Visit Mesa Verde National Park for a far view into history, as well into the landscape of the Four Corners area.  You will be amazed by the number ruins and cliff dwellings in the park, both on the surface and in canyons that lead from the main road.

Some of them seem like whole villages, others just remains of family homes. Over time about 3,900 sites have been found within the park’s boundaries, more than 600 of them being cliff dwellings, some of them quite spectacular.

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Visitors as long ago as in the 1890s were just as amazed and fascinated by what they saw in these canyons, and some of these early explorers photographed the site and wrote about it extensively. Thanks to them, Mesa Verde became a National Park in June of 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating it, the first one of its kind, dedicated to “preserve the works of men”.

These “works of men” are the cliff dwellings of ancient Pueblo people, called Anasazi, meaning “the Ancient Ones” by the Navajo people who live in the area at this time. It seems that Mesa Verde was the center of the northern Anasazi culture that lived in the Four Corners area for over a thousand years.

I have been visiting the place for years with my family and each time we go we discover something new. The park is really in the “middle of nowhere”, in the Southwest, in the high deserts of the Four Corners area. The closest town is Cortez, and it is not a very big town. If you take the time to drive all the way there, it is definitely worth the stay for at least one, or multiple nights.

Far View Lodge is our family favorite at this time, but in earlier times we have usually opted to camp. Their campsite is well developed, they have a mini gas station and a small shop. Surrounding the archaeological site, the park is home to a large forested area, which unfortunately has many places burnt down over the years. Nonetheless it is beautiful.

 

Far View Lodge

Far View Lodge is the only hotel/lodge in the park, and it is a great place to stay. The very first time we stayed at the lodge, one of my children was a baby, who needed to nap in the afternoon. I stayed with her, sitting on the balcony, while my husband took the older one out to explore.

It was a clear day, and I was amazed to realize that I could see far in the distance, across a green valley, to high mesas and even farther, to the mountains. I could see clear through two states, to the majestic Shiprock, over in my home state of Arizona.

Fluffy white clouds covered the sky here and there, casting their shadows on the mesa top. Somewhere in the distance I could see rain falling. As I was just sitting there, admiring the view, a big, bright butterfly flew so close to me, I could feel the wind of its wings.

As I watched it settle on a flower, I recognized it: a monarch! Its bright orange and black and its delicate, smooth wings are a sharp contrast to all the washed out green and spiky texture of dried grass and the roughness of the yellow flower. As I watched the monarch take off again, I became aware of the distinctive smell of the creosote, the sign of rain coming.

That’s when I spotted the deer at the edge of the clearing. She was moving quietly, cautiously towards the building. She stopped right in front of my balcony and looked up at me with her big brown eyes shadowed by black eyelashes. She was so close; I could almost touch her. After grazing for a few minutes, she walked away, as slowly as she came. I noticed her perking up her ears, so I followed her gaze. A herd of beautiful wild horses was crossing the road below.

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We’ve stayed in Far View Lodge often after that time, but I never spent enough time in the room to have the same experience. We usually just leave our stuff and take off to explore, returning to the room late at night.

 

Exploring the Ruins

Our first stop is always the visitor center, not only to get our bearings, but also for an opportunity to sign up for guided tours. Some of the most spectacular cliff dwellings can not be visited without one.

Before wandering onto the canyons, we usually stop by Far View House and a few other villages in Chapin Mesa, right off the main road. These sites are older than the cliff dwellings, and they are not as spectacular, but it is worth going through them for the feel of history.

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If you have limited time however, you can skip them and make sure to visit Cliff Palace first, the largest and most spectacular of all of the dwellings in the park. You need a guided tour to get there, which needs to be purchased at the visitor center.

I have been on quite a few of these tours over the years, and my experience has always been great. I remember learning a lot more from the rangers than just from simply visiting the site. They are generally so excited about their work, it is a pleasure listening to them, and it is fun to hear some personal stories from their own experiences.

Spruce Tree House is another large village and it is the easiest to visit, no need for a guided to walk through it. Though not quite as large as Cliff Palace, it is still quite spectacular, being one of the best preserved.

We usually visit it first, since it is so easy to get to and there is no need to wait for the ranger to lead the tour. A paved trail leads to it from the top of the mesa, shaded with trees almost all the way. Although steep in places, it is still easy enough even for very young kids to walk to it. A stream runs close to it, which is responsible for all the vegetation here. It also must have made life a little easier for the people who lived here.

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Balcony House was built on a high ledge, with only one entrance. It is another one of my favorite dwellings, and you also need to go on a guided tour to get to it. It is a real adventure getting to it, and the trail might be dangerous if not handled properly. That’s why visitors follow the ranger.

He or she leads you through a tunnel, a few very tight passageways through the rocks and a very high, 32-foot ladder. It was nerve racking as much as fun when we visited it with two young kids and a baby in a backpack. First we went down into the canyon then up on the ladder on the side of the rock. It was truly impressive. Though getting there is the highlight of this trip, the site itself is worth the visit as well.

Long House is on Weatherill Mesa, pretty out of the way. We don’t always make it there, since it is at the end of a long, 12-mile-long road. The road follows a historic fire trail, so it looks very sad driving through it. At the end of the road a tram ride is available free of charge that takes you to a few sites in this area.

In addition to Long House, you can visit Badger House Community, Kodak House Overlook, and Long House Overlook. There are a few sites on the mesa top, also, where you really just get out of your car and walk through a short trail to it, or it’s right at the parking lot. Badger House Community, Cedar Tree Tower and Sun Temple are just a few of those.

After a full day of exploring the ruins, there is no better way to end the day than by dining at the Metate Room, right across from Far View Lodge. The atmosphere is wonderful and the meals fabulous, all of it fitting in perfectly with the place. They use only locally grown ingredients and end up with some of the simplest yet elegant meals. You can’t go wrong, no matter what you choose on the menu.