Travel

Explore Thousands of Ancient Ruins in This Colorado National Park

Come for the ruins, stay for the views.

Sopotnicki/Shutterstock
Sopotnicki/Shutterstock
Sopotnicki/Shutterstock

A series of crumbling rooms and towers span an impossibly broad indentation in a sandstone cliff. Gazing at the ruins, it’s an easy practice to envision the community of around a hundred Ancestral Puebloans who thrived here more than 700 years ago-cooking, laughing, and making music-though the former residents are long gone. This place, with its 150 sand-coloured rooms and impressively constructed towers, is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Sights like these are what southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is best known for, though it’s only part of what the park has to offer.

With more than 600 cliff dwellings (and more than 4,000 Ancestral Pueblo dwellings in total), Mesa Verde is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site and a dream come true for anyone who wants to visit some of the best-preserved archeological sites in the country. It also offers major appeal for wannabe astronomers and stargazers, with exceptional views of the night sky that have recently earned it a designation as the 100th International Dark Sky Park. Out of America’s 63 national parks, Mesa Verde is one of just 16 to earn this designation.But there’s more to the national park than cliff dwellings and stargazing. While you’re there, you can also explore miles and miles of park trails, learn about the Indigenous cultures of the area, gaze at rock walls studded with petroglyphs, and witness some of the more than a thousand species of flora and fauna that call Mesa Verde home. No matter what you do, it’s sure to blow your mind. Here’s what to do in Mesa Verde National Park.

Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Hike a rugged landscape of canyons, mesas, and ruins

Take to the park’s 30 miles of trails to experience sloping mesas, rugged canyons, and expansive vistas. Difficulty ranges from a flat out-and-back trail that winds through pinyon-juniper forest to a trek that requires you to squeeze between boulders and descend narrow stone staircases. Hikes are made more difficult due to the high elevation and hot, arid climate, so you’ll want to be careful and carry lots of water. Mesa Verde’s trails are divided into three areas: Morefield Canyon, Chapin Mesa, and Wetherill Mesa.

In Morefield Canyon, you’ll find trails such as the Knife Edge Trail, which follows the path of an old road that was built in 1911 as the main access to the park. This trail leads to Montezuma Valley Overlook, where a phenomenal view is even more spectacular at sunset.

Dominic Gentilcore PhD/Shutterstock
Dominic Gentilcore PhD/Shutterstock
Dominic Gentilcore PhD/Shutterstock

Chapin Mesa is where you’ll find rugged and adventurous trails with steep drop-offs, such as the strenuous Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.4-mile round-trip route with scrambling, cliff-climbing, and ancient petroglyphs. Chapin Mesa is also home to most of the park’s ruins, including the Far View Community Sites, which can be viewed by hiking a .75-mile loop. Ancestral Pueblo people thrived in Far View’s mesa-top farming community for several centuries, long before the cliff dwellings were built.

Pueblo architecture can also be found on Wetherill Mesa, where the Nordenskiold Site #16 trail will lead you to the ruins of a 50-room cliff dwelling that was excavated in 1891. You can also witness 600 years of Pueblo history along the Badger Community Trail with four excavated mesa-top villages.

One note before you get hiking: All of Mesa Verde is an ancestral home that is sacred to 26 Native tribes. Please visit with respect by staying on trails and leaving cultural and natural resources where you find them.

LouFrance/Shutterstock
LouFrance/Shutterstock
LouFrance/Shutterstock

Discover the history and culture of the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples

Learn how the Ancestral Pueblo peoples lived, farmed, practiced religion, and built their society in the 700 Years Tour. The 4-hour tour, led by a National Association for Interpretation (NAI)-certified guide, features pithouse villages that date back to the year 600 and cliff dwellings from the 13th century. The tour also guarantees you a spot on a 1-hour tour of Cliff Palace led by a National Park Service (NPS) ranger. The large cliff dwelling, which was likely a community gathering place with administrative and religious activity, is one of Mesa Verde’s most popular attractions. The structures were originally crafted from sandstone, wooden beams and mortar that have remained somewhat intact for hundreds of years-a true architectural marvel.

Matt A. Claiborne/Shutterstock
Matt A. Claiborne/Shutterstock
Matt A. Claiborne/Shutterstock

Stargaze in one of the world’s darkest places

When the sun sets, visitors can take in an unbelievable view of the night sky, which looks much the same as it did a thousand years ago to the Ancestral Pueblo people.Search the vast, dark sky for familiar constellations and far-away planets, and make a wish on any shooting stars that you see. As a newly certified International Dark Sky Park, Mesa Verde is one of the few places on the planet where the night skies haven’t been badly obscured by light pollution. This allows novice astronomers the chance to gaze at the heavens and be awed by the astrological wonders that appear.

If you want to stargaze at the park, plan to visit during a new moon for the darkest conditions. Numerous overlooks and pull-outs along the park road, including Geologic Overlook, Mancos Overlook, and the Montezuma Valley Overlook, provide expansive views of the night sky and remain open to the public throughout the night. For an overnight stay in the park, Morefield Campground and Far View Lodge are perfect places for stargazing and will occasionally host ranger-led evening programs. More astronomy-focused programming should become available at the park in 2023.

BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock
BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock
BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock

Observe wildlife from a safe distance

Wildlife viewing is a favorite pastime of many visitors to Mesa Verde National Park. Critters to keep your eyes out for include adorable mule deer, cottontail rabbits, frisky weasels, colorful collared lizards, mountain short-horned lizards, woodhouse toads, wild turkeys, black-chinned hummingbirds, and spotted owls. Dawn and dusk are the best times of day for wildlife spotting. As with any wildlife, it is best to admire from afar. Binoculars are your friend. And while you shouldn’t get too close to any of these animals, you’ll want to especially keep your distance from coyotes, black bears, bobcats, spotted bats, prairie rattlesnakes, and bull elk (don’t let the fuzzy antlers fool you – they will aggressively defend their territory!).

Don Mammoser/Shutterstock
Don Mammoser/Shutterstock
Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

Go for a drive

There are a few worthwhile drives to put on your to-do list for your Mesa Verde visit. The 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road overlooks cliff dwellings and provides access to the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. And although the popular Mesa Top Loop Drive is currently closed for construction, you’ll want to check it out once the scenic route reopens. In the meantime, you can still download the NPS’s audio tour to get an insider’s perspective on the history of Mesa Verde. The narrative is done by park ranger TJ Atsye, a Laguna Pueblo and direct descendent of the people who used to call Mesa Verde their home. When the road is once more open to tourists, you can listen to the audio tour as you drive, with ten stops along the 6-mile loop. Until then, the audio is still a wonderful way to learn about the park and the ancestry of its people.

Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock
Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock
Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock

Getting there and getting around

Located in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park lies off Highway 160, between the historic mining towns of Durango and Cortez, Colorado. Both towns are accessible by daily flights. Mesa Verde is approximately 40 miles from Durango, 260 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and 380 miles from Denver, Colorado.

No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll enter Mesa Verde via a steep, narrow, and winding mountain road. It can take around 2 hours to get in and out of the park depending on weather and traffic, so give yourself plenty of time.

Colin D. Young/Shutterstock
Colin D. Young/Shutterstock
Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

Best time of year to visit Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is open all year, but the best times to visit are in the spring and fall, when the weather is relatively mild. If summer is the only time you can come, be prepared to share the park with hundreds of other tourists, both on the roads and the trails. Summer temperatures can reach into the 90s and afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. Winter is a beautiful time to go, but many tours, lodging, and camping options close during the colder months, and some roads and trails may shut down due to snow. If you do come in the winter, look into self-guided opportunities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. For safety, you’ll want to check the latest winter weather conditions and sign in at the Trail Register before heading out.

Photo courtesy of Aramark Destinations
Photo courtesy of Aramark Destinations
Photo courtesy of Aramark Destinations

Places to stay in Mesa Verde National Park

If you want to stay inside the park, you have two options. To commune with nature, pack a tent and a sleeping bag and reserve a campsite at the Morefield Campground. Located in a large, wooded area, the 267-site campground includes dry tent sites, 17 group sites, and-for those that want a cushier stay-15 full hook-up RV sites. You won’t be completely roughing it since campground facilities include free hot showers, laundry, access to firewood and other camping supplies, a gift shop, and a grocery store. If you stay during the summer, you can check out the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at Knife Edge Café (now that’s my kind of camping!). And if you bring your pup along, you can leave them at the Morefield Village Kennel when you want to visit some of the attractions that don’t allow dogs.

For a comfy bed and stunning views, book a room at the Far View Lodge. Situated 8,250 feet above sea level, the 150-room lodge features locally sourced furniture and fixtures, plus balconies that offer wildlife watching during the day and stargazing opportunities at night. The lodge is pet-friendly and has a dining room and lounge area.

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Sharael Kolberg is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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