Dinosaur National Monument.
  • Discover the trails and walk among mesa-top archaeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park. There were nearly 50 villages just in a single half-square-mile area called Far View. In addition, the Farming Terrace Trail allows you to see good examples of Ancestral Puebloan dams and farming terraces.
  • Climb a mountain or some part of one in Rocky Mountain National Park. Or join a multiday mountaineering camp in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area near Vail.
  • Tour the Pawnee National Grasslands on a motorcycle.
  • The National Park Service is clear about Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (home to Colorado’s highest cliff, the Painted Wall). You can climb canyon walls, hike the inner canyon or kayak the Gunnison River only if you are an expert — and you could still get killed. Hiking trails, with names like Chasm View, require care. And, the Gunnison River in the park is not raftable. Period. For safer ways to get an adrenaline rush here, consider fishing, snowshoeing, wildlife watching and more.
  • Hike to the top of tall dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park, then snowboard or slide down them.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Participate in a ranger-led desert bighorn sheep and cactus hike or a wildflower photography workshop at the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. The monument is a 32-square-mile collection of geological wonders — cliff walls, rock formations, high-rise mesas — and wildlife.
  • Allow a few days to travel the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway, which combines Mesa Verde National Park with other sites (Anasazi Heritage Center plus the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments) that together provide a fuller picture of the lives of Ancestral Puebloans.
  • While in Mesa Verde, follow the self-guided walking trails on Wetherill Mesa. All sites on Wetherill Mesa, including the Step House but excepting the Long House, can be visited independently. The three-quarter-mile trail to the Step House is steep.
  • Sleep in a Mongolian-inspired yurt at Mancos State Park.
  • Plan a parks itinerary around a search for wildlife. See moose in State Forest State Park, pronghorns in the Comanche National Grassland or Rocky Mountain elk in Mesa Verde. Other possible sightings in Colorado parks include the bald eagle, bighorn sheep, black bear, mountain lion and river otter.
  • Travel the picturesque snowmobile trails in the San Juan National Forest.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Tour Mesa Verde’s two largest cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Long House. They can be viewed only with a guide and seasonally. The same is true of another popular site, the Balcony House, but be aware you have to climb a modern 32-foot ladder to enter this house.
  • Stay at the grand Stanley Hotel in Estes Park outside Rocky Mountain National Park. The hotel was the setting for Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining.”
  • See traditional dances with the Hopi or Zuni people at the Anasazi Heritage Center. Shop at the center for relevant souvenirs and books.
  • With a little more time, also try your hands at grinding corn between two stones or weaving on a traditional loom at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
  • Shoot (literally) for your personal best travel photo. The guided tours and the lookouts in and around Mesa Verde provide opportunities for good angles on Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings — and nature’s own handiwork, too.
  • Spot bald eagles at the Alamosa and Monte Vista national wildlife refuges. Look for hawks and wild turkeys, or the peregrine falcon, in Mesa Verde. Scout for these or other birds in any state or national park.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Colorado Tourism at