Step House

A paved trail winds through scrub oak forest to an ancient stone masonry village built into a cliff alcove. The alcove above the village is illuminated with afternoon sunlight.
The Trail to Step House

Step House is a free, self-guided cliff dwelling. Open between spring and fall; please check Hours of Operation.

The Step House trailhead is located next to the Wetherill Mesa kiosk. The one-mile trail is steep (a 100 foot descent and ascent on a winding path). Your time in the site is self-paced so you can enter and exit at your leisure. There is a ranger on duty in the dwelling to answer questions. Allow approximately 45 minutes to visit Step House.

The sites on Wetherill Mesa provide for much quieter and slower paced visit. It is worthwhile to spend at least half a day on Wetherill Mesa. It usually takes 3 to 4 hours to visit the Wetherill sites, but can easily take longer if someone wants to take advantage of all the walking and bicycle trails in the area. If you plan to also take a hiking tour of Long House, make sure to purchase a tour ticket before driving to Wetherill Mesa.

 

On Wetherill Mesa (map), Self-Guided, No Fee Required

 
Separation bar with triangles
 
A wooden pole and mud structure constructed over a pit.
Partially reconstructed pithouse at Step House

The Step House alcove is unique at Mesa Verde because it provides clear archeological evidence of two separate occupations—a Basketmaker III (BM III) pithouse community dating to early 600s CE, and a Pueblo III (P III) masonry pueblo dating to the 1200s. Basketmaker III sites are difficult to locate within alcoves because of later cliff dwelling activity. But because the Step House pueblo was built on the south end of the 300-foot (91 m) long alcove, it left at least part of the BM III site undisturbed. The six pithouses located here clearly indicate that at least some individuals chose to build their homes in alcoves a good six centuries before the construction of the now famous cliff dwellings.

 
There ancient baskets one round, one tall, and one bowl-like. All are woven with tan, plant material with back and red geometrical designs.
Basketmaker III baskets

NPS Photo

Because of the stunningly crafted baskets found with pit structures dating from about 550 to 750 CE, early archeologists named the people and the time period in which they lived, "Basketmaker." Today, although archeologists refer to the “Basketmaker” and “Pueblo” time periods, they recognize that the people are simply different generations of the same cultural group now known as the Ancestral Pueblo people.

 

Compare Step House in the late 1800s and today

Ancient, stone-masonry village rooms under an alcove with crumbled walls and piles of rubble. Ancient, stone-masonry village rooms under an alcove with crumbled walls and piles of rubble.

Left image
Step House, pre-stabilization
Credit: (MEVE-1532 RC-4-50 dr1 folder30a)

Right image
Step House, post-stabilization
Credit: NPS Photo

The Step House alcove contains six known Basketmaker III pit structures and a Pueblo III masonry pueblo with 27 rooms and 3 kivas. The first known excavation of Step House was by Gustaf Nordenskiõld, who was guided by local ranchers, the Wetherills in 1891. Although we now realize that some of the artifacts they discovered were from the earlier BM III period, they did not locate the pithouses and probably did not know about the earlier occupation.

Later in 1926, Park Superintendent Jesse L. Nusbaum and his crew excavated the first three pithouses. They were located beneath a midden that included a two- to six-foot-deep (0.6 to 1.8 m) layer of refuse such as animal bones and broken pottery that had been deposited by the later Pueblo III occupants some 500 years later.

In 1962, Robert Nichols and Al Lancaster worked at Step House as part of the Wetherill Mesa Project. They stabilized existing masonry structures and cleared trash and debris down to the alcove floor. A series of retaining walls running along the front of the masonry pueblo were discovered and restored or reconstructed. They also uncovered three additional pithouses, two of which were buried underneath the Pueblo III masonry pueblo.

All archeological sites, especially those with standing architecture like Step House, require continued assessment and maintenance. Natural factors such as rainfall and alcove spalling, as well as animals and insects, all impact the integrity of the site's fabric. As a public site, conditions at Step House are routinely monitored on an annual basis. To learn how the park continues to preserve archeological sites for future generations, visit Archeological Site Conservation Program.

Last updated: April 19, 2021

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PO Box 8
Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330

Phone:

970-529-4465

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