Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list, but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour. Here are ten best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park.
Important Update for 2021: Tours of the cliff dwellings are not being offered due to COVID-19, along with several other sites in the park. Before planning your trip, get updates on the national park website.
Interesting Facts About Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde officially became a national park on June 29, 1906. This park was established by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect American Indian history.
Not only is this a national park but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This park preserves more than 5,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. This is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.
The first cliff dwellings were built and inhabited roughly 1500 years ago. During the height of the Puebloan civilization, it is estimated that 22,000 people lived here. The civilization thrived until the late 13th century, when drought, cold temperatures, and overpopulation forced the Puebloans to emigrate to New Mexico and Arizona.
The park gets its name ‘Mesa Verde,’ which means ‘green table,’ from the juniper and pinyon trees that are found in the Navajo Canyon.
Overview of the Park
There is one entrance into the park and it is located on Highway 160. After passing through the main entrance, you will wind your way up on top of the mesa.
It’s easiest to think of this park in three sections: (1) the viewpoints along Mesa Top Ruins Road between the main entrance and Far View Lodge, (2) the sites along Mesa Top Ruins Road and Mesa Top Loop Road, and (3) Wetherill Mesa.
1: It’s a pretty drive on Mesa Top Ruins Road through the first section of the park (the white road on the map below). Along the way you will pass a campground, several scenic overlooks, and a few hiking trails.
2: At Far View Lodge, the road forks. Continue on Mesa Top Ruins Road (in orange) to visit the biggest cluster of sights in Mesa Verde. Near the end of this drive, the road forks again. Drive the Mesa Top Loop for several great viewpoints of cliff dwellings and the canyons and drive the Cliff Palace Loop to visit Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and hike the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail.
From the park entrance, it takes 40 minutes to drive to Mesa Top Loop and the Cliff Palace Loop.
3: At Far View Lodge, turn right onto Wetherill Mesa Road to get to the Long House and the Step House (in red). It takes almost one hour to drive from the main entrance to the end of Wetherill Mesa. And it takes 40 minutes to drive from the end of Wetherill Mesa Road to Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop.
Best Things to do in Mesa Verde
Here are 10 great things to do in Mesa Verde. If you save the map below to your Google account, all of the points of interest will appear on your Google map.
How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (cliff dwellings, viewpoints, etc.). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
1. Tour a Cliff Dwelling
Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House cliff dwellings can only be visited on a ranger-guided tour.
Cliff Palace. This is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. Tours last 1 hour and you will walk 400 meters (a quarter mile) round trip and climb four ladders. Cliff Palace is located on Mesa Top Ruins Road.
Pro Travel Tip: Cliff Palace is the most popular cliff dwelling to photograph. On the tour, you will get the best views. But if you can’t get tour tickets, or if you prefer to tour a different cliff dwelling, it is still possible to get a terrific view of Cliff Palace. The best place to photograph Cliff Palace is on Cliff Palace Overlook. This viewpoint is located along the walk to the cliff dwelling but you can still go here even if you are not taking a tour. Another place to get a nice view of Cliff Palace is from Sun Temple, but you will be farther away, so I recommend bringing a telephoto lens if you have one.
Balcony House. This one-hour tour is the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour in Mesa Verde. You’ll climb numerous ladders, crawl through a tunnel, and scale a 17-foot ladder to exit the site. Balcony House is located on Mesa Top Ruins Road.
Long House. This in-depth tour lasts 2 hours. You will walk just over 2 miles and climb several ladders. It is located on Wetherill Mesa, which is a long drive from the other main sites in Mesa Verde, so keep this in mind when choosing which tour you want to do.
Dominic Gentilcore PhD/shutterstock.com
There are also special tours that are available. See the Balcony House at sunrise, tour Cliff Palace at twilight, or take a small group tour of Square Tower House or Spring House. Get the full list on the national park service website.
How to Get Your Tour Tickets
Important Note for 2020: Currently, tours are not being offered of the cliff dwellings due to COVID-19. However, if conditions improve, tours will be offered in limited numbers. Get updates on the national park service website.
Tour tickets can be purchased online through recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. A small percentage of tickets will be available the same day as the tour on a first-come first-served basis. To make sure you get the tour and time you want, make your reservation in advance.
You must pick up a hard copy ticket for your tour, which can be done at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, the Morefield Ranger Station, or at the Durango Welcome Center in Durango. Learn more here.
Tours of the cliff dwellings are offered roughly from the end of May through September or October, although each cliff dwelling has a slightly different schedule. You can see the full schedule here.
2. Take a Self-Guided Tour of Step House
If you want to visit a cliff dwelling and prefer to take a self-guided tour, put Step House on your list. On this tour, you will walk through the cliff dwelling, see the pithouse, and even see a few petroglyphs. This tour takes about an hour. It’s located on Wetherill Mesa, so expect a long drive to get to the sites on Mesa Top Loop and Mesa Top Ruins Road (it takes 40 minutes to drive from the end of Wetherill Mesa Road to the sights on Mesa Top Ruins Road).
3. Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House is the best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Currently, tours are not being offered of this cliff dwelling, but you can get a great view of it from the Spruce Tree Overlook, near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
4. Hike Petroglyph Point Trail
This 2.4-mile round-trip hike starts at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. It passes the viewpoint for Spruce Tree House before continuing along the top of the mesa. Along the way, you get nice views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons. The trail ends at the petroglyph panel and then loops back to your starting point. Here is a map of the trail.
View from the Petroglyph Trail
5. Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
Learn more about the history and culture of the ancient Puebloan people in this museum.
Pro Travel Tip: Park in the main parking lot for the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. From this lot, you can visit the museum, hike Petroglyph Point Trail, and see Spruce Tree House. There are bathrooms here as well as a bookstore. The Spruce Canyon Trail also starts and ends here, a 2.4 mile hike that descends down into the valley.
6. See the Sights Along Mesa Top Loop
This 6-mile scenic drive takes you past 12 viewpoints. Not only will you be able to see cliff dwellings and archaeological sites, but you will also have great views of canyons.
Note: This loop is one-way only and is open from 8 am to sunset. You will drive the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. Depending on how frequently you stop, this drive can take 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Here are our recommended stops along the drive. All of these are very quick and just take a few minutes of your time.
Navajo Canyon View. Decent view of Navajo Canyon. If you plan to hike the Petroglyph Trail or Soda Canyon Trail, the views are better than from this viewpoint (so you aren’t missing anything by skipping this).
Navajo Canyon View
Square Tower House. A short walk takes you to a viewpoint of this cliff dwelling. Square Tower House was inhabited between 1200 and 1300 AD and it is the tallest cliff dwelling in the park. Definitely worth the stop!
Mesa Top Sites. Worth it if you want to see more archaeological sites. On display are kivas and the foundations of towers that were used as defensive structures or as a place of refuge (their purpose is still a mystery).
Sun View Point. From this viewpoint you have a great view across Fewkes and Cliff Canyons. Across these canyons are the Sun Temple, Mummy House, Oak Tree House, Fire Temple, and Cliff Palace.
Oak Tree House and Fire Temple. If you want to see more cliff dwellings, it’s worth the very quick stops at the viewpoints for Oak Tree House and Fire Temple.
Oak Tree House
Sun Temple. This is the final stop on Mesa Top Loop Road. The Sun Temple was used as a place of worship. But you also get a great view of Cliff Palace.
The view of Cliff Palace from Sun Temple
Photography Tip: For the best photos of the cliff dwellings, it helps to bring a telephoto lens. All of our photos were taken with a 24-70 mm lens but I did crop a few of our photos. For the best photos of Cliff Palace from Sun View Point, go in the afternoon. In the morning you will be looking right into the sun which makes photographing Cliff Palace challenging.
7. Hike Soda Canyon Overlook Trail
This flat, 1.2-mile hike leads to a viewpoint of Balcony House and the cliff dwellings in Soda Canyon. We liked this hike more than the Petroglyph Trail. Soda Canyon Overlook Trail is located on Cliff Palace Loop Road.
The view of Balcony House (in the arch) and the upper parking lot on Cliff Palace Loop.
8. Explore the Far View Sites
The Far View Sites is a complex of dwellings and farms that were used between 900 and 1300 AD. The 0.75-mile trail takes you past six archeological sites that teach you about Puebloan life and how people lived on top of the mesa.
9. Park Point Fire Lookout
This is the highest point in Mesa Verde National Park and well worth the stop. In fact, this was one of our favorite experiences here.
At this viewpoint you are standing at 8572 feet. When skies are clear, you can see New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. It’s an awesome view.
10. Point Lookout Trail
For spectacular views of Montezuma and Mancos Valleys, hike to the top of Point Lookout. This hike is 2.2-miles long round-trip and is located near the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park. This was high on our to-do list but unfortunately the trail was closed during our visit.
For a narrowed down list of things to do in Mesa Verde National Park, here were our five top experiences (note, we could not take a cliff dwelling tour, due to COVID-19, but it’s the best experience to have in the park):
- Take a tour of a cliff dwelling
- See the Spruce Tree House
- Drive Mesa Top Loop Road
- Take in the view from Park Point Fire Lookout
- Hike the Soda Canyon Trail
How Much Time Do You Need in Mesa Verde?
One day is all that you need in Mesa Verde National Park, unless you plan on taking multiple tours or hiking multiple trails.
If you only have half of a day, take a guided tour of Cliff Palace or Balcony House and see the viewpoints along Mesa Top Ruins Road. Visit the Park Point Fire Lookout as you exit the park.
If you have one full day in the park, you have enough time to tour two cliff dwelllings. Balcony House and Cliff Palace are located near each other, so they can be easier to schedule. However, if you tour Long House and Balcony House or Cliff Palace, you will get to see both Wetherill Mesa and the Mesa Top Loop sites. With your extra time, drive Mesa Top Loop Road, see the Spruce Tree House, hike to Soda Canyon, and visit the Far View Sites. As you exit the park, stop at the Park Point Fire Lookout.
With more than one day in Mesa Verde, you can do everything on this list. You will have enough time to take guided tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House, or take one of the special tours.
When to Go
The best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park is from May through September, when guided tours of the cliff dwellings are offered. Just be aware that midday temperatures can be sweltering so you will have to be prepared to deal with the heat. If you plan to do any hiking, do this first thing in the morning, when temperatures are cool.
Wetherill Mesa is typically only open in the summer and fall seasons.
During the winter months, the park is open. You can drive Mesa Top Loop and see the cliff dwellings from the viewpoints. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing is popular in the winter.
In the spring, guided tours have not started yet, but many of the scenic drives and viewpoints are open.
View from Mesa Top Road to Cortez
How to Get Here
Here are the driving distances and times from nearby destinations:
Four Corners: 50 miles, 1 hour
Monument Valley: 150 miles, 2.5 hours
Durango, CO: 36 miles, 40 minutes
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP: 155 miles, 3.25 hours
Great Sand Dunes National Park: 200 miles, 4 hours
Albuquerque, NM: 250 miles, 4.25 hours
Where to Stay
Inside of the park, you can stay at the Far View Lodge, which is open from May 24 through September 30 in 2020. This lodge is located in the heart of the park so it won’t take long to drive to the main sites.
Morefield Campground. This campground is located inside of Mesa Verde National Park, not far from the main entrance. There are campsites and 15 RV hookups.
Cortez is the largest town near Mesa Verde National Park. It takes just 15 minutes to drive to park entrance. In town, there are many hotels and lodges to choose from as well as a good selection of restaurants.
Holiday Inn Express. This is where we stayed. It’s nothing fancy but it was clean, quiet, the Wi-Fi worked well, and had a great location in town.
Retro Inn at Mesa Verde. This very highly rated property is located in the heart of Cortez.
Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. This is a historic ranch that is located near some archaeological sites. Guests can participate in daily chores, such as feeding the animals. Rooms can accommodate up to 6 people so this is a great pick for families. This property is located outside of Cortez and it takes 45 minutes to drive to Mesa Verde National Park.
Where to Eat in Cortez
The Mexican food at La Casita is amazing and they have outdoor seating (this was our favorite restaurant in town and we ate here several times). Thai Cortez serves good Thai food. Destination Grill serves great cocktails and very good burgers (and it’s within walking distance of the Holiday Inn). If you are craving pizza or pasta, we recommend Lotsa Pasta & That’za Pizza (Tim and Tyler liked their meatball sandwich). The Loungin’ Lizard is a bar/restaurant that also serves great food.
Plan Your Visit
Cost: $30 May 1 to October 31; $20 November 1 to April 30. This is the cost per vehicle and your entrance ticket is valid for 7 days. Guided tours have an additional fee.
Hours: The park is always open, but some viewpoints and scenic drives have limited hours. Visit the national park website for operating hours.
Current Conditions: Visit the Mesa Verde National Park official website for current conditions in the park.
If you have any questions about the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park, or how to plan your trip, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Colorado:
- Great Sand Dunes: 8 Amazing Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison: How to Hike the Gunnison Route
- Rocky Mountain: Top 10 Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rocky Mountain: 15 Great Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rocky Mountain: Sky Pond: One of the Best Hikes in RMNP
- Scenic Drives: 9 Spectacular Scenic Drives in Colorado
If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Destination Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
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