Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado’s southwest corner, offers visitors a look at the life of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The park is home to 600 cliff dwellings, where Ancestral Puebloans lived for more than 700 years. Chaco’s main draw is Pueblo Bonito, one of the most extensively excavated and studied sites in North America. Center of the Chacoan world and occupied from the mid-800s to 1200s, it was a four-story masonry “great house” with more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas.
Both are clusters of authentic ruins, and we actually enjoyed the differences. We could also see, though, that some folks would be squarely in one camp or the other.
Do you like your ruins difficult to reach, over dirt washboard roads, with the only food around what you bring yourself and the only place to sleep a campground? Are you thrilled to see rattlesnakes slither by? Do you like the feeling of peering down into a grand kiva, imagining its long-ago religious ceremonies, with no other tourists in sight? Chaco’s your choice.
Twilight tour of ancient cliff dwellings
Prefer to take a twilight tour of ancient cliff dwellings led by a guide dressed up as an early archaeologist, then eat a gourmet dinner at your hotel restaurant? Would you enjoy scooting along a high mesa on a tram, chatting first with Bostonians and next with Louisianans, hopping off this time to see pit dwellings, next time to see a dramatic overlook? Mesa Verde’s your ticket. (Literally; you have to buy tickets to see the main sights.)
Or maybe, like us, you’d appreciate both on their own terms.
Here are more comparisons between Mesa Verde and Chaco:
The settings: New Mexico valley vs. Colorado mesa
Chaco, in Northwestern New Mexico, is the more pristine, deliberately kept difficult to reach by the decision to leave the entrance road mostly unpaved — which also leaves it sometimes impassable after rain. (At one point we ended up in the middle of a storm-created gully and the rental car nearly got stuck. Yes, the ranger we’d called ahead had advised an SUV would be “more comfortable,” but she’d also said “most of the time” the road is navigable, and with the cost of gas, well … )
You can view most of the ruins by walking the trails off a nine-mile loop road through the canyon. In late August, we saw a few small groups of tourists but much of the time we had the place nearly to ourselves.
While cliffs surround it, the flatness of this high-desert valley and closeness of the various ruins give you a sense of the larger ancient community.
With no towns and their distracting lights for many miles around, stargazing is ideal, lending itself to a ranger-led astronomy program several times a week during tourist season that our friend had called “almost a religious experience.”
Unfortunately for us, cloud cover put the kibosh on telescope viewing the evening we tried to attend. But later that night the clouds mostly parted, and lying on the campsite’s picnic table looking up at the star-filled sky against the backdrop of the cliffs and ruins was amazing.
Mesa Verde, in Southwest Colorado, has the more dramatic setting, atop a mesa reached by a winding mountain road 15 miles from the park entrance, with spectacular views of mountains beyond and valleys below. Its archaeological sites are tucked into canyons throughout the park, with one main area, Wetherill Mesa, a steep, 45-minute drive from the visitors’ center and lodge, and the other, Chapin Mesa, about 15 minutes in a different direction.
The archaeological sites: Great houses vs. cliff dwellings
Chaco’s main draw is Pueblo Bonito, one of the most extensively excavated and studied sites in North America. Center of the Chacoan world and occupied from the mid-800s to 1200s, it was a four-story masonry “great house” with more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas.
As we learned from our college-student ranger-in-training, at the height of its culture, about 1050 A.D., Chaco was probably the ceremonial, administrative and economic center for far-flung communities connected to it by 1,200 miles of roads.
We climbed through the now-deserted rooms, stooping to enter doorways, as he pointed out original wood-beam ceilings and explained how structures were often oriented to solar or lunar events and to cardinal directions. The only restoration has been shoring up a few parts damaged by a rockfall.
The tour was free (Pueblo Bonito is the only site at Chaco where such guided tours are available) and you can also wander on your own, picking up written guides at each of the sites.
Mesa Verde’s major ruins are in alcoves set into cliffs under natural overhangs, and that means more huffing and puffing to see them: Many require strenuous climbs on canyon trails and up ladders, through tunnels and down into below-ground kivas.
Mesa Verde’s classic period was between 1100 and 1300, later than Chaco’s. Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest and best-known site, and North America’s largest cliff dwelling, with 150 rooms (you climb five 8-10-foot ladders and can descend into one of its kivas). It was partially restored in an earlier era when people thought it would be nice to fix them up so visitors would get a sense of what they were once like.
Unlike at Chaco, we never had a moment alone at Mesa Verde. To protect the sites and regulate crowds, you must visit most of the sites with a ranger on a timed tour, for $3 per site.
A separate timed $3 ticket is also required for Wetherill Mesa’s main site, Long House, another spectacular cliff dwelling (with two features we thought were particularly cool: a perfectly preserved imprint of a tiny corn cob in the ground, and a small red handprint on the wall).
At Wetherill, you can catch a tram that stops at earlier-period pit-house settlements and the starting point of the Long House walking tour. Yes, a tram is a touch of Disneyland, but it makes sense not to have everybody in their own cars along the small mesa roads. Another option for touring Cliff Palace on certain days is a 1-½-hour twilight tour, at $10 per person — worth the extra cost.
These tours are restricted to 20 people (that’s small, for Mesa Verde) and are conducted when the weather is cooler, which is a real consideration if you go during the sizzling summers. Our guide was a ready-for-Broadway ranger who dresses and acts the part of Richard Wetherill, the amateur explorer who excavated and named Cliff Palace in 1888 (though it wasn’t really a palace), and later was murdered at Chaco, where he had a trading post.
Tickets for most tours are sold at the Far View Visitors’ Center, but the twilight tour tickets have to be purchased at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum (five miles from the visitors’ center) and they fill up quickly. Half-day guided bus tours are another option.
Accommodations: campground vs. comfy bed
At Chaco you’ll want to stay overnight if you stay for the astronomy program, because your only other choice is to drive out on those dicey roads in the dark. Campsites are nestled below cliffs and by ruins, with grills and bathrooms but no showers. Drinking water is available only at the visitors’ center.
Mesa Verde offers a choice of a hotel, the Far View Lodge, located by the visitors’ center, restaurants, lounge and gift shops. Rooms range from about $118-$148, some with spectacular views. With a AAA discount we paid about $100 a night for a pleasant, retro-motel-like standard room with no TV or phone and fans rather than AC. (Open mid-April to mid-October.)
Adding to the international flavor at the park, most of the concession staff was Jamaican (one told us they hadn’t realized where they were being sent, and isolated Mesa Verde was hardly what they’d bargained for).
Having a nearby hotel allowed us to take a cooling siesta after a morning of hiking and ladder-climbing in 80-plus-degree heat, to rest before our twilight tour. In contrast, the full-service campground is far from the sights — 14 miles from Chapin.
Food: Camp fare vs. Southwest fusion
At Chaco, you have to rustle up your own meals; if you forget to bring anything, the closest groceries and gas are at a convenience store 21 miles away (on a mostly dirt road). There’s a nice picnic shelter near the visitors’ center; a rattlesnake joined us for lunch.
Mesa Verde’s choices include several snack bars and a cafeteria at the visitors’ center whose buffets by afternoon looked mighty tired. But the lodge’s Metate Room Restaurant & La Mano Lounge serves excellent Southwest fusion meals at decent prices ($20 for a three-course, early-bird special). The menu, which features an extensive wine list, includes buffalo prime rib as one of its specialties; we can attest to the Navajo spiced pork tenderloin and tender Santa Fe steak.
We had to say, it beat our Chaco fare of smoky pancakes and salami sandwiches hands down. Although we had no rattlesnake to dine with us.
If you go to Chaco Canyon and/or Mesa Verde:
Chaco Culture National Historical Park: 505-786-7014; www.nps.gov/chcu
Mesa Verde National Park: 970-529-4465; www.nps.gov/meve
Chaco’s a 3-½-hour drive from Albuquerque, via U.S. 550 and County Roads 7900 and 7950. It’s three more hours to drive from there to Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde also can be reached by daily flights into Cortez and Durango, Colo.
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