Southwest Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park: Cliff Palace
Mesa Verde is only 2.5 hours from Ouray
When planning a Colorado vacation, besides visiting Ouray, many people plan to visit one of the best known attractions in southwest Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is only 2.5 hours from Ouray along the San Juan Skyway and makes for a great stop on a tour of this beautiful state.
Mesa Verde is a World Heritage Site and the only National Park that is dedicated to human beings. The earliest inhabitants of Mesa Verde moved into the area by 550 A.D. and they occupied parts of the Colorado Plateau until about 1300 A.D.
The largest ancestral puebloan cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde is known as Cliff Palace. Archaeologists believe that 120 people lived in the dwelling at one time. This dwelling is opened from early April until early November and visitors must take a guided tour to walk through the area. The ranger guided tours are $3/person (regardless of age) and take about 1 hour.
Head to the Far View Visitor Center which is about 15 miles from the entrance of the park gate and get signed up for your tour as it is well worth it. This road is a windy, two lane road without many passing zones so take your time to enjoy the scenery; bring plenty of snacks and drinks for impromptu picnics and stops along the way. The tours begin at the Cliff Palace Overlook which is another 8 miles further into the park and it can easily take 20 minutes to drive there from the visitor center. Times of the tours vary depending on the season, but get tickets early in the day so as not to miss out.
As the tour progresses, the ranger explains the dwelling, the water seepages, the geology of the area and the way of life as determined by extensive study from archeologists.
The route has five 8-10 foot ladders that must be negotiated and there are some uneven steps made from sandstone as well as an asphalt path in many places. Since all tours begin on the top of the mesa, there is a 5-10 minute walk down to the cliff dwelling. It can be a rigorous tour due to the 100 vertical foot climb to return to the mesa top but it is well worth it. Most young children will enjoy the route and the ladders and steps and trail.
Make sure to bring plenty of water. In the summer, it can be very hot in the afternoon at Cliff Palace. The thermal mass of the cliff dwellings will retain heat and it is primarily western facing. Also make sure to use sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses as well as the sun's rays are very intense during this time of year. Last, there are no gasoline stations within the park so be sure to have a full tank before you venture into the heart of this national treasure.