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Much More Than Just a U.S. National Park: Mesa Verde (Colorado)

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Palace - Cliff Dwelling - Happier Place

The Mesa Verde National Park in South-Western Colorado is not only a stunning nature park, but also the largest archeological preserve in the USA and a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Mesa Verde National Park is located near the Four Corners region, where Colorado meets Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. It’s at an elevation of 7,000 to 8,572 feet. The closest towns are Cortez and Mancos. However, Durango and even Pagosa Springs are close enough to combine a visit of Mesa Verde with a stay in these popular Colorado towns.

Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) National Park sits on several table-topped mountains, which are actually not completely flat but slanted to the south and therefore not a truly mesas, but a cuestas. Most of the roads and trails run along the top – with stunning views into canyons, the lower-lying Colorado landscape and snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains at the horizon.

Navajo Canyon seen from Chepa Mesa in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Navajo Canyon seen from Chepa Mesa in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

But the most important and arguably most astonishing sights you’ll see are the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples! Mesa Verde features over 4,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples, also known as Anasazi. The Ancestral Pueblo peoples lived in Mesa Verde from 600 to 1300. At first, they built round pit houses, then mesa-top villages made of adobe and eventually the cliff dwellings.

Sunset view of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Happier Place
Sunset view of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

It’s possible to visit some of the cliff dwellings on foot – but beware that getting there might involve steep trails and even climbing ladders. If you don’t have much time to explore the park, we recommend driving the Mesa Top Loop Road. For those with more time, there are guided tours, a variety of trails and lots to learn about Native American culture at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

The park is open year-round, but some activities are seasonal. Check out the official website for more detailed information.

Square Tower House - the tallest cliff dwelling building in Mesa Verde.
Square Tower House – the tallest cliff dwelling building in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde and National Parks Happier Tips:

  1. If you live in the U.S., we highly recommend getting the so-called “America the Beautiful” annual pass, which allows you entrance into over 2,000 National Parks and Federal recreation sites, like National Monuments and National Wildlife Refuges among others. As of this writing, the annual pass is only $80 – and some further discounts are available. Considering that entrance fee to an individual National Park is usually already somewhere between $15 and $30 (and is going up on June 1), it can quickly pay for itself. But even if you only use it a single time, you know that your money is supporting the preservation and accessibility to the nature that makes us all happier.
  2. Before heading to a National Park, get the official brochure as a pdf from the appropriate National Park Services website. You will be more prepared for your visit – and if you load it onto a mobile device instead of taking a printed brochure, you’re doing something that makes Earth happier. HERE are the Mesa Verde brochures.
Detail of Square Tower House cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park.
Detail of Square Tower House complex buildings in Mesa Verde National Park.
Kiva, an underground ceremonial room built by the Ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, Colorado
Kiva, an underground ceremonial room built by the Ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, Colorado.
Detail of another ancient Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park.
Opening of another ancient Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park.
Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Looking down from Chapin Mesa into Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Happier Place
Looking down from Chapin Mesa into Navajo Canyon.
If you didn't know they were there... Ancient Pueblo Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, at sunset.
If you didn’t know they were there… Ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde at sunset.
A closer look at the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
A closer look at the cliff dwellings featured in the previous photo.
Mesa Verde is called "the green mesa" because of its juniper and piñon trees.
Mesa Verde is called “the green mesa” because of its juniper and piñon trees.
Of course, Mesa Verde National Park also features Colorado wildlife, like this deer.
Of course, Mesa Verde National Park also features Colorado wildlife, like this deer.
Looking north from the top of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Looking north from the top of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Sunset behind trees burnt by wildfire in Mesa Verde National Park.
Sunset behind trees burnt by wildfire in Mesa Verde National Park.

All photos in this post were taken by Luci Westphal. By clicking on any photo, you can see a high-resolution version.

2 thoughts on “Much More Than Just a U.S. National Park: Mesa Verde (Colorado)

  1. Incredible shots!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Nick!

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