Story and Photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Nestled in the southwestern corner of Colorado sits the first and (almost) the only national park established to protect the works of man, rather than Nature, the fascinating Mesa Verde.
Hidden for centuries and unknown to Europeans until a couple of cowboys looking for strays stumbled upon it in 1888, this treasure trove of Native American history includes several thousand structures, both simple and complex, that were built here spanning a period that is estimated to have lasted from perhaps 600 to about 1300 C.E.
The Anasazi, more recently dubbed Ancestral Puebloans, the people who lived here, managed to create a society that was quite complex and advanced for its time.
The majority of the structures and their remains are on the mesa tops, but the most fascinating and certainly photogenic are the 500-600 cliff dwellings carved into the bare rock in many natural alcoves just below the surface. Even after a good deal of scholarly investigation, no one today can be certain why these people left or where they went.
Mesa Verde is located right along Rt. 160 between Cortez and the wonderfully preserved town of Durango, CO. Just inside the park entrance is the new visitor center where you will need to get your tour tickets for several of the best cliff dwellings. The sites you will want to visit are in two distinct areas: Chapin Mesa and the less visited Wetherill Mesa. The road to the latter is open only from May thru September.
For a good introduction, start with easily accessed Spruce Tree Ruin, located just below the Chapin Mesa Museum. Walk the short self-guiding trail, talk to a ranger, descend the ladder into the subterranean kiva.
On the Chapin Mesa tabletop, drive the Cliff Palace Loop and the rim drive for long distance views of many cliff dwellings built just below the mesa top. In this area, the major “do not miss” sites include Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours (advance tickets required) and external views of these two as well as Square Tower House and Sun Point.
Balcony House and Sun Point are best at first light, while Cliff Palace will look its best in late light and Square Tower House Overlook around sunset. Limited access into Square Tower House may be offered as well. Inquire at the visitor center. If time permits, also walk the Petroglyph Point trail.
A special word about famed Cliff Palace. This was the very first and certainly the grandest structure sighted and explored by the Wetherill brothers back in 1888. It remains so and is by far the pre-eminent feature of Mesa Verde National Park. It is well worth setting aside a little extra time to explore Cliff Palace.
If you visit Mesa Verde during the busy summer season, drive the short road out to Wetherill Mesa. This special area has a somewhat different feel to it and offers several photo opportunities. Take the self-guided trail through Step House and the ranger-guided tour through Long House (advance ticket required). The tram tour of Wetherill Mesa is not for serious photography, but can be fun.
A somewhat rough trail to the Nordenskiold Site may be open to visitors. Ask at the visitor center. While at Mesa Verde, just a short drive away you will find Hovenweep National Monument with its many varied Puebloan towers. A very worthwhile stop.
While Durango has a small commuter airport, the closest major airport is Denver. Durango is a fun
and very charming town with ample lodging. Its nineteenth century train station is the departure point for the great Durango-Silverton train ride through the Animas River Gorge. Take this train ride if you can spare the time. Cortez, CO is a little closer to both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep and offers a wider choice of motels, but without the Old West ambiance.
Wherever you roam in this special area of the great Southwest, almost all roads are well paved and smooth, so renting a standard passenger car will be just fine.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras and has been awarded Artist Residencies in several national parks. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.