You can drive along 700 years of history at Mesa Verde National Park

One look at the iconic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and it’s easy to imagine the lives that once bustled within them.

In a free audio tour visitors can download, park ranger Thelma Jean Atsye, who is Laguna Pueblo, says, “I hope that when you hear our stories, you will begin to see these places as we do — not as ruins, but as homes.”

There are more than 600 cliff dwellings within the park, which visitors can appreciate from a distance or up close on tours.

Here’s what travelers should know about Mesa Verde, the latest national park in USA TODAY’s yearlong series.

Why is Mesa Verde so famous?

Mesa Verde is famous for its Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings, like Cliff Palace.

“They’re some of the most magnificent examples of architecture in our country from (nearly 1,000) years ago,” the park’s Chief of Interpretation, Kristy Sholly, told USA TODAY.

But they’re not the only places people lived. According to the park’s website, the Ancestral Pueblo lived on the mesa tops for 600 years before moving into the cliffs and continued to farm on mesa tops even afterward.

Long House is located in the western part of Mesa Verde National Park.

Long House is located in the western part of Mesa Verde National Park.

Why was Mesa Verde abandoned?

“We don’t really have a lot of answers to why they might have left the Mesa Verde region; we have ideas,” Sholly said. “But obviously the people that were living in the Mesa Verde area are still in the region today. They just moved to areas south.”

There are 26 Native tribes historically tied to Mesa Verde:

  • The 19 Pueblos of New Mexico: Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Sandia, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni

  • Hopi Tribe in Arizona

  • Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico

  • Navajo Nation in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico

  • Northern Ute in Utah

  • Southern Ute in Colorado

  • Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado

  • Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas

With 130 rooms, Spruce Tree House is thought to have housed 60 to 80 people, according to the park.

With 130 rooms, Spruce Tree House is thought to have housed 60 to 80 people, according to the park.

Can you go inside Mesa Verde?

Yes. From Oct. 23 through April 30, the park entrance fee is $20 per private vehicle. From May 1 through Oct. 22, that fee goes up to $30. Travelers can buy passes in advance online. Those who prefer to pay in person should know that only debit cards and credit cards are accepted at the park entrance.

Plastic please: What to know as more national parks go cashless

Can you drive through Mesa Verde?

Visitors can drive into Mesa Verde, but not all the way through it.

“It’s an out and back,” Sholly said. “You really have to drive the full like 20 miles up into the park to really get into the ancestral sites and then you’re going to be driving the same amount of time out.”

Visitors who are tight on time should budget for at least an hour’s drive, each way.

Mesa Verde's Balcony House is only accessible by ranger-led tour.

Mesa Verde’s Balcony House is only accessible by ranger-led tour.

Can you see Mesa Verde cliff dwellings from the road?

Yes. Visitors can see various cliff dwellings along Cliff Palace Loop Road and Mesa Top Loop Road.

“It’s been set up to really see 700 years of architectural history on Mesa Top Loop,” Sholly said. “And there’s accessible overlooks where you can just get out of your car, look down into the canyon and actually see them there along the drive.”

Can you do Mesa Verde in a day?

Sholly recommends spending one to two days in the park, noting that there are lots of other things to see nearby.

Visitors who want to spend the night in Mesa Verde can camp or between April and October, stay at Far View Lodge onsite.

Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde's largest cliff dwelling with 150 rooms, according to the park.

Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling with 150 rooms, according to the park.

What is the closest city to Mesa Verde?

The town of Mancos is the closest community to the park, but Sholly said, “There’s not as many hotels and restaurants there.”

Cortez is about 10 miles away. Durango, which is larger, is about 35 miles away. Both offer numerous visitor services.

Durango-La Plata County Airport offers regional service on American Airlines and United Airlines.

What is the best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park?

“It’s great to come (in summer) when everything’s in full swing, but I would say probably early June or September when it’s a little bit cooler,” Sholly said.

She said the summer heat combined with the park’s elevation can be challenging for people who aren’t used to it.

“People will come from sea level … and then suddenly they’re at 7,000 feet. There’s less oxygen,” she said. “They get a lot more dehydrated more quickly, and we do find that there’s a lot more medical issues when people are trying to adjust to the elevation and the heat.”

She recommended all visitors drink plenty of water and avoid traveling during the hottest times of day.

Square Tower House glowed for 2018's Luminaria Holiday Open House at Mesa Verde National Park.

Square Tower House glowed for 2018’s Luminaria Holiday Open House at Mesa Verde National Park.

What do I need to know before going to Mesa Verde National Park?

“There’s a lot of really great self-guided experiences at Mesa Verde,” Sholly said. “We do offer talks every day that are free to the public.”

But the only way visitors can enter cliff dwellings is on a ticketed ranger-led tour. The 2024 tour season begins on May 12. Prices will be posted on when tickets go on sale, two weeks in advance.

“I think that even without the ranger-led tour, there’s still a lot to experience at Mesa Verde,” Sholly said, calling out hiking opportunities and noting that the park was actually set aside for some of its scenic wilderness, not just cliff dwellings.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mesa Verde National Park is a snapshot in time. What travelers find.

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