New hikes to take, sites to see in Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace, by night — one of Mesa Verde’s National Park’s most recognizable cliff dwellings.

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Cliff Palace, by night — one of Mesa Verde’s National Park’s most recognizable cliff dwellings.

Exploring each cliff dwelling open to the public in Mesa Verde National Park is a near-impossible feat to accomplish in one short visit.

This summer, achieving that task will become even harder as more cliff dwellings will be open to the public.

Five new back country trails that lead to sometimes off-limits structures will open this summer. A free one-hour, 1/2-mile hike to Yucca House National Monument will be offered on Aug. 17 and Sept. 21 and offers a guided way to see the historical site inhabited hundreds of years ago by ancestral Puebloans.

A moderately strenuous, mile-long trek to two dwellings, Oak Tree House and Fire Temple, will open May 29 and remain open every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through Sept. 5. The two-hour guided hike costs $20 a person and visitors should be prepared to climb a 15-foot ladder, hike a narrow dirt path and hug cliff walls as they tiptoe along ledges.

Two more hikes will be added later in the season when temperatures cool. A mile-long round-trip hike to Square Tower House will be available for $20 a person on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Sept. 1 through Oct. 15, and a difficult, eight-hour, 8-mile hike to Spring House will be open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from Sept. 2 through Oct. 14 for $40 a person.

The Spring House hike will offer views of Buzzard House, Daniel’s House and Teakettle House, plus other archeological sites in Navajo and Wickiup canyons. The Square Tower House hike boasts a unique view of the “crow’s nest” and one of the park’s two partially intact kiva roofs. (A kiva was considered a religious “portal.”)

Lynn Dyer, tourism director for the Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Bureau, said special hikes were briefly open to the public in 2006, when the park celebrated its centennial. The hikes were so well-received, the Mesa Verde Institute decided to offer them again this year, Dyer said.

The major thing visitors want to do when they come to Mesa Verde is a ranger-guided tour of Cliff Palace or Balcony House, Dyer said. “The (added) hikes are just something extra they can do and hopefully it means they’ll stay an extra day.”

Cliff Palace, easily the most recognizable cliff dwelling in the park, is open from early April to early November. The tour takes visitors down a winding staircase, then up a few short ladders to reach the former village built into the hollowed-out canyon wall. It is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and once housed 100 Anasazi Puebloans.

Balcony House also is a popular guided tour at the park, and includes longer ladders than most of those used to reach Cliff Palace. The tour involves crawling through a tunnel and gets its name from having a preserved balcony.

The longest tour in the park is the 90-minute guided tour of Long House, which is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The dwelling is on Wetherill Mesa on the far west end of the park, an area that includes an overlook for the Kodak House, a tram, and Step House, which is open for self-guided tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House each cost $3 per person.

On Chapin Mesa, where Cliff Palace and Balcony House are located, visitors can take a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House from early March to early November, visit the Chapin Mesa Museum and bookstore, hike a few trails, or make stops along the scenic Mesa Top Loop to view pithouses (primitive ancestral homes dug into the ground), villages and the Sun Temple, which is located near the overlook for Cliff Palace.

For information, call 529-4465 or go to


Anyone with time to venture outside Mesa Verde National Park during a trip to southwestern Colorado, or even those who have been to the park and want to see something else, should consider visiting two national monuments nearby: Yucca House and Hovenweep.

• Yucca House National Monument is nestled between Cortez and the town of Towaoc, located about 15 miles from the New Mexico border in the Ute Mountain Reservation. The large, unexcavated site is open year-round, weather permitting, and there is no fee to visit.

Yucca House served as a community dwelling for Ancestral Puebloans until about 700 years ago. It’s one of the largest archeological sites in its part of the state and has been a national monument for 91 years.

• Hovenweep National Monument straddles the Utah-Colorado border. The monument covers a 20-mile area and houses six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages featuring towers and wind-carved wall remnants still standing after 10,000 years.

It has a visitor’s center and a network of trails that offer views of the various village sites.

Hovenweep is open year-round. The visitor center is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Admission for one week is $3 per person on bike, motorcycle or foot, and $6 per car. Camping costs $10 a night.


Where to bike: Bikes are allowed in the park, but must stay on paved, public roads. Wetherill Mesa Road is closed to bikes, but Cliff Palace and Mesa Top loop roads and the main road are open to cyclists.

Where to camp: Morefield Campground is the only place to camp in the park. The 400-site campground is open from mid-May through mid-October. Each site can hold up to two vehicles and two tents and prices start at $23 a night. Recreational vehicles, tents and trailers are welcome and each site has a grill, table and bench.

Where to hike: Mesa Verde offers plenty of hiking trails to discover, but a few that should be on a visitor’s short list are Petroglyph Point Trail, which is the only trail in the park that gives hikers a chance to view petroglyphs; Point Lookout Trail, with views of Mancos and Montezuma valleys; and Nordenskiold Site No. 16 trail, which is quiet and has an overlook of the cliff dwelling that shares its name.

Where to climb: If climbing ladders on tours of some of the cliff dwellings isn’t enough, hard-core rock climbers can drive toward Durango to Cascade Canyon, which has 35 climbing sections and rock walls inclining to about 9,000 feet.

Where to raft: Rafting trips of the Animas River are available through tour companies, including Mountain Waters Rafting Inc. (800-585-8243) and Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours (800-567-6745).

Where to fish: Fishers can take a drive north to McPhee Lake, located near Dolores and stocked with rainbow trout and filled with largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish and black crappie. Another place to drop a line is in the Animas River, where there’s a 2-mile stretch of Gold Medal water.

Where to golf: There isn’t a golf course in the park, but if playing a round is a must, golfers can find South Forty Golf Course and Conquistador Golf Course in nearby Cortez.

Where to eat: In-park dining options include the Metate Room Restaurant (up-scale dining), Far View Terrace Cafe (casual dining) and Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe (patio dining). Morefield Campground has a cafe with all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts.

Festivals: Events in the area include Mesa Verde Country Indian Arts & Culture Festival, May 27–June 5; Mesa Verde Country Ute Mountain Round-up Rodeo, June 9–11; Verde Fest: Four Corners Sustainability Fair, Aug. 19–20; Mesa Verde Country Food, Wine and Art Festival, Aug. 25–28; Harvest Beer Festival, Sept. 11; and Mancos Valley-Mesa Verde Country Balloon & Art Festival, Sept.  24–26.

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