While researching my trip to Mesa Verde, I found that the park is a small chunk out of the surrounding Ute Indian reservation. Unsurprisingly, the ancestral Puebloans who built the cliff dwellings paid no attention to those non-existent divisions, so there are many dwellings in the reservation as well. The tribe runs tours by appointment. I had read good things online, so I decided to spend most of my second day in the reservation. I was a bit nervous when I arrived at the visitor center, which looked like (and was) an old gas station. The guides showed up a bit late. It turned out to be worth the worry, as my tour had only two other people in it.
The Ute expect visitors to be more physically fit than the Park Service does. The ladders are taller, and the ruins are more than 20 yards from a parking lot. This may explain why there are no crowds. We didn’t see anyone that wasn’t on the tour, which was great.
Although you cannot go just anywhere in the ruins, the Ute are much more permissive than the Park Service. You can walk on the ruins in most places where it is safe to do so, which makes it feel much less constrained and museum-like.
Many of the buildings in Mesa Verde National Park are actually reconstructions. The Ute do not believe it is respectful to their ancestors to alter the sites, so they have done no reconstruction and only minimal changes to stabilize the ruins. Even so, the ruins are in remarkably good shape.
The reservation was definitely my favorite part of the trip. If you’re heading down that way I recommend checking them out. The tours are not particularly well publicized, but you can find all the information on their website.