Day 5 – Telluride to Mesa Verde

Rugged Hillsides outside of Telluride near Rico, CO

Rugged Hillsides outside of Telluride near Rico, CO

So after spending a wonderful day in Telluride my family and I are off to see the many cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Since we are only spending a day there, and the drive takes several hours, we got an early start. Hitting the road we drove through high country passes, catching great views of the San Juan mountains as we wound our way out of Telluride. Aside from seeing Lizard Head Peak and other fourteeners nearby, the rest of the drive was seemingly uneventful. We passed through gold and silver rush era towns that now cater to residents who want to get away from it all. Rico, Dolores, and Cortez all ended up in our rear view mirror as we made our journey southward. The mountains and valleys flatten out and give way to mesas and desert brush. I must say if you’re passing the same way make sure to stop by the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez if you’re looking for tour tickets in Mesa Verde National Park. They have a wealth of knowledge about the park as well as surrounding attractions and you’ll be able to beat the crowds of visitor center in Mesa Verde.

Entering the park we drove up a two lane road with sweeping views of the Mancos Valley on either side. The drive takes us to the top of the Mesa and the entrance to the park, but features plenty of pull-outs to take in the sprawling valley and canyon walls in the distance. The park is pretty spread out, as it should featuring more than 5,000 Ancestral Puebloans’ building sites and close to 500 cliff dwellings. Before setting out to tour we explored the visitor center and had lunch. The food is what you would expect at a large tourist attraction and my tip for you is to watch out for the tour bus drop offs, they really slam the capacity for the lunch server. After our meal it was time to explore! During our afternoon in the park we visited three of the sites accessible to the visitors in the park: Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House.

Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House offers up close and personal views of homes and kivas

The first place we visited was the Spruce Tree House. This is perfect for a quick visit to the park without going through the hassle of buying tickets or blocking out enough time for the tours. This site is one of the larger sites in the park with only 50 or so rooms and is unguided. It’s a short walk down from the parking lot and at each switchback you can glimpse the site in the cave through the trees. Once there you’ll be able to explore the site by walking from end to end, peering into homes, kivas, and storage towers. A kiva is a subterranean, spiritual gathering place that was a main focus for the Ancestral Puebloans. The typically can fit 15 to 30 people and are accessible by a ladder through the roof. This space also acted as a chimney for the smoke of the fire pit below, with several additional ventilation shafts. Spruce Tree House is the only site that allows people to enter this fully formed kiva, which I highly suggest. The descent into darkness is offsetting in the beginning, but once you step into the underground room I was amazed at the craftsmanship and advanced level of engineering it took to create such a cool and comfortable place over 600 years ago. The site offers people a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the structures without the crowds and the tour guides, I highly suggest this slight detour from the main attractions.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace, the Crown Jewel of Mesa Verde

Next up is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace. This is the single largest cliff dwelling in the park and the country! With more than 150 structures it is thought that Cliff Palace was home to more than 100 Ancestral Puebloans. It boasts close to 40 kivas and huge storage structures, making some archeologists believe that the site was a religious or administrative center for the area Puebloans. The site offers tours on the half hour, guided by a National Park Tour Guide. We were blessed with a great guide, Clyde, who happens to be a modern Navajo himself. He regaled us with stories of the ancient city, its discovery, and why those people did what they did. Whether it was farming, hunting, raising children, or their interaction with nature and the community he could relate it all back to a balance and appreciation with Mother Earth and Father Sky. It was an impactful tour, featuring a thrilling climb down 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps steps and pathways that take you to the site. The site itself is quite impressive, with structures rising over three stories and going four or five deep into the cave. We visited several open kivas and looked into a schoolhouse tower which still had native wall art! After a thought provoking tour we were led up a series of short ladders that mimicked the ancient steps with rungs made of hardy dried Juniper wood. This site is certainly one of the best and is a must see if visiting the park. (One more tip, make sure to stop at Sun Temple on the Mesa Loop, it offers the best vistas to take photos of Cliff Palace from across the valley. The site is so big that its difficult to get the big picture when you’re there…enjoy!)

View from Balcony House

View from Balcony House

Finally, my family and I rushed over to the other tour-led site in Mesa Verde: Balcony House. By far this is the most adventurous trail and site offered in the Park and features multiple two-abreast ladders more than 30 feet long! It also requires passing through some tight spaces, even getting on your hands and knees once or twice to fit between room sections. And best of all this hike utilizes a section of slick rock wall with carved foot holds and chain link handrails to get you out of the cliff alcove and up to the top of the Mesa! Certainly not for the faint of heart the trail was well worth it. The views from the cliff are simply stunning, offering vistas directly across from a gorgeous cliff wall and panoramic views up and down the valley that can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the park. The tour is smaller and our guide, an adopted Hopi and avid Southwest gal, treated it as such with much more intimate discussions of the kiva, man’s relationship with nature, and how the dwellings have lived on through the ages. We also discussed the wealth of knowledge that it took to create this structure and utilize it for better living.Balcony House is slightly smaller than Cliff Palace and close to the size of Spruce Tree House, only located much higher in the cliffs. The whole structure seems to sit on a giant balcony extending out from the alcove a mere 60 to 80 feet from the top of the mesa. This hair-raising and adrenaline pumping tour was well worth it and provided stories and memories that will stick with us as a family forever. My personal favorite, this site should not be overlooked if visiting.


Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

After all this excitement we went to book into our rooms. Since Mesa Verde is somewhat removed from the surrounding towns of Mancos, Cortez, and an hour away – Durango, we opted to stay at the Lodge in the Park. If you can try to get a room near the edge of the mesa as they offer the best views southwest of the park, catching gorgeous sunsets and glimpses into neighboring New Mexico and Arizona. They have a great restaurant on-site that offers a variety of dishes, many featuring local plants, vegetables, and game. With no TVs, Internet, or reliable cell coverage up here we used dinner as an opportunity to enjoy nature’s evening. The restaurant boasts large windows facing south and we enjoyed our meal over the course of a couple hours with great food, scenery, and conversation. After such an exciting day of exploring and a satisfying meal we all headed back ready for bed and the promises of more adventures tomorrow.


Posted on August 25, 2011, in Colorado Road Trip and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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