Mesa Verde National Park: Oh my word!

Cliff dwellings

The awesomeness of Mesa Verde

We spent six nights in Mesa Verde at Morefield Campground, because it’s only $20 per night in winter months and there’s free WiFi. Well, also because the campground is in the Park, which is way more awesome than we anticipated. Noelle here, by the way.

Several of you mentioned that we needed to stop here. We weren’t going to because much of it is still closed for the season or for Covid or for road construction. But I’m so glad we came anyway. We planned to stay two nights, but we basically kept staying in order to hike all the trails. We hiked six of the seven open trails, which was pretty dang awesome! I’ll give you a park overview and then tell you about hiking trails in order of awesomeness.

Cliff dwellings
Looking at the cliff dwellings

Mesa Verde National Park is in Southwestern Colorado. From Park Point Overlook at the park’s highest point you can see Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and of course Colorado. We went up on a cloudy day, so I’m not sure if we saw all the states, dangit! Anyway, at 8,572 feet (2,613m) above sea level, even with some clouds the views are stunning. The National Park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The park includes over 4,500 archelogical sites, with about 600 of those as cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde Top Loop

On our first day, we drove all the way to the end of the Park to the Mesa Top Loop. I highly suggest getting the podcasts for Mesa Verde (just search Mesa Verde in whatever podcast app you use). We listened to Ranger TJ Atsye as she talked us through the stops of the Mesa Top. She tells not only about the sights, but also about how the Ancestral Pueblos built their structures. As a native Pueblo, Ranger TJ made the stops come alive for us. Along the Mesa Top Loop are pithouses (built mostly underground) and pueblo villages (as building knowledge grew, the homes were built above ground).

Square Tower House

There’s even a four story square tower, which still stands against the curving back wall of the Navajo Canyon. The tower had windows, doorways, and flooring. The inner walls were plastered, so this structure was quite a step up from the more rustic pithouses. About 60 of the original 80 rooms of Square Tower House remain.

Cliff dwellings
Square Tree House

Okay, let me be honest. When I hear the term “cliff dweller”, I think these are rudimentary structures. I had no idea they are multi-layer, many roomed structures. It’s astounding! In some of the rooms at this site, an almost perfect reed mat, a pottery rest (I think this was a woven circular item for resting hot pots on: like a potholder), some feathered cloth and a humanlike figurine were found. These items indicate time for more leisure activities. Definitely not a rudimentary culture! People lived in this particular area between A.D. 1200 and 1300.

Cliff dwellings
Cupcake at the Square Tree House

Along the Mesa Verde’s Top Loop we kind of traveled through time from the pithouses built in A.D. 700-950 to a village from A.D. 900-1100. In this second village, we can actually see different levels of buildings. Like maybe a family built over the top of the original pithouse, but made it larger. There are three layers of the village here. The first one burned. Residents of the second village may have taken their possession with them, as when the last pueblow was deserted, it was razed and the building materials used elsewhere.

Oak Tree House

Towards the end of the Mesa Top Loop, we came to the Oak Tree House (a 50-room cliff dwelling), the Fire Temple and the Sun Temple. The Fire Temple has a large plaza and is believed to have served as a stage for ceremonial dances. People from all over the mesa attended. That’s thousands of people. It’s so hard for me to imagine, but thousands of people! When this site was excavated in the early 1900’s, there were figures of rain clouds, cactus, humans and animals painted on the wall. What a glorious meeting place it must have been!

Mesa Verde
Sun Temple

Sun Temple and Cliff Palace

From the Sun Temple, we looked across to the Cliff Palace. The road to it is under construction, so it’s closed. Plus there are no ranger-guided tours right now, but maybe they’ll restart this summer? However! We could see it from a distance and it’s magnificent! And huge. So huge. There’s a big monocular placed at the Sun Temple to get a closer view of the Cliff Palace. They didn’t even take a quarter, surprise, surprise. We waited our turn then looked through it in awe.

If you enjoy this post, check out our article about hiking in Yellowstone National Park!

Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde

(in order of how much we liked them)

Petroglyph Point Loop

2.4 miles (3.9 km)
About 2 hours
Elevation change is 174 feet (53m)

This loop trail starts near the museum and Spruce Tree. Register at the trailhead (or nearby museum) and pick up a trail guide. There were none available during our hike, so we made up our own adventure when we came to numbered posts. Based on other trails, the posts likely point out trees and plant life.

The sign says this is a strenuous hike. I’d say it’s more rugged and amazing than strenuous. We use hiking poles, so for me, trails are a lot easier to manage. This would likely be a harder hike without them. We did some rock treading and walking behind and around huge boulders. Stopping to look behind us showed us unmarked cliff dwellings.

One dwelling sits right off the trail so we enjoyed a close up look at it. Then the petroglyphs are stunning too. I’m not sure what they all mean or if anyone even knows. Hopefully if you get the trail book, it’ll tell you more about them.

After the petroglyphs, we literally rock scrambled up a ledge to the trail at the mesa top. Super fun and if this chubby girl can climb up, then you can too! The hike back towards the museum and parking lot is fairly level and easy with great views. At one point, I’m pretty sure we stood atop the Spruce Tree House, another amazing & large cliff dwelling. We could see it as we came around the bend and back towards Cupcake. This hike is definitely our favorite in all (that were open) of Mesa Verde. A man and his 8 year old daughter even did it, so don’t let the word “strenuous” or the scramble up the stone “staircase” scare you off.

Mesa Verde hiking
Rock scramble

Prater Ridge Loop(s) at Mesa Verde

7.8 miles (12.6 km) to complete both the north and south loops
About 4 hours
Elevation change is 675 feet (206m)

This loop trail starts near Morefield Campground. We did both the loops and it was a fantastic hike! The main elevation gain comes at the beginning when you switchback up the mountain to get to the mesa top. Both loops are at the top, so since you’ve already climbed up, you might as well hike them both! Prater Ridge seperates Prater and Morefield Canyons. We took the north loop first for views of the Montezuma Valley and the San Juan Mountains. Spectacular.

Mesa Verde hiking
Along Prater Ridge

The south loop overlooks Prater Canyon, where there’s supposed to be a pioneer homestead. We didn’t see it though. We did, however see the car tunnel way down below us on the road, so that was pretty fun. During this hike, we experienced sunshine, wind, snow and thunder & lightning. It was pretty exciting. Steve would switch these first two hikes and have Prater Ridge Loop in his number 1 spot, but since I’m writing, I put my favorite first!

Spruce Canyon Loop

2.4 miles ( 3.9 km)
About 2 hours
Elevation change is 558 feet (170 m)

This trail and the Petroglyph Point Loop start at the same place and then split off. Sign the register at the trailhead for this hike too. The trail starts at the top of Chapin Mesa and winds down towards the Spruce Tree Cliff Dwelling (closed). You can kind of see the dwelling between trees, but the best views for it are at the top near the museum. This trail winds down to the canyon floor full of pine and fir trees.

I felt a bit surprised to see something of a small forest down here. It appears that water ran through at some point, but we only saw dry ground. The climb back out of the canyon along the rocky edges of the mountainside is pretty steep. Probably pretty hot during the summer too, as there’s not much shade in this portion. At the top, we meandered through the picnic area before seeing the original ranger station/museum, before returning to the parking area.

Farming Terrace Loop

0.5 miles (0.8 km)
About 30 minutes
Elevation change is 145 feet (44 m)

There’s a tiny pull out at this trail head where two cars or one truck camper can fit. It’s located near Cedar Tree Tower, which has minimal parking as well. Since it’s such a short hike and because we’re off season, we didn’t mind taking up the little pull off site. This loop took us along a series of farming terraces built by the Ancestral Pueblo people. The terraces took advantage of natural drainages to augment crop yields for dryland farming. Once again, the sophistication of these villages surprises me. Their buildings, their farming techniques, all of it points to a high level of sophistication. It’s a fun little loop. Cedar Tree Tower is neat to look at as well.

Knife Edge

2 miles (3.2 km) out and back trail
About 1 hour
Elevation change is 62 feet (19m)

This trail is at the end of the campground, on the way to the amphitheater. It’s pretty level and follows the Park’s historic entrance road. We did pick up the trail guide for this one, hoping it would tell us about the original road. Instead, it described plant life. That’s great and we appreciate it, but really hope to read more about the actual road and the people who traveled it in the early 1900s. Anyway, there are beautiful views of the Montezuma Valley and surrounding mountains. It’s an easy trail that even kids can enjoy.

Park Point Overlook

0.2 miles (0.3 km) out and back
About 30 minutes (with time to look around)
Elevation change is 32 feet (9.8 m)

This is a short, paved trail leading up to the Park Point Fire Tower, which is still in use during fire season. Since this is the highest point in Mesa Verde National Park, on clear days, you can see for miles in every direction. Even though our day was cloudy, the views did not disappoint. I’m not positive this is a hike, but it’s listed in the Park’s hiking hand out, so I’ll mentioning it too.

We really enjoyed our stay at Mesa Verde. I’m sad the museum and cliff dwellings remained closed. More sad that ranger talks are on hold too. It’s interesting to me that gift shops are open but the visitor centers and museums are closed. I guess they still need income to pay for rangers and services, so I guess I get it. But I’m not sure why I won’t get Covid in a gift shop when I might in a visitor center. Things that make me wonder. Anyway!

Go to Mesa Verde National Park. You won’t regret it. So much history and beauty and awesomeness. Just hop into your car and head out!


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