Mesa Verde National Park

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83° 62°
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Mesa Verde National Park Overview

Peering carefully over the edge of a steep desert canyon, you see them: buildings as high as many in use today, clinging to or chiseled out of the rock walls below. At first you see only broken lines of stone, circular amphitheater-like enclosures and wide passageways—then, in an instant, all before you transforms. Suddenly there are people, brightly clad, busy and contented, bustling along within what are clearly streets, homes, and gathering places. These canyons are not just precipitous faces of sandy rock; they are a portal to human history.

Around 14 centuries ago, the nomadic Ancestral Puebloans chose to settle down and build permanent homes near their planted crops. As the tribe prospered, members migrated outward to build "cliff dwellings" in a variety of locations—Mesa Verde chief among them. From this network of cities, Ancestral Puebloan culture flourished for hundreds of years. Then, approximately 400 to 500 years ago, the Ancestral Puebloans vanished suddenly and mysteriously.

Today, Mesa Verde is one of the premier archaeological preserves in the U.S. park system and a walk-in time machine. Strolling among these once-thriving settlements will transport you to another world.

For the most fun in Mesa Verde, try these GORP picks:

Hike amid Petroglyphs
Mesa Verde is first and foremost an archaeological preserve, which means that access to the park's natural resources is restricted out of consideration for its many ruins. All hiking within the park is restricted to six marked and paved trails, which range from one to nearly seven miles in length: Knife Edge Trail, Prater Ridge Trail, Point Lookout Trail, Spruce Canyon Trail, Soda Canyon Overlook Trail, and Petroglyph Point Hike. These hikes, however short, can be steep and strenuous. If you don't have the time or the energy to try them all, try the trail to Petroglyph Point—its Ancestral Puebloans petroglyphs and big views best capture the spirit of the park.

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Bike Ancestral Puebloans Country
Southwestern Colorado has some of the best and most scenic mountain biking in the United States. But within the park, biking is permitted on paved roads only (and there are no designated bike lanes, so watch for cars and use caution). If you're determined to ride off-road Ancestral Puebloan territory, try contacting the Ute Mountain Tribal Park (800-847-5485). The park, which sprawls across 125,000 acres just southeast of Mesa Verde, offers guided one- to four-day mountain biking trips.

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Camp with the Critters
Mesa Verde's Morefield Campground is the only one available in the park, but you won't mind not having a choice—Morefield is undoubtedly one of the largest and most enjoyable campgrounds in the entire national parks system. Located four miles from the park entrance, the campground has 400 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Rangers deliver nightly presentations in the large amphitheater located in the upper portion of the campground. Be sure to safely stow away food before settling in for the night—Mesa Verde's most brazen animal residents love to visit the campground.

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Ski the Sights
When conditions are right, the best way to see Mesa Verde's ruins is on cross-country skis. Except for the five-mile entrance road to the Far View Visitor's Center, no roads within the park are plowed in the winter, and all are wide-open to skiers. There are also skiable areas around Morefield Campground, or for a longer trip, Ruin Road's Balcony House Loop forms a scenic six-mile trail. Keep in mind that snowfall in this region of Southwestern Colorado is normally light. Before you make your travel plans, call the park to find out when is the right time to catch the best snow.

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Live the Wildlife
Mesa Verde National Park is an animal lover's paradise. The park is home to more than 200 kinds of birds, including golden eagles, great horned owls, sharp-skinned hawks, and a lovely variety of hummingbirds. You also stand a good chance of seeing rock squirrels, cottontail rabbits, coyotes, mountain lions, tarantulas, and bullsnakes. Camp at Morefield Campground and you may be visited by a flock of Merriam's turkeys, which were prized by the Ancestral Puebloans for their feathers.

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