Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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It’s always tough to drive past an attraction, and because of time, not be able to stop.  That happened to me in 2005, during my Colorado loop trip, when I drove by Mesa Verde.  It was almost dark, and I needed to get to Durango in order to stay on track for the following day.  So, I reluctantly had to pass the turnoff to Mesa Verde National Park.  I swore, though, that I’d get there eventually, and almost a year and a half later, I did.

Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado, 10 miles east of Cortez, along US 160.

Most national parks are set aside to preserve natural beauty.  Mesa Verde does that, but it’s not the main reason for its existence.  Instead, Mesa Verde serves to protect many of the area’s centuries-old Native American ruins.  It’s the only national park created specifically to preserve manmade structures.

Since Mesa Verde was first on my list for the day, I arrived at the park just after sunrise.  As you travel up the entrance road, Point Lookout looms ahead of you.  In the summer months, you can hike to the top of it.

But then again, there are a lot of things you can do at Mesa Verde in the summer that you can’t do in winter.  I soon found out that many of the side roads were closed for the season, even though they probably would still be passable at this time of year.

Once you’re on top of the mesa (actually, there are many different mesas inside the park), one turnout provides a great view of the La Plata Mountains, which includes La Plata Peak–Colorado’s fifth-highest mountain (14,336 ft.)

The trees have lots of character here!

Another roadside parking area allows you an up-close look at the Knife Edge, a narrow shelf along the mountainside that used to provide the only access to Mesa Verde, starting in 1914.  The extremely narrow road was so treacherous that a tunnel was built, and in 1957, the old Knife Edge was abandoned.

Because it was winter, the Far View Visitor’s Center, Lodge, and Restaurant were all closed.  So was the road to Wetherill Mesa, Park Point Overlook, and the Cliff Palace Loop. That left me with just one option: the Mesa Top Loop drive.

Even though it was the only road that was open, the Mesa Top Loop Drive gave me plenty of views of Indian ruins.  If those other roads were open, I’d have probably skipped them anyhow.  Unless you’re extremely interested in ancient Native American pueblos, you probably won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

One of the first ruins you pass on the Mesa Top Loop Drive is one of the park’s most famous: Square Tower House.  A short walk leads to an overlook, where you can look down on the 800-year-old complex.

Square Tower House was occupied between A.D. 1200 and 1300.  It’s a good representation of the final phase of building at Mesa Verde (ancient residents started with pit dwellings around A.D. 550).

Travel just a short distance further along the Mesa Top Loop Drive, and you arrive at a protected collection of pithouses.  Above, in the foreground, is the main chamber, which served as the living room, kitchen, and bedroom.  A fire burned in the pit in the middle of the room.  To the back is the antechamber, a smaller room that served as a storage area for firewood and food.

Another pitroom.  This one is more advanced, deeper, with better masonry, and may have served as a kiva (for social gatherings and religious ceremonies).

One of the most impressive structures at Mesa Verde is one that you can experience up-close: Sun Point Pueblo.

Sun Point Pueblo was one of the final structures built on Mesa Verde, and was probably occupied around A.D. 1200.

You can’t walk inside the rooms of the Sun Point Pueblo, but you can walk around the ancient walls.  They have been capped with cement by the National Park Service to prevent any further erosion.

Continue around the Mesa Top Loop Drive, and you’ll find a few more viewpoints that overlook cliff dwellings.  You can also visit the Chapin Mesa Museum, which is nearby and opened year-round.

By the time I arrived at the museum, it was mid-morning, but still bitterly cold.  I had seen my fill of ruins, so I headed for the park exit.

Hey, look over there, in the distance! Waaaaaay in the distance!  Those are the San Juan Mountains, the southern end of the Rocky Mountains.  Sure, they don’t look like much from here, but I knew better.  I had been there before.  They’re incredible.  And even though they were 40 miles away, they were calling me.  So guess where I went next?

As you leave Mesa Verde, turn right on US Hwy. 160, headed for Durango.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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