Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park sees more than half a million visitors each year

This area constitutes over 4,000 archaeological sites of the Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived here and elsewhere in the Four Corners region for at least 700 years. Mesa Verde National Park is home to cliff dwellings built in the 12th and 13th centuries including Cliff Palace, which has 150 rooms and 23 kivas, and the Balcony House, with its many passages and tunnels.


The geologic features of the park

The first Spanish explorers to the area called it Mesa Verde, or “green table.” This expression is actually a misnomer. The correct geological term for the area is a cuesta, not a mesa. Mesas are isolated, flat-topped highlands with steeply sloping sides or cliffs, and are topped by a cap of much harder rocks that are resistant to erosion. The cap protects the softer underlying slopes or cliffs from being quickly weathered away. The only difference between a cuesta and a mesa is that a cuesta gently dips in one direction. Mesa Verde is inclined slightly to the south at about a seven degree angle. This cuesta is made up of many separate, smaller “mesas” situated between the canyons. Although technically we should call the park “Cuesta Verde,” convention dictates that we use the term “mesa” when describing the area.

The seven degree angle of Mesa Verde is essential to the formation of the alcoves in which most of the cliff dwellings are found. The alcoves provided the spectacular preservation of this architecture. Alcoves are large, arched recessions formed in a cliff wall.

An alcove is not the same as a cave. Caves are underground chambers, not found in Mesa Verde. Alcove formation is caused by water that seeps into cracks, freezing and thawing in them, eventually expanding and slowly pushing the rock apart. These portions fall off in blocks, creating the alcoves you now see. These blocks of sandstone were shaped and used by the Ancestral Puebloans in the construction of their homes.

Alcove formation is assisted by water that is absorbed into and percolates through pores in the sandstone. The water eventually reaches a layer of shale, which is much less porous, or absorbent, than the sandstone. The water cannot easily pass through the shale, and so gravity guides it along the top of this layer to the cliff face. Seep springs are found where the water emerges from the cliff face, directly above the shale layer. These seeps provided a continuous source of water for the residents of the alcoves.

The water comes in constant contact with the sandstone in these areas and dissolves the calcium carbonate that holds the sandstone together. Eventually this causes the sandstone to fall apart and crumble into individual grains of sand. The grains are washed away during rainstorms or blown away by the wind. This silt and sand was used by the Ancestral Puebloans as part of their mortar mix. A side view of the alcoves reveals that they are c-shaped. This made it necessary for the Ancestral Puebloans to backfill the floors of the alcoves to obtain a flat surface for building. The process of alcove formation continues today, which is one reason that stabilization work is an important part of the preservation efforts at Mesa Verde.

Places to view seep springs: Active seep springs are located along the trail to Spruce Tree House, on the trail to and within Balcony House, as well as in Long House.

Places to view alcoves: The largest alcoves at Mesa Verde contain cliff dwellings, and can been seen at Cliff Palace, Hemenway House, Spruce Tree House, Long House, and Step House.

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Native American History

Ancestral Pueblo People of Mesa Verde

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture.

Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures

The National Park Service preserves historic places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage. The newest online travel itinerary, Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures, takes you to more than 150 of these sites. Learn about the many diverse peoples who have played a role in American history, and the places that preserve and tell their stories. Use the itinerary to find maps, information, images, and essays from prominent historians; or to plan a visit.

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Park History

How Mesa Verde became a National Park

On June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to “preserve the works of man,” the first national park of its kind. Today, the continued preservation of both cultural and natural resources is the focus of the park’s research and resource management staff.

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The best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park


Plan to spend at least four hours at Mesa Verde. Two hours of this time will be spent driving in and out of the park.

Your first stop should be at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (at the park entrance) for information and orientation.
Visit the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, view Spruce Tree House nearby -and- drive the Mesa Top Loop Road (six-mile loop).


Stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (at the park entrance) to purchase tickets to visit Cliff Palace or Balcony House.
Drive the Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop Road. If you plan to visit Cliff Palace or Balcony House, be sure to purchase your tickets at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center first.
Visit the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, view Spruce Tree House nearby -and- drive the Mesa Top Loop Road (six-mile loop).
Hike the Far View Sites Complex.

IF YOU HAVE ONE DAY (alternative)…

Stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (at the park entrance) to purchase tickets to visit Long House on Wetherill Mesa.
Take the Wetherill Mesa Drive and hike or bicycle the trails to the mesa top sites and cliff dwelling overlooks.
Join a ranger for your ticketed tour to Long House. Be sure to purchase your tickets at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center before driving to Wetherill Mesa.
Take a self-guided tour of Step House.

IF YOU HAVE TWO DAYS OR MORE (one day activities plus)…

Stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (at the park entrance) to purchase tickets to visit all three cliff dwellings (Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House).
Hike one or more of Mesa Verde’s hiking trails.

Do you have more time, enjoy other interests, or simply want to mix things up a bit? Here are additional ideas that cover a variety of activities you can do in the park.

•Cliff Dwelling Guided Tours
•Backcountry Guided Hikes
•Evening Programs
•Exploring On Your Own
•Hiking Trails
•Winter Activities

•Bird Watching
•Four Corners Lecture Series
•Geologic Views
•Observing Wildlife

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Mesa Verde National Park supports four major plant communities, all of which fall within the semi-arid Transitional and Upper Sonoran Live Zones

Shrub-steppe community
The shrub-steppe community in the lower elevations is dominated by big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and several herbaceous species. It flourishes in dry canyon bottoms, in burned areas, and in the transition zone between the mountain shrub community and the pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Pinyon-juniper woodland
The pinyon-juniper woodland is dominated by Utah juniper and Colorado pinyon pine. This community is also known as the “pygmy forest,” as both of these tree species rarely exceed 30 feet in height. This community at Mesa Verde includes champion sized and very old trees such as a Utah juniper tree with a trunk 52 inches in diameter, largest in all of Colorado, and another dated at 1,300 years old. Where the trees’ dense growth is sparse enough to permit an understory, it is largely composed of bunch grasses, broad-leafed yucca, and prickly pear cactus. Until its acreage in the park was cut in half by wildfires in recent years, this was the most widespread plant community in the park. It covers the mesa tops and upper canyon slopes lying at or below 7,800 feet in elevation. For more information on this plant community, visit Series: Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands.

Mountain shrub community
The mountain shrub community stretches across the park from east to west, in a broad swath which extends several miles south from the north rim of the cuesta, at elevations above 7500 feet. Typical plant species here include Gambel oak, Utah serviceberry, mountain mahogany, cliff fendlerbush, and various bunch grasses and flowering perennials.

Gambel oak and Douglas-fir woodland
The Gambel oak-Douglas-fir woodland is found at higher elevations along the north rim and in sheltered areas in some canyons. A few relic stands of quaking aspen occur at higher elevations. Before the wildfires of the past decade, Ponderosa pines grew in areas of acidic soil in 45 localities throughout the park. The recent fires have heavily impacted both Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pines at Mesa Verde.

Seep spring (near Spruce Tree House) provides a moist microclimate for additional plant species.
Although most of the land within the park boundaries is semi-arid to mesic, there is a riparian zone along both banks of the Mancos River which forms a 4.7-mile long moist corridor of the eastern boundary. Common species in this riparian zone include cottonwood, willow, and buffaloberry. There are also some 282 seep springs which flow from between the rock juncture of Cliff House sandstone and Menefee Formation shale. Many of these create moist microclimates for more moisture loving species including mosses, orchids, and ferns.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program and The Nature Conservancy have classified all of Mesa Verde National Park within their Network of Conservation Areas (NCA) because of exceptional occurrences of rare plant and animal species. There are also two smaller sections within their Potential Conservation Areas (PCA) system totaling 26,442 acres because of outstanding biological diversity related to rare plant species.

Over 640 species of plants occur in Mesa Verde National Park. These include approximately 556 species of vascular plants, 75 species of fungi, 21 species of moss, and 151 species of lichen. In addition, a number of rare endemic species occur in Mesa Verde that are found nowhere else, some rated by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program as Critically Imperiled Globally. Endemics include Cliff Palace milkvetch, Schmoll’s milkvetch, Mesa Verde wandering aletes, and Mesa Verde stickseed. There are also about 80 species of non-native plants that have invaded the park, some of which have been classified as invasive, noxious weeds which, by law, means they must be controlled.

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Animal Life

Mesa Verde contains several habitats that support a great diversity of resident and migratory wildlife

Mesa Verde contains several habitats that support a great diversity of resident and migratory wildlife. The park has been named a Colorado Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society, and has two Protected Activity Centers and three breeding Core Areas for the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl totaling 5,312 acres. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program and The Nature Conservancy have classified all of Mesa Verde National Park within their Network of Conservation Areas (NCA) because of exceptional occurrences of rare plant and animal species.

The park’s geographic isolation and its location in a geographic transition zone, help provide niches for this wide variety of animal species. Currently, about 74 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 16 species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, six species of fishes (four of which are native), and over 1,000 species of insects and other invertebrates spend at least part of the year within park boundaries. Some animal species, such as the native fishes and amphibians, are confined to rather narrow econiches in a single biotic community. Others, such as coyote, deer, and other large mammals, are found in a wide range of habitats.

Ecological relationships, such as with the rare Black Swallowtail Butterfly who’s larvae feed on one of the park’s rare endemic plants, the Mesa Verde Wandering Aletes, are found in the park. If we lose the plant, the butterfly may disappear as well. Some insects found in Mesa Verde and Yucca House in recent years are entirely new to Colorado and to science or to Colorado, such as the Mesa Verde tiger beetle and the Anasazi digger bee.

As you visit Mesa Verde, please remember that approaching, feeding, harassing, hunting, trapping or capturing any wild animal in the park is against the law.

For lists of species found in Mesa Verde National Park, visit the Mammals, Birds, and Reptiles/Amphibians/Fish pages.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Mesa Verde National Park


Prater Ridge Trail
Prater Ridge Trail 7.8 miles, round-trip
Begins on the west end of Morefield Campground. The trail ascends Prater Ridge and follows a loop around the top of the ridge, returning via the same route. A cut-off trail can be taken which shortens the trail to five miles.
Natural History: Changes in elevation and vegetation along with views of the surrounding area are highlights of this trail.

Knife Edge Trail
Knife Edge Trail 2 miles, round-trip
The trail follows a section of the old Knife Edge Road, from the northwest corner of Morefield Campground towards the Montezuma Valley Overlook. This trail provides good views of Montezuma Valley. Trail guide available.
Cultural History: Built in 1914 as the main access into the park, old-timers still proudly talk about what a feat it was to build, or “hang,” a road on this steep bluff.

Point Lookout Trail
Point Lookout Trail 2.2 miles, round-trip
The trail switchbacks up the back side of Point Lookout and traverses the top of the mesa. This trail provides excellent views of both Montezuma and Mancos valleys, as well as the surrounding countryside.


Petroglyph Point Trail
Petroglyph Point Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip
This adventurous trail provides excellent views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and takes you past a large petroglyph panel located 1.4 miles (2.3 km) from the trailhead. The trail is narrow, rugged, and rocky, with several steep drop-offs along the canyon wall on the way to the petroglyph panel. After the panel, you’ll scramble up a large stone staircase using hands and feet to climb to the top, then enjoy an easy return through forest to complete the loop. The trailhead is located near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Please contact a ranger for times the gate above the trailhead is open. Trail guide available. Registration at the trailhead or museum is required.

Spruce Canyon Trail
Spruce Canyon Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip
Begins from the Spruce Tree House trail, follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon, turns up Spruce Canyon, and returns to the museum via the picnic area. The trailhead is located near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Please contact a ranger for times the gate above the trailhead is open. Registration at the trailhead or museum is required.
Natural History: The Spruce Canyon Trail offers an opportunity to explore the canyon bottoms of Mesa Verde and discover the plants and wildlife that live in this habitat.

Soda Canyon Overlook Trail
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail 1.2 miles, round-trip
Begins one mile north of the Balcony House parking area along the Cliff Palace Loop Road. The trail is an easy walk to the canyon edge and offers views of Balcony House and other archeological sites along Soda Canyon.
Natural History: The trail goes through big sagebrush, Utah juniper, yucca, and gambel oak.This is a fairly low-growing, open area and will be hot in the summer.

Farming Terrace Trail
Farming Terrace Trail .5 mile, round-trip
Beginning and ending on the spur road to Cedar Tree Tower, this 1/2 mile loop leads to a series of prehistoric check dams built by the Ancestral Puebloans to create farming terraces.
Natural History: This trail is a good place to look for lizards, hummingbirds, and a wide variety of plants.


Nordenskiold Site No. 16 Trail 2 miles, round-trip from information kiosk
This trail offers a leisurely stroll on the quietest trail in Mesa Verde, and leads to an overlook of Nordenskiold Site No. 16. The 2000 Pony Fire severely burned this area. As a result, there is no shade available along the trail. Cultural History: In 1891, 23-year old Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold visited Mesa Verde. Using painstaking field methods for his time, he excavated many sites, including this one. His book, “The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde,” was the first extensive examination and photographic record of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings.

Badger House Community Trail 2.25 miles round-trip from information kiosk
This combination gravel and paved trail begins at the information kiosk and winds through four mesa top sites, covering 600 years of occupation.

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