Mesa Verde National Park (map), UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma County, Colorado. With more than 5,000 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.
Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
In 1889, Goodman Point Pueblo became the first pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Mesa Verde region to gain federal protection. It was the first such site to be protected in the US.
The major attractions in the park can be seen in just a half day, while longer visits will allow time to explore some of the less busy ruins and to take time to visit rock writings.
The entrance to Mesa Verde National Park (map) is on U.S. Route 160, approximately 9 miles (14 km) east of the community of Cortez and 7 miles (11 km) west of Mancos, Colorado. Chapin Mesa (the most popular area, map) is 20 miles (32 km) beyond the visitor center.
Mesa Verde is something of a seasonal park. While it is open year round, to get the true experience it is best to visit when the park is fully open, from April through October. Three of the cliff dwellings on Chapin Mesa are open to the public. The Chapin Mesa Museum (map) is open all year. Spruce Tree House (map) is also open all year, weather permitting. Balcony House (map), Long House (map) and Cliff Palace require tour tickets for ranger-guided tours.
Many other dwellings are visible from the road but not open to tourists. The park offers hiking trails, a campground, and, during peak season, facilities for food, fuel, and lodging; these are unavailable in the winter.
Mesa Verde offers several designated hiking trails. Backcountry hiking or overnight backpacking is not allowed, so as to protect the natural and archeological sites in the park. All the trails (except Soda Canyon Overlook and Knife Edge) are strenuous and involve steep elevation changes. Some trails offer little shade, and it can get pretty hot in the summer, so be sure to take along lots of water.