Located in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is home to some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings and Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites in the world. There are nearly 5,000 significant archeological sites and more than 600 cliff dwellings spread across the Mesa Verde Valley, making it the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Here are four reasons that you should visit Mesa Verde this summer.

Experience History with a Guided Tour

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In order to preserve the archaeological integrity of the remaining sites, most locations can be visited only with the aid of a park ranger leading a guided tour. These tours allow you to experience the thousand-year history of the Mesa Verde settlements and imagine what life was like centuries ago.

Cliff Palace is perhaps the best-known archeological site in Mesa Verde and is well worth the hourlong ranger-led tour. The tour is designed to follow the footsteps of the Ancestral Puebloans, and visitors must traverse multiple ladders and a steep stairway to see the 200-room shelter.

The second largest settlement in the park, Long House, shows evidence of water gathering and visible hand prints. It is one of the best places in the park to gain a feeling of the day-to-day struggles on the ancient people who lived there.

For a more dramatic tour take a trip to Balcony House. This guided tour will have you skirt the edge of a cliff before crawling through tunnels and scaling a stairway cut into the side of the cliff face.

Explore the Remnants of an Ancient Culture

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If you would prefer to take in the park at your own pace and hike without a guide, you will find plenty of opportunities to explore Mesa Verde.

A 1.25-mile hike will take you to Petroglyph Point, the only place to see petroglyphs in the park. An early start will help you stay out of the summer heat while you observe the well-preserved artwork.

A much shorter trail will take you to Sun Temple, a place of worship for the Ancestral Puebloans. The buildings surrounding Sun Temple are laid out in a pattern aligned to the cardinal directions, and the temple itself is aligned to the major lunar standstill and the position of the sun when it sets on the winter solstice. It is an excellent place to explore and gain an understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans’ complex understanding of astronomy.

Far View is an often-overlooked section of the park that allows you to explore ruins after a short hike. This location also is located next to a structure believed to be an ancient reservoir that was used to provide water for farming efforts in Mesa Verde.

Learn About How the Ancient Puebloans Lived

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The park also features many interpretive centers you can visit to get a better understanding of how the Ancient Puebloans carved out a society in the Mesa Verde Valley.

The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center makes an excellent first stop to orient yourself and begin learning about the Mesa Verde Valley. The visitor center features exhibits that demonstrate the complexity of Ancestral Puebloan culture and allows you to view some of the most important artifacts recovered from the archaeological sites.

To see how cave dwellers survived in locations such as Cliff Palace and Balcony House, visit Step House. Step House features a recreated pit house and is the best opportunity to imagine the reality that Ancestral Puebloans lived.

The largest collection of prehistoric artifacts in the park is on display at Chapin Mesa Archeological Center. Here you can see the surviving artifacts of the Ancestral Puebloan people, alongside a chronology of Ancestral Pueblo culture illustrated with dioramas of daily life in the cave dwellings.

See the Ingenuity of Ancient Architecture

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In order to preserve the cave dwellings, some of the more fragile sites can only be viewed from a distance. These vantage points allow you to appreciate the size and scope of these ancient structures.

A prime example of the benefit of keeping visitors at a distance is the Spruce Tree House, the best-preserved cave dwelling in the park. The structures remain largely intact centuries after their construction and allow you to clearly see the vertical nature of life for the cave dwellers.

Square Tower House is the tallest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde and is an impressive demonstration of the advanced construction methods the Ancestral Puebloans had at their disposal. Even from a distance, you will be able to appreciate the care and skill that went into crafting these structures.