Located in southwestern Colorado, 35 miles west of Durango, Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was named one of “50 Places of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler, and it won the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Award for “Top Monument.” As an internationally recognized destination with some of the most well-preserved archaeological sites in the country, it’s unsurprising that more than a half-million visitors descend on the national park each year, eager to see the cliff dwellings of the ancestral Puebloan people. It’s equally unsurprising that the summer months can be crowded ones in the park. What do you do if you want to skip the teeming masses? Consider a visit to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which opens next month for the season.
Also an important part of what is often called “Mesa Verde country,” the 125,000-acre tribal park is adjacent to the smaller national park and lies entirely within the boundaries of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation. It’s home to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, one of three federally recognized tribes of the Ute Nation and descendants of the historic Weeminuche Band.
Although it’s not as well known as its neighbor and receives less than 10,000 visitors per year, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park was called one of “80 World Destinations for Travel in the 21st Century” by National Geographic Traveler, one of just nine U.S. destinations to receive the designation. Visitors to the tribal park will see hundreds of archaeological sites, including ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, and historic Ute wall paintings and petroglyphs.
Best of all, since the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe operates the park as a primitive area, the sites remain in unspoiled natural surroundings that still resemble the wilderness that the ancestral Puebloan people and historic Ute Nation knew. According to Jacob Dance Jr., the Ute Mountain Tribal Park’s office manager, this is very much by design.
“It’s something the tribe has chosen to do,” he said. “For example, if a dwelling falls, we’ll stabilize it, but we won’t restore it. There are no reconstructions. Everything is left in its natural state.”
The tribal park, which opened in the early 1980s, has offered guided tours for more than 20 years. And you must have a Ute guide and permit to enter tribal land; hiking and exploring on your own is not permitted.
Guests can choose full or half-day tours, which leave from the visitor’s center at the junction of highways 160 and 491, 20 miles south of Cortez, Colorado. You can follow the guide in your own vehicle to the trailhead, or you can ride in one of the tribal park’s 15-passenger vans for $12 per person.
Dance said the full-day tours are the way to go, especially if it’s your first time at the park.
“With the half-day tours, you’ll see the smaller sites, but you won’t visit the major cliff dwellings,” he noted. “The full-day tours are the best.”
Indeed, the full-day tour covers the park’s surface sites, such as kivas, pit houses and pueblos; ancestral Puebloan and Ute rock art; archaeological artifacts; and four large cliff dwellings, named Tree House, Lion House, Morris #5 and Eagles Nest.
To view the dwellings, you’ll need to descend four ladders. Three are approximately 5-feet in height, and the fourth is roughly 20 feet. A fifth ladder is optional.
“The Eagles Nest is my favorite,” Dance said. “It’s the last one on the full-day tour.”
He said that the last long ladder might seem intimidating for those who are uncomfortable with heights, but prospective visitors shouldn’t worry.
“They’re big, sturdy ladders,” he said. “They’re easy.”
The full-day tour starts at 9 a.m. and concludes at 4 p.m. It involves about 3 miles of hiking throughout the day, and guests are advised to bring their own lunches and plenty of water. In contrast, the half-day tours run from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; all sites are within a short walking distance from the gravel road.
Half-day tours are priced at $29, and full-day tours cost $48 per person — that price is cut in half if the group comprises 20 or more people. There’s no maximum number allowed on a tour, Dance said, provided the large group can provide its own transportation to the trailhead. Regardless of group size, tour and transportation reservations are strongly recommended.
For those who have done a full-day tour and are looking for something more adventurous, the tribal park offers special tours to remote sections of the park. The tours require a minimum of four people at $60 apiece, and they involve 5.6 miles of hiking and climbing on original ancestral Puebloan trails.
The Ute Mountain Tribal Park will remain open through the summer and early fall, closing its doors when winter weather descends on southwestern Colorado. Dance said this typically happens in October, although the park will stay open into November if conditions allow.
If you’re interested in having a 100-percent outdoor experience while visiting the area, camping is available within tribal park boundaries. The primitive campground is in a wooded area along the Mancos River. While it doesn’t have electricity or running water, it does provide picnic areas, designated fire pits, rustic cabins and outhouses. Visitors also can find hotel accommodations at the Ute Mountain Casino, Hotel & Resort in Towaoc, Colorado, or at one of the many lodging options in nearby Cortez.
This story was originally published April 9, 2014.