Mesa Verde NP and Anasazi Ruins

I have always wanted to see the Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.  Bruce had visited as a young adult on the way to attend Arizona State University and he had told me stories about it for years.  I was under the impression that there was one set of dwellings at one site.  However, there are many sites in the park and around the area with both cliff dwellings and pueblos of the Anasazi people.

Campsite Mesa Verde

Seven nights camping in nature with no hookups and no cell service was a nice change to our regular 4-night stays.  Luckily, there was a weak internet signal so we could stay in touch via text and email!  The campsite was beautiful with the remains of fall color on the hills all around. We missed peak-color change a couple weeks earlier but it was still very pretty at October 8th.  The first night, temps got down to 25 degrees with light snow flurries in the morning!  After that, the mornings were cold but afternoons were a nice and sunny 65 degrees. Any neighbors that came in generally only stayed one night.  The night sky was lit up with stars but we didn’t brave the cold long enough to get any time-lapse photos this time.

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum inside the park was a worth-while stop but if time is tight, skip to the Anasazi Heritage Center museum.

We checked out the Anasazi Heritage Center at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument nearby, in Dolores, to see the museum and learn more about the sites. The Museum was very well done with lots of interactive displays and great collections of pottery, jewelry and tools.

The largest site at Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace, was closed for restoration. Another site, Spruce Tree House, was closed due to a rock fall.  These sites are visible from the overlooks which are close enough to give great views.  We signed up for the ranger-led tours of Balcony House and Long House.

The first tour, and billed as the most strenuous, at Balcony House was a 45-minute drive away from the campsite in the park. Entry was through a 30-foot high, double-wide ladder then a narrow passage followed by a narrow 18-inch square by 12-foot long tunnel requiring crawling on hands and knees.  I looked at my hips, hmm!  Once entering via the ladder, there is no turning back.  Guides are required in the site and they only go one way!  The ladder wasn’t too bad except when the people in front of us stopped moving and there we were, hanging on the side of a cliff with too much time to think about what we were doing (the ranger said “don’t look down”)!.  The other obstacles weren’t too bad.

It was pretty small ruin compared to the others at Mesa Verde but magical. We left by climbing two 15-foot ladders and the final leg required walking on the cliff face holding nothing but a cable! They had some chain link fences below the cable but it didn’t look like it would hold anyone! Luckily we were in the front of the line and could scramble up the cliff without stopping. I could feel the adrenaline swirling around in my lower back for a while after that hike (or was it climbing?).

The second tour was at Long house on the other mesa which is about an hour drive from the first. We had a picnic lunch at the trail-head. There was a tarantula sighting in the parking lot but we couldn’t find it ourselves.  We hiked down a paved path with our tour group. Down some stone stairs and up two 15-foot ladders were all that was needed to get into this site.  A piece of cake compared to the morning tour.  Long House was nearly the size of Cliff Palace and very well preserved.  It was a great adventure to be standing in places lived in hundreds of years ago.  Like castles!  Four wild horses came along the roadside on our way out, they were a nice surprise–even though I held the expectation that we would see them!

A couple of days later, we returned to Canyons of the Ancients NM and drove around the various sites. Lowry Pueblo, an above- ground dwelling with kivas built into the earth.  Kivas are circular subterranean rooms that were used for religious, ceremonial, or other important purposes.

Next, we drove to a more remote site called Painted Hand named for the pictographs of hands on the walls.  The road was dirt (slick mud when it rains) with large, slick-rock boulders. Thank goodness we had the Jeep!  The ruins here were a great reward after hiking the very steep and rocky trail, where at times, we had to sit down and lower ourselves to the next level. In some places, the trail was cut through huge rocks, barely wide enough for a hiking boot.  A guy came in behind us and his dog even had trouble negotiating the trail. The dwellings here were less preserved but really cool. A couple of round towers added to a castle feel. Just a really great place and one of my favorite hikes!

We continued driving on to Hovenweep National Monument.  This was an exceptional place where cliff dwellings up and down the narrow canyon on both sides were like a neighborhood! There was a recent sighting of a mountain lion at the visitor center near the dwellings but we weren’t lucky enough to see it.

After moving camp from Mesa Verde to Sleeping Ute Mountain RV park at the casino, we returned to Canyons of the Ancients area to see Yucca House NM.  Getting there was an adventure with no signs. An excerpt of the directions:

  • Take the next dirt road on the right before the farmhouse on the left….
  • Follow this road north and west for 1.4 miles, and head towards the white ranch house with the red roof on the west horizon.
  • Once at the ranch house, Yucca House National Monument is on the left side of the driveway.

We wandered around the unexcavated ruins and saw pottery shards, sharpening stones and ancient walls as well as an abandoned farmhouse.

A trip to 4 Corners was needed even though it was a Navajo tourist trap – $5 ea to get in and booths on all 4 sides selling jewelry, carvings, pottery, and the like.  Hubble Trading Post was interesting but not a must see. The most interesting thing there was the historic buildings and the Navajo woman weaving rugs. The selection of beautiful rugs for sale in the shop was impressive. For us, it was a long way to go for a picnic!

We enjoyed seeing the beautiful places inhabited by the Anasazi people so much that we decided to see Canyon de Chelly next.


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