In the A.D. 1200s, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were home to ancestral Pueblo Indian people. Today, visitors come from all over the world to explore the archaeology preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is not for summer visitors only. Between November and March, you’ll see another, quieter side of the park.
1. Escape the Crowds
In 2015, Mesa Verde got 547,325 visitors—but according to the park, fewer than 50 people visit on the quietest off-season days. After the ranger-guided tours end in the fall, enjoy the solitude and photograph Cliff Palace or Spruce Tree House bathed in golden light.
2. Ski Cliff Palace
For an archaeological adventure, ski the Cliff Palace road (closed in winter) on the mesatop. It’s a 6-mile, ungroomed loop—with a shorter option to ski to the Cliff Palace overlook, then return the way you came. On a sunny weekday in February, I didn’t see another person on the trail.
The park grooms cross-country ski trails at Morefield Campground. The gentle terrain here is ideal for novice skiers. For descriptions of all trails, directions, and parking information, see the park website. Rent cross-country skis from Slavens True Value Hardware in Cortez (970-565-8571).
3. Snowshoe in the Moonlight
In January and February, the park hosts events including a moonlight ski and snowshoe at Morefield Campground. Some years the snow lies deep; other years, like 2015, lack of snow canceled events.
Check winter trail conditions here, and check the park website for updates on weather-dependent events. A moonlight snowshoe and ski event has been announced for Friday, January 6, 2017, at the Morefield Campground trails from 6 pm until 10 pm (free and open to all ages). Day visitors can check out snowshoes for free at the Visitor Center or the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
4. Explore the Archaeology of Winter
Gaze across the canyon at snowed-in Spruce Tree House, then step inside the cozy Chapin museum, open daily (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Contemplate how ancestral Pueblo people kept warm as you view items such as a fragment of a turkey-feather blanket, an ancient down jacket/comforter in one.
5. Travel Back in Time
Under a blanket of snow, Mesa Verde feels very far from the modern world. Rancher Richard Wetherill was the first Anglo settler to glimpse the cliff dwellings, in December 1888. Author Willa Cather described the moment in her 1925 novel The Professor’s House: he saw “through a veil of lightly falling snow …. a little city of stone, asleep.” Beautiful and timeless.
Usually we’d look forward to one more reason to visit Mesa Verde in the winter: the popular luminaria event in December, when cliff dwellings are illuminated. The event has been canceled this year due to risk of rockfall at Spruce Tree House.
If you go: The park entrance is 10 miles east of Cortez on US Highway 160. The road to the top of the mesa is narrow, with steep drop-offs and tight curves; ice lingers in shadowy spots. For information about off-season lodging in Cortez, Dolores, or Mancos, see the Mesa Verde Country website.