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WEEKEND TRAVEL | SIDE TRIP

A rare peek inside ancient cliff dwellings

May 21, 2006|Joyzelle Davis | Special to The Times

MESA VERDE National Park, a collection of cliff dwellings that are part of one of the largest archeological preserves in the U.S., is marking its centennial with a yearlong celebration that includes photography shows, Native American dance festivals and the temporary opening of three sites long closed to the public at this treasure in southwestern Colorado.

A stop between...: Durango and any of the other parks of the Four Corners region. Or it's a stop on the scenic route from Southern California to Colorado. Mesa Verde is about a six-hour drive northeast from Grand Canyon National Park.

The draw: Most national parks are preserves of natural wonders. Mesa Verde Park was created to protect man-made ones: the multistory masonry cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans starting around 550.

Mesa Verde's population peaked at several thousand in the 1200s, before the mesa-top farmers mysteriously abandoned the site in the 14th century. Today, 24 Native American tribes claim spiritual ties to it.

A handful of Mesa Verde's 600 dwellings are open to visitors 365 days a year. The most commonly visited is Cliff Palace, a 150-room complex that archaeologists think served as the community center for trade and special ceremonies.

More adventurous travelers scramble up the 30-foot ladder and crawl through a tunnel to Balcony House.

Starting May 29, rangers will lead two guided hikes to dwellings that have rarely, or never, been seen by the public. Oak Tree, a fragile dwelling of 60 rooms that's more than 1,000 years old, has been closed to visitors since the 1930s. The Mug House has never been open. The tours, one a day through Sept. 4, are capped at 14 visitors, so reservations are vital.

It's one mile round-trip to Oak Tree and 1 1/2 miles to Mug House on rocky, uneven paths. Because of the heat and 7,000-foot elevation, park officials discourage people with respiratory or heart concerns from taking either hike.

A third new ranger-led expedition goes by horseback to Spring House, a site with an interior freshwater spring that hasn't been fully excavated. The eight-hour excursion also goes past Buzzard House, Teakettle House and Daniels House. This tour, at $195 per person, runs once a day, Sept. 1-30.

The delay: At least two hours will be spent driving into and out of the park. The Mug House and Oak Tree House tours each last two hours. The roads and paths also may be crowded this summer: The centennial has boosted park attendance by about a third so far this year.

Mesa Verde National Park is 35 miles west of Durango on U.S. 160; the park headquarters is 20 miles beyond the park entrance. Open daily. $10 per-vehicle fee. Guided tours of Cliff House, Balcony House and Long House are $3 per person. Tours to Oak Tree and Mug House are $20. Reservations available online at www.mesaverde2006.org or (970) 529-4465.

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