Bottom line -- This is an amazing place!
First...the "important" stuff. Pictures! I've uploaded and identified a good percentage of the pictures we took during our trip to Mesa Verde National Park. It helped keeping a log as we stopped at each place. Just click this link and you'll be able to browse through them.
I'll touch on some of the incidentals first -- food and lodging. Unless you're camping, the only place to stay within the park is Far View Lodge. Most of the sights you'll want to view take about one or two hours to reach from the entrance of the park. There is only one entrance. We arrived the night before our planned visit and stayed in Cortez, Colorado, which is only a few miles from the entrance. If you don't want to stay at Far View Lodge and don't mind the long drive each day to see everything, Cortez has a lot of hotels. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express (using up those free room rewards from my husband's business trips) and were able to take advantage of a great complimentary breakfast there. The breakfast room was fully stocked and constantly replenished.
Far View Lodge could be considered "rustic". It's rather like being in a mountain cabin, but much smaller. Each room has a refrigerator and microwave. The promised view from every room is somewhat misleading. Our view was of three trees right outside our back window (which leads to a narrow porch), but if you stood on the porch and leaned out you could see the landscape. Each morning we awoke to deer across the drive. The bathrooms are very small. The shower stall gives you enough room to turn around and that was about it. I didn't mind the lack of amenities -- no TV, no cell -- but for the price of the room I would have appreciated it if housekeeping would have cleaned...and not left the door wide open when they were done. Also, if you're planning to stay here, make your reservations early.
Food was a bit tricky the first night since we didn't know where everything was located. The hotel restaurant (The Metate Room) was very expensive. However, they do have a great breakfast buffet each morning for $9.50. The waitstaff was very plesant and the food wasn't bad, just expensive. We were pleased about the breakfast buffet because when we know we're going to be hiking all day we like to get off to a good start. And, of course, we always carry snacks with us. After the first night we discovered Spruce Tree Terrace at one of the other sights and were able to get great, quick food for a reasonable price. Far View Terrace (next door) also had a coffee bar with pastries and served lunch.
Some of the maps of the park and sights and the information provided (in person and online) were a little outdated, but we were still able to figure things out as we went along. You'll want to do a little prior planning before you go. Read thoroughly on their website. I will say that although the information indicates it is handicap accessible, I would question that. The trails down into the sights are very steep. Here's the link to Mesa Verde National Park.
You'll need tickets to go to three of the sights--Long House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House. The cost is very, very reasonable--$3.00. Each one of these sights involves steep descents and ascents, climbing ladders, and narrow passages. It is strenous. Several other sights don't require tickets--Step House and Spruce Tree House. These don't have ladders but are still very steep.
Of the five places mentioned, we saw four. After doing these over two days I knew I wouldn't be able to climb a 32-foot ladder and 200 steep steps at Balcony House. I also drew the line at crawling down into a kiva with 10 other people at Spruce Tree House. That was too enclosed for me. My husband went down, but didn't stay there long.
It's difficult to say what impressed us the most. I will say that the Nordenskold Ruins were the most disappointing and I would recommend not doing this little 1.5 mile hike. We planned three days there and those days were filled. We planned in advance to see as much as we wanted to see and I have to say that we met those goals. Once we arrived we made a few adjustments, i.e., not going to Balcony House and also not going on the 2.5 mile hike to the Balcony House overlook or an equally long hike on the Petroglyh Trail.
There were three major areas to view, one of which is only accessible in the summer (Wetherhill Mesa). With the minor exception of our last day, the weather was very nice. We were also spoiled our first day visiting Long House by an extremely knowledgeable park ranger. She was amazingly informative and a pleasure to be around. We also ran into her as we toured the Step House. We were the last persons viewing that particular sight for the day and she was there to make sure all visitors were out safely. It was a pleasure to spend "private" time with this amazing woman. I was also pleased to see that she was huffing and puffing to get up those steep inclines just like me.
We discovered that of the 58,000 acres the park encompasses, 32,000 acres have burned in the last ten years. All of the wildfires were started by lightning strikes. The damage is still apparent and will be for all of our lifetimes. But the beauty of the area was still there. We also learned that the historical inhabitants of this area are no longer called Anasazi. They are now called Ancestral Puebloans. Apparently, Anasazi is a Navajo term and the inhabitants weren't Navajo. Also, though it's called Mesa Verde, the area isn't a mesa. A mesa has a slope on all four sides. This only had slopes on the south side and were technically called cuestas. The area was created millions of years ago by an inland sea.
There were a lot of people there, but it didn't feel crowded. The tours were never full. Some people dart in, see what they want and rush off. My husband and I like to take our time and explore, think about it all, and talk about the experience. We came home with little brochures from each place we visited and a ton of pictures.
Can you visit Mesa Verde? Well, there was a couple on one of the trails ahead of us. She had a pacemaker. He'd just had knee replacement surgery and indicated he wouldn't have been able to do it without new knees. Both made it down and up, slow but sure. There were a few places where it was a little too close to the edge for me, but I wasn't the only one who felt that way. All you do is step back. (I was more intimidated at the Grand Canyon.)
Mesa Verde was truly an amazing place. I would definitely recommend seeing it as circumstances allow. Small children probably wouldn't be a good fit here. Neither would people who get tired of exploring. An experience like this should be savored.
Here's the full list of what we visited:
Far View Sites
Mesa Top Loop and all overlooks associated with it
Nordenskold Ruin - disappointing
Spruce Tree House
Badger House Community
Mancos Valley Overlook
Montezuma Valley Overlook
Park Point Overlook
Kodak House Overlook