Tag Archives: trail

Mesa Verde National Park

Overview

The impressive and numerous (around 600) cliff dwellings here were built by Ancestral Puebloans 600 to 800 years ago before their abandonment.  After a day or two at Mesa Verde, you will understand why since 1906 it has remained the only “National Park” dedicated to preserving an archaeological site.

Highlights

Chapin Museum, Spruce Tree House, Petroglyph Point Trail, Cliff Palace, Step House, annual open house with luminaria

Must-Do Activity

Purchase tickets for guided tours of the ruins at the shiny new visitor center off Highway 160 before driving 20 miles to Long House, Cliff Palace, or Balcony House (the best tour for families).   Leave time to explore Chapin Mesa Museum first, where a high-quality film introduces the history of the region.  When it finally reopens years after a rock fall, you can then take a quick but steep hike to Spruce Tree House, accessible without a paid tour, where you have the opportunity to climb down a ladder into the dim interior of a reconstructed kiva. 

Best Trail

After driving to the less-trafficked Weatherill Mesa, bike or walk the paved road to Nordenskold No. 16 Trailhead, numerous pit-houses, and Step House Loop Trail. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

We think Square Tower House is the most photogenic ruins in the park and can be viewed from an overlook off Mesa Top Loop Road.  In summer 2018, we made reservations for a special guided tour of only 10 people to enter these ruins.

Peak Season

Summer, but it can get hot with little shade atop the mesas.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but some are closed in winter when tours are not offered.

Camping

Morefield Campground has more than 400 campsites atop the mesa; 15 with full RV hookups.  No backcountry camping is allowed.


This design we created to celebrate Mesa Verde National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – What month does the NPS host an evening open house with thousands of candle luminaria, free food, and live music?

Pipestone National Monument

Overview

This site is famous as a place people have come for 2,000 years to mine the red quartzite rock (also known as catlinite).  The soft sedimentary stone is relatively easy to carve into smoking pipes and effigies.  Only American Indians are allowed to quarry here today with the proper permits.

Highlights

Pipestone quarries, museum, carving demonstrations, Winnewissa Falls

Must-Do Activity

April through October, you can watch American Indian carvers at the National Park Service museum demonstrate how to sculpt this soft yet durable stone into hollow pipes and other beautiful ornaments.  It is illegal to remove any rocks without a permit, but you can buy carvings in the gift shop.

Best Trail

A 0.75-mile trail leads past historic rock quarries to Winnewissa Falls, just the spot to be on a hot summer afternoon.  The remnants of tallgrass prairie protected within the park boundaries give an idea of what this entire region might have looked like before it was converted to farms.

Instagram-worthy Photo

28 miles southwest across the border in South Dakota’s Palisades State Park where the same red quartzite rock dramatically rises above muddy Split Rock Creek and is a great place to picnic or watch rock climbers.

Peak Season

Summer, but it is open year round.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/pipe/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is a private campground near the monument entrance and Split Rock Creek State Park is 8 miles south.

Explore More – Who is the famous artist that catlinite is named after?

Ocmulgee National Monument

Overview

Beginning around 1,100 years ago, the Mississippian Culture became the third and final group of mound builders in the eastern U.S.  In contrast to earlier inhabitants at Poverty Point and Effigy Mounds, they were the first to rely heavily on agriculture.  Located in Macon, Georgia, Ocmulgee National Monument is one of many examples of temple mounds from this time period.

Highlights

Indian mounds, museum, film, Opelofa Nature Trail

Must-Do Activity

Artifacts dating back to 8000 BCE can be found in the National Park Service museum.  On your walk to the mounds, stop in the reconstructed 42-foot wide earthlodge.  It was an important meeting place for religious leaders (similar to a great kiva) and offers a glimpse into the Mississippian Culture.  There is also evidence of an English trading post from 1690 and trenches from the Civil War.

Best Trail

Walk from the visitor center, under the railroad tracks, and up the stairs to access the top of the 55-foot tall Great Temple Mound.  Then watch for wildlife along the Opelofa Nature Trail in the Walnut Creek wetlands.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The Mississippian Culture had a complex social hierarchy, with a royal Great Sun who lived atop this flat-topped temple mound and traveled on a canopied litter carried by servants.  When a Great Sun died his people made human sacrifices so he would not enter the afterlife alone. 

Peak Season

Open year round

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/ocmu/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Indian Springs and High Falls State Parks are both about 35 miles from the monument.

Explore More – What was the population of this city in AD1000?

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Overview

Quarrying in this part of the panhandle of Texas dates back 13,000 years to the last Ice Age.  The flint found here was especially good for making spear points and was traded across the continent over the centuries.  However, the harsh climate meant few humans lived here until recently, except between AD1200 and 1450.  Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument is jointly managed with Lake Meredith National Recreation Area by the National Park Service (NPS).

Highlights

Flint knapping demonstrations, 10-minute film, ranger-guided tour of quarries

Must-Do Activity

Outside the NPS visitor center, dedicated park rangers frequently demonstrate the art of knapping points from flint blanks (not from within park boundaries) and other primitive survival skills. 

Best Trail

We recommend you take the free ranger-guided tour (offered twice daily) up to the quarries to get the full experience.  It is a bit of a climb, but is the only way access the sites.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The flint here not only holds a great edge, it is also beautifully colored.  The rangers will be happy to let you take rock samples home from knapping demonstrations (since the flint is not from within park boundaries).

Peak Season

Spring and fall, as it can be very hot in the summer.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/alfl/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Paved to the National Monument and many good dirt roads surround Lake Meredith National Recreation Area.

Camping

Free primitive camping is available around Lake Meredith where there are many dirt roads to explore, as well as developed campgrounds (fee).

Explore More – What is the origin of the interesting name “Alibates?”

Russell Cave National Monument

Overview

Humans have been visiting Russell Cave in northeast Alabama since about the time its limestone roof collapsed creating an entrance around 10,000 years ago.  A timeline of human invention was preserved in the floor of this hunting camp for millennia, from atlatls to bows, pottery to pump drills.  The park rangers were the friendliest we encountered during Pretirement and often offer demonstrations of prehistoric tools and weapons.

Highlights

Museum with American Indian artifacts, boardwalk to cave entrance, nature trails

Must-Do Activity

There are a select few artifacts displayed on site in the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center.  From there a short boardwalk leads through the forest to an overlook of the archaeological digs at the cave entrance, which you cannot enter. 

Best Trail

Two nature trails (0.6 and 1.2 miles long) split off from the boardwalk to explore the surrounding hills.

Instagram-worthy Photo

This cave is not famous for its pretty cave formations, but for its incredible archaeological record.  If you want to see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, I recommend you head west to the impressive Cathedral Caverns State Park.

Peak Season

Summer, when it can be muggy and buggy.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/ruca/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but RVs are not recommended on Highway 156 if entering from the north.

Camping

DeSoto State Park has a campground and primitive camping is allowed at three sites in nearby Little River Canyon National Preserve.

Explore More – How far down into the cave floor did archaeologists dig in the 1950s?