Mesa Verde National Park (Western Colorado Trip, Part IV)

With the gorgeous and terrifying San Juan Mountains behind us, we left our hotel the next morning for the final stop of our adventure: Mesa Verde National Park.

 Unlike our other rather obscure destinations during the trip—Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Million Dollar Highway—Mesa Verde is actually pretty famous.

You’ve seen pictures of it. At some point you may have even thought: “Hey, that would be a cool place to visit—someday.”

The top of the mesa is actually pretty boring—just a lot of desert shrubbery and an occasional old, mostly unexcavated ruin. It’s what’s on the sides of the mesa that counts.

In short, Mesa Verde is the place with all the cliff dwellings you see in history books and National Geographic. And it doesn’t have just one cliff dwelling—it has many. At one particular overlook, you could see five or six separate dwellings on the side of a sheer cliff.

The coolest part? We were actually able to walk through two of the dwellings while we were there. The first dwelling, Spruce Tree House, was easy to access—just about a ¼ mile down a gradual slope to the bottom ravine of sorts—and thus it was quite crowded with people. Nevertheless, it was a cool experience.

A lot of different thoughts go through your head as you walk through a 1000+ year old town carved into a cliff:

“How did they build this?”
“I can’t believe people actually lived here.”
“Did they really have to climb out of here every day?”
“Wow, I guess these people weren’t afraid of heights.”
“Where did I come from? Where am I going? Are families forever?”

The second dwelling we toured was even cooler, and quite a bit more like what you imagine when you think of cliff dwellings. Whereas Spruce Tree House was pretty much at ground level, this one was smack dab in the middle of a sheer cliff face. Due to the relative danger and difficulty of access (at least for those not used to climbing up steep walls), this one required tickets and a Park Ranger tour guide.

And since the description labeled this tour as “extreme” and mentioned things like “multiple climbs up 32 foot ladders” and “squeezing through 12-foot long crawl spaces,” Mom and Dad decided to stay behind while Heather and I embarked on this adventure.  


One of the recurring themes of this weekend trip was acrophobia—and this second tour gave me a chance to re-establish, once again, that I am indeed afraid of heights.

To get down to the dwelling, you have to walk down a steep, sloping trail carved into the cliff side. The trail is narrow, and a foot to your left is a steep thousand foot drop.

Then you have to climb up a 32-foot ladder.

The view from the dwelling

To get back out, you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a very narrow space and then climb another tall ladder and then walk up some very steep, shallow steps carved into the cliff. It was all very exciting and stuff.

But while you’re actually in the dwelling, it’s quite cool. The tour guide told us a lot about the day-to-day lives and religious beliefs/ceremonies of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples who once lived there. She told us about why they chose these locations (for defense, obviously) and what kinds of foods they ate and so on and so forth. (I would go into more detail here, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of what she told us.)

“Just don’t lean against the rock wall on the edge of the dwelling,” she added, “because it’s not very stable and people have fallen.”

Fortunately, I didn’t fall. That totally would have ruined the whole trip.