Sleep in a Sustainable Hotel in Mesa Verde National Park

From our balcony at the Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde National Park, Ken and I watched wild horses graze around the clusters of rooms at sunset. It made for a memorable ending to a day of exploring the park’s unparalleled Ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Far View Lodge was eco-renovated to be energy- and water-efficient and to reduce waste—and its modest but comfy rooms offer glorious views of the park. In true National Park style, there are no nightclubs or in-room TVs, and outdoor lights are kept to a minimum. I’m happy to report that during our stay, we inhaled cool night air spiced by the scent of sagebrush and gazed at the vast universe of stars while serenaded by a coyote chorus in the distance.

The lobby at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park

Aramark, the concession company that operates Far View Lodge and Mesa Verde’s infrastructure in general (tours, hospitality services, waste disposal, restrooms, and non-Park Service staff), has a fairly comprehensive enviro-plan (called PlanetEVERgreen), which is necessary to deal with the many housands of visitors who visit the park annually.

Among Aramark’s initiatives are:

  • recycling program (paper, glass, plastic, metals)
  • waste reduction
  • water and energy conservation
  • ecofriendly cleaning supplies
  • landscape-conscious construction (to reduce damage to the fragile ecosystems, to blend into the natural view, and to minimize light and noise pollution)
  • bi-fuel trucks and electric carts
  • integrated pest management (IPM) with a nontoxic approach to dealing with insects and rodents
  • sustainable and organic foods, including shade-grown Fair Trade-certified coffee.

Metate Room Restaurant

The Far View Lodge has a wonderful, though slightly pricey, restaurant on premises. Ancient meets contemporary in the Metate Room’s menu. The chef has created dishes that blend regional, sustainable, and organic fare with Ancestral Puebloan traditions. The result was a sumptuous dinner that started with a crisp and tangy house salad topped with black beans and corn and a chopotle-maple vinaigrette. My husband sampled the Corn-and-Nut-Crusted Rocky Mountain Trout served with Anasazi beans and sautéed veggies from a local farm. I opted for the Elk Tenderloin with local chokecherry demi-glace.

Fine, Native American-inspired dining is available at the Metate Room in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Metate Room offers a lovely atmosphere decorated with Navajo weaving, pottery and baskets. Native flute music played softly in the background. I know it’s kind of clichéd, but the wooden flute just sounds right in a place like Mesa Verde where you know you’re looking out the window at the same vistas that the Ancestral Puebloans beheld.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Mesa Verde: An Archaeological Pilgrimage

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado (near Four Corners) ranked Number 1 on my destination list after I first visited its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings at age five. I credit my fascination with archaeology to this park. A love for all things ancient has become one of my lifelong passions.

My childhood sense of adventure was kindled by climbing log ladders to reach Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings—built by the Anasazi people, as they were called when I was a kid. (Today they’re called Ancestral Pueblo people because they were the forebears of the Pueblo tribes that now live in Arizona and New Mexico.) Hearing stories about Anasazi ceremonial, underground, circular rooms, called kivas, sparked my imagination.

Four decades later, Mesa Verde continues to enchant me. I’ve take archaeological pilgrimages there four times since my parents first brought me. Over the years, I’ve never tired of hiking southwest Colorado’s desert landscape or pondering the archaeological remnants of the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area’s canyons and high plateaus from about 600 to 1300 A.D.

Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings—the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Cliff Palace is the most visited, and it’s exciting because you can see it from a distance before you hike down to explore it.

Ranger Interpretation Adds Dimension

Park ranger Tim McNeil describes how life might have been for the cliff-dwelling inhabitants of Balcony House.

Most of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are open only when you’re guided by a ranger. You need to buy a $3 reserved ticket in advance at the Far View Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, but it’s well worth the extra cost. The rangers who led my husband and I through the beautiful dwellings were fountains of knowledge—and they helped bring the ruins to life.

You don’t need to know that little windowed niches tucked under the cliffs were for storing corn and beans to appreciate the sandy geometry of the architecture or the permanence of stone. Still, it’s nice to know the function of towers, “middens” or garbage dumps, or about the spiritual significance of the sipapu, a small hole in the floor of the circular kiva. (The sipapu is the symbol of the Place of Emergence, where humans entered through the earth world from the spirit world.)


Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde.

Balcony House

To visit the Balcony House, you climb log ladders up a cliff, scramble through Balcony House’s narrow passageway just as the ancients who lived here a millennia ago did. Four decades after I first visited, Balcony House’s tunnel is a tight squeeze for me—yet Mesa Verde continues to charm me. Ranger Tim McNeil described the Ancestral Puebloan diet, which relied heavily on piñon nuts and “The Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, which are not only staples, but grow symbiotically.

Looking at thousand-year-old beams and rooms gives me a different perspective—of how short a time we have to live, and how many wonderful antiquities there are to explore.

For details on Mesa Verde, see Visit Mesa Verde.  For information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

A reconstructed ceremonial kiva at Mesa Verde.

The Anasazi Treasures of Canyons of the Ancients

Ten miles from Cortez, Colorado, is the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitor’s center and museum for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This first-rate museum should be the first stop for every visitor who wants to understand the archaeological treasures of the Anasazi. (The Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloans because these ancient people were the ancestors of current Pueblo tribes.)

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl.

I’m a museum buff, and this one lets you see the best of the artifacts—which you won’t see in the field.

I learned about kivas (ceremonial, subterranean, circular rooms) and how corn was ground by hand with stones. I even eye-balled some pottery sherds under a microscope. And I marveled at beautifully preserved examples of 900-year-old pottery and tools.

I also loved the philosophy of education and cross-cultural understanding here. There’s a children’s discovery center where you can touch a dog-hair weaving and grind corn between rocks as the Ancestral Puebloans did.

“In archaeology, a rock’s not just a rock,” says Victoria Atkins, the Heritage Center’s interpretive specialist. “It tells a story about what people in the past ate, how they lived, how they spent their time. We try to add a human touch to understanding the past.”

A 10-minute film, “Visit with Respect,” does just that. It outlines rules for preserving ancient sites: Don’t climb on or eat near the ruins, never disturb or remove bits of pottery or rock that you find, and stay on paths. It also illustrates how the ruined villages are sacred to today’s Pueblo tribes—Hopi, Acoma, Laguna—who believe the ruins are home to their ancestors’ spirits. These people ask the spirits’ permission before entering sacred spaces—and offer thanks when they leave.

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum

My husband and I got our first chance to greet the spirits of the ancestors at Escalante Pueblo, located just up the hill from the Anasazi Heritage Center. From this height, we surveyed McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde.

We also admired the rocky profile of Sleeping Ute Mountain, a range of peaks resembling a fallen warrior with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a different blanket each season: white in winter, green in spring and summer, and gold in fall. The legend says the warrior will someday rise again.

One note for visitors to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: there’s no fee to visit, but there is also no water available and no campgrounds (primitive roadside camping is allowed).

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

The Anasazi Heritage Center’s exterior is designed to look like an ancient pueblo building.

Digging into the Past at Crow Canyon

If, like me, you dream of being a real-life Indiana Jones, grab your fedora and trowel and head to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center just outside Cortez. This research and educational organization gives you hands-on experience—for a day or week—with real archaeologists at actual dig sites. Crow Canyon is one of the only scientific groups currently excavating in the Mesa Verde region.

Archaeologists use a screen and toothbrush to wash dirt from artifacts they find while digging.

I loved going into the archaeology lab to see how artifacts are washed, categorized and finally numbered. It’s exacting work—but it seems so important in helping piece together time.

Ken and I also got to visit a current Crow Canyon archaeological site. Archaeologists excavate trenches (2 feet wide by 10 or 15 feet long) and once they’ve recorded their finds, they refill the trench with the dirt they removed.

Crow Canyon offers several experiential programs:

  • Day Tours: You’ll visit an excavation site and go behind the scenes at Crow Canyon’s archaeological lab where you’ll see ancient artifacts and visit an ongoing archaeological excavation. Day tours (8:30 to 4:30) are held on Wednesdays and Thursdays from May through September. Lunch is included. Adults: $55; children (ages 10 to 17): $30.

    Archaeologist Grant Coffey points out layers in a trench excavation.

  • Adult Archaeology Research Week: Join a professional archaeological team and help uncover the past. You’ll learn to dig for and identify artifacts you find. In the lab, you’ll wash and catalog pottery and stone tools. All meals, lodging and transportation to dig sites included: $1,475 per person.
  • Family Archaeology Week: Plan your next family vacation around an Ancestral Pueblo archaeology adventure. Adults: $1,520; children (ages 10 to 17): $1,125.

For dates and information on Crow Canyon, contact 800-422-8975.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

One of the buildings at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center