This was a park that I had visited when I was younger, but had very little memory of. Ancestral puebloans lived here from about 550 to 1300 before they left for other areas – but had left hundreds of amazing cliff dwellings, history and mysteries to be discovered, and an incredibly unique National Park.
Before you go, make sure to purchase your tour tickets. There are limited tickets per day and can only be bought up to 48 hours in advance, in person. We were able to buy ours at the Durango Welcome Center. They are only $5 per person, per tour! There is plenty you can see without doing a tour, but it really enriches the experience. The three tours include Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and the Long House. The Long House is on the other side of the park, which is much less visited. Normally we try to always go to the less busy side, but we ended up making this a short trip so we did the other two tours. The Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling and the Balcony House is for the more adventurous. I’m sure it’s no surprise to which tour Mike and I enjoyed the most.
On our drive through the park to the main area, we stopped along the way at their overlooks – Park Point is the best one in my opinion. This park has ravaged by forest fires and the evidence of these disasters is everywhere. At Park Point, there is a fire watch tower and you can see for miles (if it’s clear) how vast the park, and the fire damage, really is.
We did the Cliff Palace tour next. I’m not nearly as engaging or educated as a Park Ranger, but they really paint a picture of the people that lived there, what their lives were like and it makes this place come alive. This tour is very flat and slow, and they take about 50 or so people on it, so keep your fingers crossed that you don’t have *those* people on your tour (you know who I’m talking about… the ones that talk too loudly while the ranger is, or stop everyone for a million minutes so they can get the perfect selfie). This is a great tour to do though – especially if you’re afraid of heights/ladders.
Before our next tour at the Balcony House, we did the Mesa Top Loop Drive with stops to view pit house villages and the Sun Temple. This loop is a short 6 mile drive with a variety of overlooks, and short hikes. It highlighted a variety of living spaces and different spaces for the Puebloans. We then did a short 2.5 mile hike at Petroglyph Point to see some petroglyphs. If you want to escape the crowds, just do any hike that is over 1 mile. We saw only a handful of people, compared to the hundreds at the cliff dwellings. This hike had some good views, but we weren’t overly impressed with the petroglyphs. But it was still delightful to break up the cliff dwellings and structures.
Then we did my favorite tour; Balcony House. They advertise it for only the adventurous, but really it’s just two ladders that might freak you out. However, they aren’t bad, I promise! They’re so sturdy and balanced. It’s worth it – you don’t just get to view the cliff dwelling, but walk among it. It’s also a lot more intimate than the other tour.
After that amazing tour, I was awarded my Junior Ranger badge from Kawika. He’s from Hawaii and loves preserving indigenous history and culture, so he believes that was a big part of his getting this NPS job. He was so passionate and excited about sharing all he knew about Mesa Verde and the Puebloans!
- Plan ahead and take a least one guided tour. And for the love of God, don’t believe the descriptions for the guided tours. They say “strenuous.” They are not. There is not a single person I know that couldn’t do them.
- If you’re a history buff, then plan on a couple days here. However, we are average people who enjoyed one day at Mesa Verde.
- This park is only an hour from the town of Durango, and this city amazed me. If you need a place to stay and explore in addition to the Park, I recommend Durango!