People started living on the tops of the mesas around 400 AD then about 1190 AD, for reason that are not entirely clear, they moved off the mesas into cliff dwellings with ladders and toe-holds as the only way to access their villages. The cliff dwellings were abandoned a short time later around 1300 AD, most likely because of the severe drought that lasted for 24 years. Many of descendants of the Mesa Verde people now live in the Pueblo communities of New Mexico.
Although local people were aware of the cliff and mesa dwellings they left them undisturbed. It wasn’t until the late 1880s, when European geologists, settlers, photographers and archaeologists discovered the ruins, that saving the structures from damage and looting became a concern. The park was established in 1906. There are four thousand archaeological sites and over six hundred cliff dwellings but most of them are not open to the public. To protect the sites even hiking is limited to a few trails. The terrain limits the areas of the park that are accessible to visitors with physical limitations even more but there’s still a lot to see.
Start at the new visitor center, which is completely accessible. View the exhibits, watch the movie,pick up maps and brochures and, if you are able-bodied, buy tickets to Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Long House. These three cliff dwellings can only be toured with a ranger escort. Two more cliff dwelling are open for self guided tours. Unfortunately none of the cliff dwellings are accessible but many of them can be viewed fairly easily from the park roads. Most of the mesa top ruins are accessible.
After leaving the visitor center parking lot you’ll come to the entrance station where showing an Access Pass gets free entry for you and three more adults traveling in your vehicle. The road twists and turns as it climbs to the mesa top offering many views of the valley. Mancos Valley Overlook has a ramp to a small shelter with good views. Park Point Overlook has a paved but steep trail to a fire tower and, at the top of the trail, two short paved spurs to great viewpoints. Most wheelchair users will need to have help climbing the trail. Also keep in mind the high elevation which requires more physical effort.
Far View Lodge marks the end of the climb and now the road travels along the mesa top. The lodge has ADA compliant rooms and two restaurants. We didn’t check any of these so I don’t know about the accuracy of the accessibility.
The next stop along the road is the parking area for Far View Sites. This was a very densely populated mesa top area. Six sites can be visited – Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House, and Far View Tower. The trails leading to the sites are sandy dirt and rough in spots. Wheelchair users will need to have some help.
Continue on to the Chapin Mesa Museum. The museum has four levels. The first level is accessible, the second level has a steep, movable, metal ramp to bridge a short set of steps. Rangers will move the ramp so that the other two levels can be accessed. Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling can also be viewed from the museum patio. A very steep paved trail leads to the dwelling. We didn’t take this trail because of the steep grade and the fact that the return trip is uphill.
Mesa Top Loop has the most sites that are wheelchair accessible. The village sites show 600 years of development, from simple pit houses to cliff dwellings. All of the sites have paved trails but some of them have steep spots. Most of the overlooks can be viewed from your vehicle.
Wetherhill Mesa is opened in the summer only so we didn’t get to visit it. An accessible tram travels the loop road.
We stayed at the park campground which is not very accessible due to uneven and small sites. One section of the campground hadn’t opened for the summer season during our visit. It is supposed to have some accessible sites. The town of Cortez which is about 10 miles west has motels, restaurants and other services.