Mesa Verde (literally “green table”) is great because it provides more than just fantastic wilderness hiking trails, it’s a way to experience ancient American history. Teddy Roosevelt created Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 to preserve the Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites found in southwest Colorado. Construction of the cliff dwellings is believed to have begun around 1400 years ago, only to be abandoned around 700 years later due to droughts. Today much of the ancient ruins survive to be toured by modern day hikers and outdoor adventurers.
The 52,000 acre park is easily accessed by vehicle, simply drive to the site or trailhead you’d like to explore and begin your tour or hike. The cliff dwellings can only be accessed by taking a guided tour, in which case you will have the opportunity to learn the site’s history and ask any questions you might have. During my visit only one of the cliff dwellings was open to tour; fortunately it was the Balcony House, which requires climbing a couple wooden ladders to access and is considered the most “adventurous” of all the guided tours. For those afraid of heights the ladder part could be a bit unnerving; you are essentially climbing a ladder on the side of a cliff and can see almost all the way down. But if you’re the type of person to be on this website to begin with you probably won’t find it a problem at all. It should also be noted here that, like much of this part of the country, the park is located 7000-8500 Ft. above sea level, so be sure that you’re acclimated to the elevation before attempting anything strenuous.
It is quite easy to simply drive around and stop where you come across a site/trailhead/overlook of interest, and much of the park can be explored in this way. There are plenty of information boards to explain what you are looking at and its significance. My greatest enjoyment was found seeking the more out-of-the-way trails, absorbing the atmosphere and solitude and imagining what life was like here 1000 years ago. There’s nothing quite like sitting alone on the overlook of an ancient cliff dwelling with no sound but the gentle rustle of wind and the caw of a raven echoing in the canyon. During my exploration I also came across a paved trail that would be perfect for a bike ride with a mountain view in the distance.
If there is one downside to the park, its protected status means there is no camping or campfires allowed, however there is a campground located just four miles outside the park’s entrance. For those looking for more comfort you can also stay at the Far View Lodge inside the park, or save some dough and stay in the nearby town of Cortez.
While perhaps a bit tamer than most national parks and wilderness areas you commonly hear about, Mesa Verde NP makes up for it by its rich history and ancient ancestral vibe. Open year-round, it is definitely a vital part of any great American southwest tour.