Great family getaway: Mesa Verde National Park

A place of wind and relics, of ghosts and the ruins of a vanished people, Mesa Verde is unique among our national parks: It's about us. Photo: James Picht

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colorado, August 8, 2011 — “We’re going to die.”

That was Harlan’s take on our situation. We were on a three-mile hike to see some Anasazi petroglyphs. The steep and narrow trail led from the bottom of a canyon up to the top of a mesa. It was hot, we’d consumed half our water, the last people we’d seen were collapsed and miserable under an overhang, and there were no petroglyphs in sight.

“I’ll bet we’re not even on the trail. Really, we need to turn back now or we’re going to die. Please!” There was real note of panic in his voice. All our dire warnings about people dying when they leave the trails had clearly sunk in. So too had all the stories of tragic death Lisa read to us on our way from the Grand Canyon to Canyon de Chelly to Mesa Verde in a delightful book, Over the Edge. Now it was time for some fatherly reassurance.

Small ruin on the way to the petroglyphs. (Photo: James Picht)

Small ruin on the way to the petroglyphs. (Photo: James Picht)

“Harlan, we’re not going to die. We have more than enough water, and I know exactly where we are. Anyway, look at the ground.” There were clear impressions of sneaker-clad feet in the dust. “We’re not the only ones on the trail. If we run out of water, someone will probably find us before we die. Now lighten up and enjoy the hike!”

Whether it was my pep-talk or the footprints in the dust, Harlan lightened up. And fifteen minutes later, we found the petroglyphs.

Mesa Verde National Park is in southwest Colorado, half an hour west of Durango, just east of Cortez. From the park entrance to the visitors’ center is a half hour drive up the side of a mountain. The views are spectacular (and if you’re driving, wait to enjoy them when you park at an overlook - did I mention that the road is on the side of a mountain?). As beautiful as they are, though, the views aren’t the main attraction at Mesa Verde. The Anasazi ruins are.

There are more than 600 cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and thousands of archaeological sites. Most of the cliff dwellings are small and not marked on the map. We passed two small ruins on our way to the petroglyphs, surprise gifts on our way to the main event. More cliff dwellings were discovered in the aftermath of the great fires that engulfed the park several years ago. Most of the park’s ruins are open only to archaeologists and are off limits to visitors. They’re a thousand years old and fragile and should be admired at arm’s length.

At the visitors’ center you can get tickets for ranger-guided tours of the few cliff dwellings that are open to the public. This allows the Park Service to restrict the number of visitors to each site. These are sites that have been stabilized to minimize the risk that you’ll be crushed under a collapsing wall. By mid morning the line for tickets is long, and the tickets for the most popular ruins, like the Cliff Palace, go quickly.

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde. (Photo: James Picht)

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde. (Photo: James Picht)


Visiting any of the ticketed ruins involves climbing up and down ladders, some of them moderately long, and a couple require you to crawl through narrow spaces. The Anasazi were very small people. If you worry that you’re too husky to crawl through their dwellings, there’s a sample passage you can try before you go out to the ruins. It’s undignified, but probably less embarrassing than getting stuck in a rock passage.

If you don’t want to stand in line, climb ladders or crawl through cliff dwellings, there’s one large ruin, the Spruce Tree House, that you can visit without a ticket and with no more exertion than a half-mile hike on a paved path from the park’s museum. You can’t actually walk through the Spruce Tree House, but you can walk right up to it and touch its edges. The path is only moderately steep, but it’s at an altitude of 7,000 feet. If you’re not accustomed to the altitude, take it easy, take water, and use a lot of sunscreen.

The petroglyph trail splits off from the Spruce Tree House trail. Visitors are encouraged to sign in at the trail head. At the end of the day, the park rangers can check the sign-in log with any cars left in the parking lot. If your car is still there, they’ll know where you went and can come looking for you. Don’t let that put you off; small children and the elderly successfully hike that trail, and if you can climb steep steps, squeeze through an 18-inch gap between boulders, and walk for three hours under a merciless sun, it’s a piece of cake.

From the petroglyphs we climbed to the top of the mesa, then walked along its edge back to the museum. Along the way we passed a young man taking bottles of water back to the people who were collapsed under the overhang. We refilled our water bottles at the water fountain and emptied them a couple of times. We’d taken barely enough water and were eager to re-hydrate. In spite of SPF70 sunscreen, we were all a little red. Harlan burns easily, and we made a note that next time we go to Mesa Verde, he’ll wear so much sunscreen that he looks like a mime.

My parents had joined us on this outing, and my mom insisted that we further cool down with ice cream at the restaurant/gift shop across the parking lot from the museum.

The gift shop has some beautiful pottery, jewelry, and Navajo blankets, in addition to less expensive tourist items. I priced some high-end pieces and compared them to similar objects in Taos and Durango (I found some of the same artists for better comparison); the gift shop was competitive on price and quality. Only the blankets seemed a bit more expensive, and not as fine as some in Durango’s galleries. I stared lovingly at a striking $300 lizard pot, but then I thought about Catherine’s braces and my cluttered curio cabinets and fell out of love.

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde. (Photo: James Picht)

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde. (Photo: James Picht)


We spent the rest of the day driving around the rim of one of the mesas (Mesa Verde isn’t a single mesa), stopping at scenic overlooks to admire ruins that are closed to the public. At one outlook we could see five major cliff dwellings stretching across miles of cliff face.

Taken alone, the Anasazi ruins aren’t as grand as Europe’s cathedrals, and in fact they’re very humble, but in their cliff settings they’re as moving and as breath-taking as anything Europe has produced. The fusion of landscape and artifact, wind and silence and dry, clear light creates a deep and haunting impression. Mesa Verde is a place of harsh and lonely beauty. It’s a place of ghosts.

There’s a guest lodge in the park, as well as camping and RV hookups. It’s an easy drive from Durango, which has an abundance of motels, hotels and camping for every price range, as well as outstanding restaurants, shopping and recreational facilities. There are numerous lodges, campgrounds and B&Bs between Durango and Mesa Verde and on to Cortez. You can get a good feel for Mesa Verde in a day, but it will be a long and exhausting day. Like most of the national parks, it rewards the visitor who has the time and patience for a longer stay.

If you go to the Four Corners area, Mesa Verde is a must-visit.

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the French professor, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade and chili-chocolate cupcakes. He plans to drag his kids to every national park in the southwest. He tweets and has a badly neglected blog at

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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