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Discovering Ancient Wonders: A Guide to Exploring Puebloan Dwellings Near Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Nestled in the southwest corner of Colorado, the region surrounding Mesa Verde National Park holds a treasure trove of ancient ruins. Nearly 1,500 years ago the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly referred to as the Anasazi culture) chose the Mesa Verde region as their homesite. For over 750 years the people farmed, built houses, worshipped and raised their families. Then one day, about 700 years go, they mysteriously left, leaving their expansive and astonishing cliff dwellings behind. Whether you are visiting Mesa Verde for the first time, or an experienced explorer of the region, use this Mesa Verde travel guide to ensure you visit every site to take in the incredible cultural heritage of the ancient peoples.

The word "anasazi" comes from the Navajo language and means "ancient enemy." This is what other peoples called the Ancestral Puebloan and is not what their descendants want to be called. When visiting Mesa Verde National Park and other similar sites, use Ancestral Puebloan or Puebloan to refer to the peoples that built these incredible dwellings.

Saddlehorn Pueblo, an ancestral Pueblan cliff dwelling in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, Colorado.
Saddlehorn Pueblo

Mesa Verde National Park: A Cultural Gem

Established in 1906, Mesa Verde National Park holds the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing heritage tourism enthusiasts from around the globe. The first national park in the United States created to protect human structures, this park boasts nearly 5,000 archeological sites that range from 1,500 to 700 years old. Visitors to Mesa Verde National Park can explore the park's numerous hiking trails, each offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape and revealing the ingenuity of its former inhabitants. Entry into the Park is only $30 per vehicle. Make sure to visit the Farview Sites while you are there. These are some of the older sites in the park, and usually less visited by tourists.

Mesa Verde Park Tours: Going into the Cliff Dwellings

From May through October, Mesa Verde National Park offers ranger led tours of several cliff dwellings including the famous Cliff Palace. (In 2024, tours will start on May 12th). These tours cost just $8 per person and provide a deeper understanding of the Puebloan culture and the history of the Mesa Verde region. I highly recommend booking a guided tour directly with the National Park Service. Guided tours into the cliff dwellings are limited and can only be conducted by a park ranger.  Several tour companies out of Durango, Colorado offer “Mesa Verde tours,” but these are just a more expensive version of the tour you could’ve planned and purchased yourself.

Southwest Adventure: Tips for a Memorable Visit

If you are booking a tour in Mesa Verde, make sure to follow these recommendations:

  • Get your tickets early! Ranger-led tours are very popular, and booking opens two weeks in advance - so mark your calendar and get those tickets!

  • Research which tours you want to take ahead of time. It is possible to do two tours in one day, but make sure you know how long it will take to get from site to site. (In 2023, we did the Balcony House Tour followed a couple hours later by the Cliff Palace Tour). 

  • Print your tour tickets ahead of time. Cell service is very limited in Mesa Verde National Park, so you cannot rely on looking tickets up.

  • Arrive at the tour location early. 

  • Wear comfortable & sturdy hiking shoes.

  • Bring water and sun protection.

Exploring Cliff Dwellings: A Journey Through Time

While you are visiting Mesa Verde National Park and Cortez, Colorado, make sure to check out these lesser known Puebloan dwellings too!

Hovenweep National Monument is an impressive series of sites, less than an hour drive from Cortez, Colorado. Once home to over 2,500 people, you can visit Hovenweep for $20, hike multiple trails, and see the impressive remnants of ancient towers. 

Lowry Pueblo is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Four Corners region. You can visit this 1,000 year old ruin on your own, but I highly recommend booking a tour with Southwest Colorado Canyons Alliance.

Hawkins Pueblo in Cortez, Colorado

Hawkins Pueblo, a 1,200 year-old Puebloan dwelling, sits unceremoniously in the middle of a nature preserve in the middle of the City of Cortez. Hawkins Preserve is open to the public and free of charge, so you can visit this site for free, but if you’d like more context around this specific site you can book a tour with Cortez Tours.

Preserving the Past: Visit with Respect

Care For Colorado Coalition

As you explore Mesa Verde National Park and southwest Colorado make sure to follow these Leave No Trace principles to protect theses historical sites and natural resources for the next visitor:

  • Stay outside and away from ancient ruins (unless being guided by a certified ranger).

  • Don't touch ancient structures.

  • Stay on designated trails.

  • Leave stones, rocks, soil, wildflowers, pottery sherds, or other artifacts where you found them.

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