Mesa Verde NP

Useful Information

Cliff dwellings.
Location: Midway between Cortez and Mancos, off U.S. 160.
I70, exit at Grand Junction, Hwy 6, then Hwy 50 south, from Montrose Hwy 550 south to Durango, west on Hwy 160.
I70, exit at Crescent Junction, south on Hwy 191 to Monticello, southeast on Highway 666 to Cortez, east on Hwy 160.
I25, exit Walsenburg, west on Hwy 160 through Alamosa, Monte Vista, Durango.
Open: Park: All year daily 8 to sunset.
Spruce Tree House Tours: JAN to 04-MAR daily 10, 13, 15:30. 05-MAR to 08-APR daily 9-17, self guided. 09-APR to Memorial Day daily 9-18:30, self guided. Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 8:30-18:30, self guided. Labor Day to 09-OCT daily 9-18:30, self guided. 10-OCT to 10-NOV daily 9-17, self guided. 11-NOV to DEC daily 10, 13, 15:30.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum: JAN to 08-APR daily 8-17. 09-APR to 09-OCT daily 9-18:30. 10-OCT to DEC daily 8-17.
Far View Visitor Center: 09-APR to 09-OCT daily 8-17.
Cliff Palace Tours: 09-APR to 13-MAY daily 9-17, every hour. 14-MAY to Memorial Day daily 9-17, every half hour. Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 8:30-18, every half hour. Labor Day to 09-OCT daily 9-17, every half hour. 10-OCT to 04-NOV daily 9-17, every hour.
Balcony House Tours: 30-APR to 13-MAY daily 9:30, 12, 14, 15:30. 14-MAY to Memorial Day daily 9-17, every hour. Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 9-17:30, every half hour. Labor Day to 09-OCT daily 9-17, every hour.
Wetherill Mesa: Memorial Day to Labor Day daily.
Long House Tours: Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 10-17.
Step House: Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 10-17, self-guided.
Fee: Park: Car USD 10.
Ranger-Guided Tours: Per Person USD 3.
Self Guided Tours: free.
Classification: SubterraneaCave Castle, SubterraneaCave House, cliff dwellings in sandstone abris
Light: none, bring electric torch for buildings
Guided tours: V=600,000/a [2005]
Photography: alloed
Accessibility: partly
Bibliography: Gustaf Nordenskiold (1910): The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde
Address: Mesa Verde National Park, P.O. Box 8, Mesa Verde, Colorado 81330, Tel: +1-970-529-4465, Fax: +1-970-529-4637. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


550 first traces of settlement.
1200 start of the construction of cliff dwellings.
1300 Pueblo people vanish.
1884 Balcony House first entered by the prospector S. E. Osborn.
DEC-1888 Cliff Palace discovered by ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason who searched Mesa Verde's canyons for stray cattle.
1891 explored and photographed by Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold.
29-JUN-1906 Mesa Verde National Park established by President Theodore Roosevelt.
1910 Balcony House excavated by Jesse Nusbaum.
1959 excavation of Long House started, as part of the Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project.
1961 excavation of Long House ended.
1978 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Square Tower House.

The name Mesa Verde, the Spanish term translates Green Table, describes the landscape pretty well. A high plane, which is green because of frugal shrubs and trees, a so called pinyon-juniper forest, is divided into huge tablelands by deep valleys, gorges and ravines. The walls of the valleys are sandstone cliffs, often overhanging, forming huge caverns and shelters. The shelters formed in the Cliff House Formation, which is a 78 million year old Cretacious sandstone of reddish colour. The porous sandstone allows ground water to percolate through. When it reaches the impervious layer below it moves along this water barrier to the canyon edge. During winter this wet layer freezes, the expanding ice fractures the rocks, and chemical, mechanical, and wind erosion all work together to create the niches along the canyon walls.

The Pueblo Indians lived in this area since 550. They were growing corn on the tableland and for about 650 years they also lived there. Around 1200 they started to build huts under the overhanging cliffs, which soon became forts and towers until the Pueblo finally vanished. The multi-storey tower houses remained almost unchanged, which is a result of their protected location in the shelters and the rather low precipitation rates.

At the end of the 19th century the first white explorers and ranchers found the various dwellings. Most important is the snow rich December 1888, when ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason searched Mesa Verde's canyons for stray cattle. They discovered Cliff Palace, and soon their interest in those archaeological remains awakened. The brothers Weatherill subsequently discovered almost 200 different dwellings. The next important visitor was the Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold. He stayed here for some time, explored the dwellings, and took photographs. Some time later he published what was probably the single most important book about Mesa Verde, which became very popular and finally led to the creation of the National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park protects the natural and cultural heritage of this area. It is so far the only cultural park in the National Park scheme. Visitors first go to the visitor Center, then follow round courses on the plateau which have stops at several cliff villages, with outlooks and rest areas. Some of the rock houses are accessible by foot, trails are leading down the cliff to the village and into some of the houses. Some may be visited self guided or optionally on ranger guided tours, for others guided tours are mandatory to protect them. As there are hundreds of structures, only a very small part may be visited, but those are the most impressive and biggest buildings.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde's largest cliff dwelling.

The dwellings were built using Cliff House Sandstone. The rocks were shaped using harder rocks, which were found as pebbles in the river beds. The mortar between the blocks does not contain cement, which was unknown. It is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. As this is not very stable it was chinked, a technique where small stones are pressed into the soft mortar between the rocks in order to make them more stable. The buildings were additionally stabilized by wooden beams, which also formed the roofs. Because of the location beneath the cliff the roofs were not for protection against rain, but to keep heat inside. They were flat and not water proof. Almost 600 such dwellings can be found in the Park, but 75% contain only one to five rooms each. Many are single room storage units.

The buildings are of three different types. Normal, rectangular houses were used to live in. Kivas (keewahs) which were a sort of shamanistic temple, probably used for religious and social rituals. They are round and have the entrance in the middle of the roof, with a wooden ladder leading down. The number of kivas is very high in the big dwellings, more than 10%, which suggests they were social, administrative sites with high ceremonial usage. Finally there are the rather rare towers.

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. A steep trail leads down 120 uneven steps, 35 m into the canyon. Several buildings will be visited which requires to climb ladders too. There are 150 rooms and 23 kivas, the former population is estimated around 100.

Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling. It is reached from the mesa in a tram, which is free, but seats are restricted and allocated on a first come, first serve basis. At the end of the tram is the start of the Long House Trail through the pinyon-juniper forest.

Spruce Tree House, the best-preserved Cliff Dwelling.
Spruce Tree House, the best-preserved Cliff Dwelling.

Spruce Tree House was built between 1211 and 1278. It is the third largest cliff dwelling with 130 rooms and 8 kivas, big enough for about 80 inhabitants, built into a natural cave which is 66 m wide and 27 m deep. It was discovered in December 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, who named it after a Douglas Spruce which grew in front of the dwelling to the mesa top. Old descriptions tell, the first explorers entered the dwelling by climbing down this tree. The tree does not exist any more, it was cut down some years after the discovery. Today a path leads down about 35 meters into the canyon, which has no steps. This is the only dwelling which is open all year. During most of the year visitors may enter self guided, only during winter they have to join free guided tours.

Balcony House is visited duriing quite adventurous one hour guided tours. The reason is the difficult acces, first down a 25 m deep staircase into the canyon, then up a 10 m high ladder, through a very low 4 m long tunnel and again up a 20 m high ladder. This is the most challenging tour in the park.

Step House is generally visited together with the Long House. It is unique because there is clear evidence of two separate occupations. Beneath the Pueblo occupation around 1225 there are the remains of a Modified Basketmaker site, dating 600 years earlier.

Mesa Verde Gallery