Ancient Architecture and Modern-Day Adventure at Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace is the largest Ancestral Puebloan dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park.
Cliff Palace is the largest Ancestral Puebloan dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park. Ken Lund
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Durango is undeniably one of Colorado’s top outdoor playgrounds. But it also just happens to be the hub to America’s largest and most impressive archeological site: Mesa Verde National Park. More than 600 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings are scattered throughout the remote, high desert canyons 35 miles west of town.

These incredibly preserved ruins can be enjoyed from the comfort of your car, more adventurous souls should definitely explore them on foot or two wheels. Many of the most impressive dwellings can be reached via a short hike or bicycle ride and offer a taste of what it was like to live here more 1,000 years ago.The Four Corners Region is rife with rock art, dwellings, and traces of a bygone civilization, but Mesa Verde is by far the most concentrated and well-preserved site. Dispersed throughout the winding canyons and hidden among the piñon and sage is a web of cliff dwellings, kivas, and pithouses. There are nearly 5,000 archeological sites and every twist and turn in the canyon begs the question: What else is waiting to be discovered?

Ravens and rainbows at Mesa Verde National Park.
Ravens and rainbows at Mesa Verde National Park. Anthony Quintano

From roughly 550 CE (Common Era) to 1300 CE, the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi), lived on the mesa tops, building intricate communities complete with towers and sun temples. It wasn’t until the last 75-100 years that these ancient people descended into the canyons to build their monumental cliff dwellings. Myth and romanticism have given rise to the popular belief that the Ancestral Puebloans simply disappeared after building these spectacular communities, but in fact, they are shown to have migrated south into New Mexico, Arizona, and even Texas, eventually becoming contemporary Pueblo people.

Though the park entrance is only 45 minutes from downtown Durango, the park headquarters is still some 21 miles off Highway 160. The drive into the park, however, is beautiful, offering expansive views of the Four Corners region. From the road, you can park at overlooks to many of the cliff dwellings or access trailheads along the way.

Or, bring your bike and pedal through the park. You can get off the road at Wetherill Mesa and ride the 5-mile Long House Loop, which leads to many other adjoining trailheads and accesses the spectacular Long House cliff dwelling.

The Long House ruin, on Wetherill Mesa, can be accessed on a pleasant, five-mile hiking trail.
The Long House ruin, on Wetherill Mesa, can be accessed on a pleasant, five-mile hiking trail. Daveynin

If you’re short on time, the Spruce Tree House has the quickest access, though the half-mile hike down to this impressive cliff dwelling is plenty steep. But the effort to get there (and back) is well worth it: Spruce Tree House is the third-largest dwelling at Mesa Verde, featuring 130 rooms and eight kivas, which are subterranean rooms used for religious ceremonies. At one time, between 60 and 80 people lived on this remote cliffside.

The Spruce Tree House is easily accessible by a half-mile hike.
The Spruce Tree House is easily accessible by a half-mile hike. Doug Kerr

If you have a bit more time and cash flow, sign-up for one of the guided tours to enjoy otherwise off-limits sites like Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling in the park, and Balcony House. Mesa Verde also has several trails, ranging in distance from two miles to nearly eight, that offer views of the high desert and numerous petroglyphs. In the winter, you can bring your Nordic skis and check out the park’s groomed trails.

If you’re visiting Durango or have lived here for years, Mesa Verde is an important addition to your Southwest Colorado bucket list. This area has a rich and diverse history that goes far beyond steam engines and gun fights. Be sure to give yourself at least half a day at Mesa Verde: Trust us, you won’t want to leave once you get there.

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