August 27, 2021
Mesa Verde National Park features elaborate cliff dwellings and myriad archeological sites. The structures, excavations, and artifacts span over a thousand years of ancestral Puebloan history. The park divides into two large sub-mesas. Chapin Mesa hosts crowd favorites like Cliff Palace and Square Tower House. But the quieter Wetherill Mesa features its own set of large cliff dwellings, like Mug House, Step House, and Long House.
Long House provides an accessible archeological adventure for anyone willing to do a bit of advanced planning. You need to book a ranger-assisted tour in advance on recretion.gov. But Long House proves easiest to book for a few reasons. First, it sits out on the less-visited side of the park. But second, the tour is more “ranger assisted” than “ranger-led”. A safe, wide trail leads down into this cliff dwelling. Rangers station themselves along the self-guided route to provide assistance and answer visitor questions.
Accessing this dwelling does not involve any daring cliff descents. But it does involve a fair amount of walking. First, you walk to the tour’s entrance. This lies along an older park road that currently only allows foot traffic. I’d budget 20-30 minutes to get from the Wetherill parking area to the tour meeting point.
Into Long House
The tour proper begins by descending a series of stone stairways down onto the cliff band. The trail rounds a few corners and delivers you to the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park. Ancestral Puebloans built this impressive min-city roughly 750 years ago.
Long House affords a somewhat unique opportunity to get up and into the cliff dwellings. Or sort of behind them? A series of wooden ladders take you back under the rock overhang. Beyond providing a unique perspective, this also gets you a closer look at the moist water-drip area behind the dwellings. Water would take years or decades to seep through the rock from the mesa top to the dwelling. This provided critical drinking water to the inhabitants.
There’s so much to see in this enormous dwelling. Rangers told us this one site includes roughly 150 rooms and 21 kivas. And whereas Chapin Mesa dwellings like Cliff Palace can be seen from the road above, most of the Wetherill Mesa sites are only fully visible from down within the cliff bands.
After completing this tour, you’re still a good 20-minute walk from the parking area. Or you can continue out along an old park road to see numerous other archeological sites (“Badger House Community” and “Kodak House”). Just make sure to bring ample water and sunscreen. Fully exploring these sites took me an additional hour.
While you’re out on Wetherill Mesa, you can also take a self-guided tour of Step House. Be aware that this closes in the mid-afternoon (I missed my chance). You can also secure a more intimate (and harder-to-book) ranger-led tour of Mug House.