I will just warn you now that this post will be even photo-heavier than my normal posts because I was absolutely astounded by Mesa Verde. It is remarkable to me that these structures were built more than 700 years ago are still survive in such excellent condition.
First though, I decided to stay at Far View Lodge which is the only hotel actually in the park. This turned out to be the best money I spent on the trip. The park entrance is 7 - 10 miles outside of Cortez, CO, and it is 15 canyon road miles from the park entrance to the Visitor Center, and another 10 miles beyond that to Chapin Mesa. Staying in the park saved me a lot of driving time! At Far View Lodge every room also has a spectacular view, all though they do not have TVs or AC. As I was loading up my car to leave a huge buck crashed through the brush into the parking lot about 10 feet away, looked around, and then bounded down the hill. It was pretty great.
Chapin Mesa - is open year round and is the home of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and several scenic overlooks. It is open to traffic and can serve as a self-guided tour.
The Sun Point View Overlook (AD 1200 - 1300)
From the Sun Point View you can see up to 12 different ruins, although you better be packing binoculars if you want to find all of them. Mesa Verde is a little like Where's Waldo as you try and find the cliff dwellings hidden in the rock.
Remains of 15 & 20 room houses
Oak Tree House (AD 1250)
Oak Tree House is just a little way down the canyon from Sun View Point (in fact you can see it from there as well), but this is a much closer overlook.
Fire Temple/New Fire House (AD 1250)
These can also be seen from Sun Point View
Fire Temple - This was thought to be a dance plaza or other community ceremonial gathering place.
New Fire House - This was a split level house that took advantage of the natural ledges in the rock. If you look closely (in person) you can see evidence of the original hand and toe trail, although the must have had a ladder as well.
Sun Temple (AD 1250)
Modern Pueblo Indians classify the Sun Temple as a ceremonial structure, but because household goods and roof beams were not found during excavation many believe it was never completed. This may have been around the time the Ancient Pueblo people began abandoning the area.
Stand in the place were you were...
Now face right
Now face left
Cliff Palace from Sun Temple - you can see people taking the Ranger guided tour to help give some perspective to how giant it really is.
Pithouse (AD 600)
Pithouses were the earliest dwellings that the Ancient Pueblo people used. They generally had a fire pit, storage pit, and antechamber (that was perhaps ceremonial or possibly for early food-storage) and the roof was probably built about head-high.
Square Tower House (AD 1200 - 1300)
Because of the Where's Waldo nature of spotting these ruins I walked down the trail searching high and low for the Square Tower House. I looked around squinting and staring through the camera viewfinder at top magnification for a couple of minutes before I looked down to my right, and BOOM! there it was.
zero magification - it really was right there.
Mummy House (viewable from Sun Point View) - I had to go around the one-way loop a second time because I now knew what to look for. I'd totally missed this the first time around.
Sun Temple (from Sun Point View) - Again I didn't know what I was supposed to be looking for until I got to the Sun Temple overlook on the other side of the canyon.
Oak Tree House from Sun Poiint View
A trilogy called Deer:
Cliff Palace Overlook
This is the closet overlook to Cliff Palace and where the Ranger guided tours begin. I didn't want to ruin the awesomeness by hearing all about where the bathrooms and fire pits were. Only looking left some of the mystique surrounding the dwellings.
House of Many Windows
I had to look FOREVER to find this one!
There is evidence of a toe-hold trail to an upper alcove (or maybe 2 rooms) and an additional toe-hold trail to the surface.
Honestly - I couldn't even really see this one. I just took pictures and hoped the camera was pointed at the right thing!