Cliff Palace, one of 600 cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is located in Southwestern Colorado, exactly 1,000 miles from the Berryville Town Square. It takes about 86 gallons of gas to get there and back if you're driving a modestly efficient automobile. Why bother to spend the time and money going there?
First off, Mesa Verde (which means "green table" in Spanish) is a complete change of scenery from Carroll County, Arkansas. On the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, Mesa Verde ranges between 6,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level and is comprised of 82 square miles of breathtaking points of view, abundant animal life, and semi-arid vegetation and rock formations. It is an astonishingly beautiful, if sometimes ghostly, place to visit.
Secondly, Mesa Verde has the largest number of cliff dwellings and mesa top villages made from adobe in the United States. These structures were built by the Anasazi people, ancestors to today's Navaho, Hopi, and Ute tribes. There are about 4,000 archeological and 600 cliff dwellings in the park. If you are at all interested in Native American history, archeology, or indigenous art (specifically baskets and pottery) there is probably no more interesting place anywhere within a couple of day's drive.
The cliff dwellings and village sites are accessible either as self-guided tours, or guided by Park Rangers. These latter tours are especially interesting because the Rangers are abundant sources of information about the history and daily lives of the ancestral people who lived there. For example, we learned that the Anasazi people and their tribal descendants are matriarchal societies with property handed down from mother to daughter.
A word of caution: hiking at Mesa Verde, and any of the tours whether self-guided or Ranger directed, require good general health. Trails go up and down steeply and visiting the cliff dwellings demands climbing up and down ladders and narrow trails that quickly rise and fall more than 100 feet at a time. This can be especially challenging in the Park's high altitude.
Lodging is available at the Park at the Far View Lodge for about $135 a night. The rooms are very nice, if small, and guests are afforded late and early day visits by legions of mule deer. There are no televisions or telephones in guest rooms. Dining and full bar service are available at the Metate restaurant. We had a very good meal for 2 for around $75.00. There are excellent gift stores and coffee shops for breakfast and lunch, and an adequate Visitor's Center.
We spent two days at the Park. We could have spent at least one more but didn't because we wanted to visit Taos, after an absence of 25 years. We're sorry we did: Taos is a mess of traffic and tourists and was disappointing in contrast to our memories of the fairly sleepy small artist's town of long ago. Next time we go we'll spend 3 days at the Park and skip Taos entirely.
The best way to get to Mesa Verde is to grab Highway 412 just south of town and take it to the New Mexico border. There, hop on Interstate 25 for fifty miles and then turn left on 160 all the way to Mesa Verde. Highway 160 may be the most beautiful highway in the United States; you'll climb high over the Rockies, cross the Continental Divide, and pass through some very lovely little towns before arriving at the Mesa Verde National Park entrance.