Note: This post can also be found on the Viewfinder Media Location Guide page!
Some of the photos here and many more scenic images of the state can also be found in my book Classic Colorado.
Mesa Verde, Spanish for “Green Table,” is the first national park established to protect works of man rather than works of nature. The area the park now protects was once the home of the Ancestral Puebloan (sometimes known by the Navajo word “Anasazi”) people. The Ancestral Puebloans lived at Mesa Verde an estimated 700 years from 600-1300 A.D. It is not known why they abandoned the hundreds of cliff dwellings and mesa top communities that exist here. Drought (which has been proven by tree ring analysis to have occurred in Mesa Verde near the end of Ancestral Puebloan residence here), internal political strife, threat of attacks by neighboring tribes or disease are also possible explanations. Mesa Verde’s inhabitants are thought to have moved south into parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Today more than 20 existing tribes including the Pueblo, Hopi and Zuni claim to be descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans. Despite the reason for the migration of the “ancient ones” the magnificent ruins and artifacts they left behind continue to intrigue visitors from around the world, including photographers. This guide is meant to highlight some of the sites of Mesa Verde National Park from a photographer’s perspective. I have illustrated this guide with many of my own photos taken during several trips to Mesa Verde but to see additional images please view the Ruins of the Ancients gallery here.
Depending on the time of day you photograph a particular ruin the two most desirable types of lighting conditions are direct light on the ruin structures (usually late afternoon at most locations) and light reflecting on the ruins from the opposite canyon walls (usually late morning). Direct light here usually leads to very warm, saturated and sometimes contrasty images while reflected light usually leads to evenly-shaded, subtle, pastel-colored images. Many of the ruins, usually at midday, will be half in light, half in shadow which can be dramatic but extremely challenging lighting situations to capture as well. The type of light you prefer is a personal preference that will become apparent to you after practicing your photography for any length of time at Mesa Verde.
The light you photograph in will also largely dictate your camera settings and filter choices. If shooting digital keep watch of your color balance. Your camera’s “shade” setting is wise to use when you are photographing ruins in strong shade. “Cloudy” settings are useful to warm your images up if you detect the subtle glow of reflected light on the ruins while you are in moderate shade. “Sunny” settings work well while in harsher direct light. If you are a more advanced user try manually selecting your exact color temperature and keep an eye on it as the light changes. If shooting film, filters such as Tiffen 812s and slide films that have warmer color balances such as Kodak Ektachrome 100GX (formerly 100SW) are definitely of use here. Saturated, contrasty films, like Fuji Velvia 50/100, or moderately increasing your digital camera’s settings to add saturation can be useful to make direct light situations “pop” even more since the adobe ruins are rather colorless naturally. Polarizer filters can also be helpful to intensify direct light or cut through haze when photographing from overlooks. Graduated neutral density filters will be necessary if you attempt to photograph in the half-shade/half-sun conditions of sites at midday. If you have a digital camera with options for shadow recovery, a careful use of these settings can help bring out structures deep in the ruins that can often look muddy or dark on many films.
You will need a variety of lenses to use for several different purposes at the park. Wide angle lenses are necessary for your tours inside the ruins. They will be required in order to frame the circular kivas that sink low into the ground in combination with the dwellings that tower above at most sites. Medium-range lenses are also useful on tours or on the trail in case you encounter wildflowers, desire tighter comps of ruin structures or use windows for creatively-framed compositions. Telephoto lenses are a must to photograph the often distant sites visible from roadside overlooks. Telephotos are also handy to photograph the surprising amount of wildlife you may see here including lizards, desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, songbirds, raptors, some of the biggest jackrabbits you’ll ever see and much more.
A tripod will be useful at the self-guided locations such as Spruce Tree House and Step House, at the overlooks where you’ll need to support your telephoto lenses or if you get the rare chance to participate in a photo workshop at the park, see below! However, using tripods on the regular ranger-led tours such as those at Cliff Palace or Long House can be an undesirable hassle due to the limited tour time, the brisk pace in which the groups rotate through the ruins during the rangers’ interpretive speeches and fellow visitors who are usually unsympathetic to your mission of making photos without people present. You will also find you have greater mobility (which will lead to more time to shoot and explore) without a tripod in these situations.
Mesa Verde is about a 1.5-hour drive west of Durango, Colorado and about an hour’s drive east of Cortez, Colorado. The are multiple ways to experience Mesa Verde whether your interests (along with photography of course) lie in auto touring, hiking, exploring archaeological sites firsthand or viewing wildlife. The majority of the park’s sights are accessible by car except for a few short trails to overlooks, the longer hiking trails and a portion of Wetherill Mesa that is accessible only by a vehicular tram (which can be described as like a large golf cart driving canopied cars with padded bench seats for visitors behind) that runs beyond the mesa’s visitor center beginning at a large parking lot near Step House.
The park can be essentially divided into three distinct regions:
The North Rim which comprises the first 15 miles of highway between the park entrance and Far View Visitor Center, is home to the Morefield Campground and features a series of roadside overlooks.
Chapin Mesa which is the most frequently visited area of the park, where the largest concentration of cliff dwellings occurs, is open year-round (weather permitting) and is divided into two loops with several overlooks for auto touring.
Wetherill Mesa which is quieter and less-visited than Chapin Mesa, is usually only open from Memorial to Labor Day and where taking the tram is necessary to reach most sites and overlooks (with the exception of Step House).
Tickets are available at the Far View Visitor’s Center for tours into the Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House sites. You MUST stop at the visitor’s center to purchase tickets before going on to the sites. In each description below of these locations I have outlined optimal times of day to purchase your tour for photography purposes. These tours require some hiking, climbing on steep ladders or crawling through narrow passages. This is something to consider seriously if you have relevant mobility or medical issues.
A Note Regarding the Park’s Wildfire History
While touring the park reminders of past wildfires are obvious and spread throughout several locations. Since 1934 there have been more than a dozen major fires, four of which occurred in a severe drought from 2000-2003 which caused the burning of more than 36,600 acres of pinion, juniper and mountain shrub. Fires have elicited tense rescues of archaeological treasures by firefighters who courageously maintained fire lines protecting several cliff dwellings as well as led to the discovery of new sites previously not seen under vegetation. According to NPS, about 95 percent of the fires at the park are started by natural causes, usually lightning, but this does not give visitors an excuse to be reckless. Always be careful with the way you tend any open flame including campfires, matches or even cigarettes. As a photographer this legacy apparent in acres of charred forest is no reason to despair, rather it offers opportunities to document this natural process by making unusual pictures of the twisting, textured snags of trees touched by flame.
NORTH RIM OVERLOOKS
There are four overlooks between the park’s entrance gate and the first concentration of ruins. The first two: Mancos Valley and Montezuma Valley are directly off of the road and are suitable for quick stops for snapshot photos or to stretch your legs but are not quite as photogenic as the third, Park Point Overlook. This overlook is the highest point in the park and requires a short walk beyond the parking area toward a fire lookout. Once you reach the lookout and mesa edge there is an impressive view below of the rocky mesa folds and above to the northeast where the La Plata Mountains tower over the mesa mightily. Other peaks of the San Juan Range are seen in the distance directly to the north and the La Sal Mountains of Utah are visible to the west on a clear day. The fourth overlook, Geologic, also requires a very short walk to the edge and provides a similar, but not quite as sweeping, view as Park Point.
Far View Sites
The Far View Sites are unique due to the fact that they were built on the mesa top and are far to the north of the concentration of the park’s other sites. These ruins of a farming community are definitely worth a visit but are challenging from a photography perspective since they are quite large and spread out. There are however opportunities to compose creative images of the sites’ stagger-stepped walls, small windows, large kivas and even the remains of a reservoir. This is a nice area to visit at sunrise or early morning due to its proximity to the park entrance and the fact that tour tickets are not required for access.
Cedar Tree Tower
A half-mile-long spur from the main road just before you reach the four-way stop leads to Cedar Tree Tower. This short self-guided diversion is worth a visit to quickly photograph the tower or to take a half-mile hike along the Farming Terrace Trail. Here you may view examples of check dams built by the Ancestral Puebloans to collect runoff used for farming practices. The mysterious tower itself was built next to a kiva and might be a manifestation of Puebloan ceremonial beliefs of the dichotomy between realms existing both above and below ground. It is also speculated that these types of towers could have been used as grain silos, lookouts or part of a communication system.
Spruce Tree House
Without a doubt this is the most impressive site in the park that you can explore close-up at your leisure without having to buy a ticketed tour for access in the spring through fall. It is also the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park. Its rounded towers, multi-windowed facades and spacious courtyards where ladders descend into subterranean kivas are a pleasure to photograph from an endless variety of angles. Be sure to climb down into the open kiva (there is usually a ranger here to direct the traffic of visitors traveling up and down the ladder so its location is obvious). Photos inside the dark kiva can be difficult to expose correctly but there are options to overcome this obstacle. You can spot meter on the brightest amount of light in the beam emanating from the roof hole above the ladder to help prevent overexposure but this will likely leave the background very dark. Try adding flash on a rear-curtain/slow setting combined with a warming filter over the flash or lens (or both) to bring out the details in the interior of the kiva and maintain a natural look. In the winter Spruce Tree House is also where you may experience the luminaria lighting (electronic lamps that mimic candlelight are placed at the site and lit which makes it appear as if the site is still occupied by its original denizens). This event usually takes place in December and can be a unique, beautiful shot at twilight, especially when the site is viewed in its entirety from across the canyon near the Chapin Mesa Museum. Check the park’s website for the day in which this will be held each year. Ranger-led tours of the site also occur during other winter days when conditions allow.
Petroglyph Point Trail
Are you ready for a hike? This 2.5-mile trail loop begins at the Chapin Mesa Museum (with a short spur to visit Spruce Tree House) and takes you to an interesting panel of petroglyphs at about the halfway point. Hikers must register at the trailhead or museum before embarking. The well-defined trail is an easy one with a few rocky moderate spots that might require more care. The trail looses about 300 feet of elevation on the descent but gains about the same amount on the climb back. Late spring and early summer are probably the most enjoyable times to experience the trail since you may see a variety of blooming cacti and wildflowers including bright red varieties of penstemon, purple vetch varieties and scarlet gilia. Be sure to bring plenty of water especially in the summer months.
Mesa Top Loop:
Square Tower House Overlook
The most architecturally astounding ruin in the park might be the four-story tower at Square Tower House viewed from this must-see overlook. I prefer photographing from this place in the direct light of late evening which bathes the tower in a warm glow and sets it off with interesting shadows. There are also good opportunities to photograph from this overlook in the late morning when softer reflected light from the opposite side of the canyon illuminates the tower if you prefer a more evenly-lit composition without deep shadows. A telephoto lens in 200-300mm range will be the most useful for isolating the tower but interesting compositions can be made of more of the surrounding ruin and the combination of the alcove and mesa top using wider lenses.
On the mesa top adjacent from Cliff Palace (and be aware there is a nice view of Cliff Palace from here), the purpose for this site’s construction is an archaeological mystery. Built after the nearby cliff dwellings, Sun Temple shows no evidence of human habitation and appears as if it was abandoned before construction was completed. Like the Far View sites, the Sun Temple is also a challenge to photograph due to its high outer walls which conceal the complexity of site’s interior. A lack of vantages overlooking the site can be frustrating but you might be able to raise your camera above the walls carefully with the assistance of a tripod and timed shutter release for an aerial view of the two kiva outlines, cell-like rooms and the large tree growing in the middle of the ruin. Also look for interesting framing options for you photos by using Sun Temple’s windows which give peeks into the site’s series of inner corridors.
Cliff Palace Loop:
Cliff Palace (tour tickets required)
Probably the most recognizable and popular of all the Mesa Verde sites is Cliff Palace. It is also the largest site with more than 150 rooms. There is an overlook near the main parking lot that provides excellent panoramic views of the cliff dwelling from above which I definitely recommend. This view looks best in the early to late-afternoon. However, only photographing from the overlook is not enough. To truly appreciate the majesty of this site you should walk among the ruins. If you only have time to buy one ticketed tour in the park this is the one to purchase. Try to get a place on one as late in the afternoon as possible as the light gets warmer and shadows make the large towers and cracks in the canyon walls really stand out. The tour is roughly an hour long and moves briskly around the cliff dwelling as the ranger gives compelling information about the lifestyle of the Ancestral Puebloans who occupied the dwelling. The site is expansive enough that it usually isn’t a problem to find enough room for your photos without including your fellow visitors in your images especially if you stay toward the back of the tour. Wide angle lenses used to include both the dwelling’s towers and kivas as well as lenses in the 50mm lenses for more frame-filling compositions of the structures are all useful here. Cliff Palace usually offers the widest window of tours during the season available in spring through fall.
Balcony House (tour tickets required)
The most challenging of the major sites to reach physically is Balcony House. The voyage is definitely worth it but getting there requires a spot on a ranger-led tour as well as the ability to climb a few steep, precipitous ladders and squeeze through a narrow passageway. Try to get to the front of the line going through the passage since this will give you some time to photograph the site ahead of time before it becomes cramped with your fellow tour-takers. Because of the site’s smaller size a wide angle lens is necessary. When you arrive you’ll be treated to a collection of large kivas and other unusual structures. Be sure to photograph the “kachina face” windows of the largest tower (it will obvious as it’s the tower with the long protruding wood support beam and the windows below the beam look like two eyes and a mouth), framed views through windowed hallways and the balcony which is the namesake of the site located at the far end of the ruin. Mid to late-morning is my favorite time to photograph here since the reflected light from the opposite canyon gives the site a subtle glow and the entire dwelling is covered in shadow. Be aware that tours may not be offered here before late-May or after early October.
In my opinion this is the most underrated site in the park. Like Spruce Tree House, touring this ruin is self-guided and does not require a ticket. Park your vehicle at the lot (this is the place where the road ends and the Wetherill Mesa tram begins) and take a short hike down to this location. Step House is unique for the reason that you can find remains of several different building styles all in one place. There are examples of construction from an early Puebloan era called pithouses, one of which has been reconstructed by the park service to show what it might have looked like when in use, as well as oblong-shaped kivas and cliff dwelling towers which were built in later times. Be sure to look for the petroglyphs scrawled into the large rock faces above the kivas.
Long House (tour tickets required)
The second largest cliff dwelling in the park is the fantastic Long House. It is visible from an above overlook reachable by taking the tram. Afternoon is a good time to photograph from this overlook. Some dwellings will be in direct sunlight, others will be cloaked in the shadow of the overhang above. This is an interesting but tricky shot due to the difference in dynamic range so bring a graduated neutral density filter or plan on combining different exposures in your favorite photo editing software later. Later in the afternoon as the sun sets the shadows eventually cover the ruin and the light becomes softer. The latest available times when shadow has covered the site are best to schedule a ranger-guided tour. When you get a close-up view of the ruins be sure to make compositions using the numerous tall ladders, passageways and walls with openings surrounded by jagged zigzagging adobe bricks and the black streaks of desert varnish on the inner walls of the cliff which look like sun rays shining above the highest tower.
Badger House Community
Not among the most elegant of sites at Mesa Verde, but worth a stop at least for educational purposes. These ruins are on a self-guided trail that passes several informational plaques which explain the more than 600-year evolution of the buildings here. The majority of the sites are covered in large enclosures with tent overhangs that while helping to keep the diminutive ruins in shade and protected from the elements can be very distracting if included in the background of your photos. Shooting the ruins at a downward angle with a telephoto lens or creating close-up compositions will help to minimize the unnatural look of the tents. Watch for ground squirrels and other wildlife that continues to use this ancient community site for shelter and food storage.
At the southernmost point of the tram route a view of Kodak House is almost directly accessible. A very short hike will get you to the overlook. Despite its “photographic” name Kodak House is probably not one of the most photogenic sites in the park. Nevertheless, this ruin interestingly takes up two different creases of an alcove and has one very large boxy tower and is worth the easy stop for a picture. Have your telephoto lens and graduated neutral density filters ready as the dwelling is a distance away and is half covered in shadow, half in light during the majority of the day.
Nordenskiold 16 Overlook
Beginning at a tram stop north of Long House, a mile-long hike will lead to an overlook of Nordenskiold 16, a cliff dwelling that is slightly better preserved than the aforementioned Kodak House. The site continues to hold the name of a 19th century Swedish/Finnish scholar who had a fondness for classifying Mesa Verde’s sites with his own numbering system (and sometimes scratching these numbered identifications conspicuously into rock overhangs or even on the ruins themselves at several of the park’s sites). I don’t recommend this trip unless you are not waiting for your tour to begin at Long House and have some time to spare, otherwise this is an interesting view of a rarely-visited ruin.
In 2006 I was fortunate to be able to travel to Mesa Verde for a special hike to Oak Tree House (which had not been open to the public since the early 1930s) and a photo workshop that included access to Mug House (which had not been open to the public since its excavation and stabilization during the Wetherill Mesa Project in the late 1950s). These tours were offered for by the Mesa Verde Institute for the park’s centennial celebration. Some of these events were also held as late as 2010 and may be held again in the future. Keep an eye on the Mesa Verde Institute’s website for details as all of these tours require pre-registration and small fees when offered.
Oak Tree House
This dwelling can be viewed in the distance and photographed from the Sun Point View near Sun Temple on the Mesa Top Loop but opportunities to hike into the ruin are very rare. The site is composed of high stone walls, a few small kivas, some tall, twisting towers at the front of the site and a maze of structures that extend deep under the alcove overhang in the back. The tree which gave the site its name collapsed years ago and is no longer visible.
Named for three mugs tied together and found hanging inside one of its rooms, Mug House was built about A.D. 1150 and likely supported 80 to 100 people. Getting here requires a two-hour, three-mile round trip hike with a few switchbacks, ladders and slight boulder scrambling. The hike is definitely worth it for photographers however and I would recommend it to anyone who has the time to buy a spot on one of the infrequent ranger-led tours. This elegant site was built in a wide alcove and features layered grassy terraces, deep kivas and dwellings impressively built around large boulders and on top of rock outcroppings.
A strenuous day-long hike of eight miles with steep dropoffs, switchbacks and a 1500-ft elevation gain leads to this little-visited location. This is a long, narrow dwelling with several substantial but slightly eroded towers. Opportunities to view other rarely-seen sites are also part of this ranger-guided tour. Check with the Mesa Verde Institute for opportunities to register for future hikes.
Recommended Reading and Links
Photographing the Southwest, Vol. 3: A guide to the natural landmarks of Colorado and New Mexico by Laurent Martres
Moon Handbooks Four Corners: Including Navajo and Hopi Country, Moab, and Lake Powell by Julian Smith