Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park preserves the archeological past of the Ancestral Puebloan people. Visitors to this park will no doubt be amazed at the cliff dwellings that are tucked away in remote, difficult-to-reach areas. But visiting Mesa Verde National Park is about more than just touring the cliff dwellings.
In fact, the cliff dwellings make up just a small portion of the 4,500 archeological sites scattered around the park. At Mesa Verde, you’ll also have an opportunity to tour the mesa tops, enjoy the sweeping landscape and learn about the heritage and culture of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Most of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park are only accessed on a ranger-guided tour. Additionally, the road to Wetherill Mesa (the west side of the park) is closed in winter (late October through April). Finally, road work and other construction projects can close certain areas of the park at any time. Thus, it is important to do your research on what is open and secure tour reservations before visiting Mesa Verde National Park.
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What to Do at Mesa Verde National Park
By far, the most popular thing to do when visiting Mesa Verde National Park is to tour the cliff dwellings. Most of these can only be accessed by a ticketed ranger-guided tour, which are typically offered from May through October. Only Step House (on Wetherill Mesa) can be toured without a ticket.
Note: the park map indicates that Spruce Tree House (on Chapin Mesa) can be accessed via a self-guided tour but access to this site has been restricted since 2015 due to safety concerns. According to the park’s website, “the site remains closed for the foreseeable future.”
All tour tickets can be purchased on recreation.gov up to 14 days in advance at 8:00 am MST. In our experience, tours sell out quickly, so we recommend booking your tickets as soon as they are released. Also, be sure to check the park’s website as the reservation process and timeline can change at any time.
Pro Tip: Be sure to set up your account and payment methods on recreation.gov and make sure you are logged in before tickets are released. This will make checking out much faster and easier.
In addition to touring the cliff dwellings, there are a few mesa top scenic drives and archeological sites that you can tour on your own, year-round. Many archeological sites are accessible within just a few steps of overlooks or parking areas.
Finally, there are a few hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty that allow you to explore more remote archeological structures and the surrounding landscape.
Where to Go at Mesa Verde National Park
As with most parks, your first stop at Mesa Verde National Park should be the visitor center.
Located just off the highway, the Visitor & Research Center houses exhibits on the Ancestral Puebloans that lived here more than 1,000 years ago and their way of life.
While at the Visitor Center, be sure to talk to a ranger to get up-to-date information about the park. When we visited, in the summer of 2022, we were also able to get a couple of brochures about hiking and other detailed guides. Be sure to ask for these to make sure you have accurate information on what is open during your visit.
Note: If you have a reservation for an early tour, you’ll need to go straight there and stop at the visitor center as you exit the park. Or, if possible, stop at the visitor the afternoon before.
From the visitor center, the main road continues south and west into the park. If you did not get a map at the visitor center, be sure to get one when you pass through the entrance station.
As you drive in on the main park road, there are four different overlooks that allow you to get out and enjoy the view over the valleys below. A couple of them offer views right at the parking area. Others require a short walk.
If you can handle a short but fairly steep uphill trek, be sure to stop at the Park Point Overlook. The paved path takes you up to a fire lookout tower with sweeping views in all directions. Just a couple of miles down the road, the Geologic Overlook offers two different viewpoints and exhibit signs on the natural forces that created the varied landscapes around the park.
Far View Area
About 15 miles from the entrance, the Far View Lodge and Restaurant provides a hotel and restaurant. Other than camping, this is the only lodging inside the park. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to enjoy the lodge or restaurant on this visit. It’s definitely on our list for when we return, though!
Just across the road, the Far View Terrace contains a gift shop, coffee shop and cafe. This is a great place to stop for a snack or light meal or to purchase a souvenir.
Note: Both the Lodge and Terrace are only open from late April to late October.
Here, the road forks, taking you to the two different mesas (Chapin and Wetherill). At the end of these two roads are where you will find the cliff dwellings.
It is important to note that the drive to both Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa is 1-1.5 hours from the main entrance. Additionally, it’s about a 1.25-hour drive from the cliff dwellings on Wetherill Mesa to those on Chapin Mesa. Consider drive times carefully when booking tours, especially if trying to book more than one tour on a given day.
Far View Sites Complex
Just a short way down Chapin Mesa Road, the Far View Sites Complex provides the opportunity for self-guided exploration of a mesa top community. The main structure is the Far View House. There are also four additional villages and a dry reservoir.
You’ll follow a level but unpaved trail to the six different sites. Exhibit signs along the way provide more information about the Ancestral Puebloan life that dominated this area between 900-1300 CE.
At the end of Chapin Mesa Road, you’ll find a cluster of cliff dwellings and other archeological sites. Three separate loops provide access to visitor services, mesa top structures, scenic overlooks, hiking trails and cliff dwellings.
The Spruce Tree Terrace is the only place in this area of the park to get food or drinks, which is counter-service snack bar items. Along this loop, the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum houses artifacts of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here many years ago. Sadly, this was closed during our visit.
Just beside the museum, you can enjoy a view of Spruce Tree House, which is the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park. As noted above, you cannot currently tour this site.
Continuing south, Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop are each 6-mile scenic drives. Be sure to download the audio tour, A Pueblo Perspective on Mesa Verde, before arriving as cell service in the park is spotty at best. In this audio tour, a park ranger who is a direct descendant of the people who lived here shares information and stories about the sites along the Mesa Top Loop drive.
Highlights of the Mesa Top Loop road include pit houses and cliff dwelling overlooks. The At Sun Temple overlook, you can view the Cliff Palace cliff dwelling on the other side of the canyon. (As a reminder, tours of Cliff Palace are only possible on a ticketed ranger-guided tour.)
All sites along this loop can be visited via short, paved paths and can be accessed without tickets or reservations.
Ranger-Guided Tours on Chapin Mesa
The Cliff Palace Loop, which is closed in winter, provides access to the Cliff Palace and Balcony House cliff dwellings. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and was once home to more than 100 people. Tours require descending uneven steps and climbing four ladders. The tour of Balcony House is one of the most adventurous in the park and requires scaling several ladders and squeezing through a narrow tunnel.
Note: Access to both of these cliff dwellings is via ranger-guided tour only. Be sure to purchase tickets when they are released, as noted above.
There is one hiking trail along the Cliff Palace Loop: Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. This easy 1.2-mile roundtrip hike takes you through a pinyon-juniper forest to several overlooks. Along the way, you’ll have views of Balcony House and other cliff dwellings in Soda Canyon.
Sadly, road construction during our visit meant that we did not have the opportunity to visit the area of the park. We were bummed but still felt like we had a relatively complete visit since we did get to tour Long House on Wetherill Mesa (more on that below).
To the west, Wetherill Mesa is the more remote area of the park and is only open from May to late October. The road winds 12 miles to the end, with several scenic overlooks along the way. Be sure to stop at as many of these as time allows. Also, be sure to note the vehicle restrictions outlined below.
At the end of the road, you’ll find a large parking lot. From here, you can walk (or ride a bicycle in some areas) to archeological sites, including cliff dwellings and mesa-top structures. There also is an information desk and a small snack bar.
Note: the snack bar only sells packaged items such as chips, candy bars and drinks. If you want a full meal, you should pack a picnic lunch.
Ranger-Guided Tour on Wetherill Mesa
The only ranger-guided tour on Wetherill Mesa is Long House, Mesa Verde’s second largest cliff dwelling. Thankfully, we were able to get a ticket for this tour!
To reach the Long House cliff dwelling, you’ll have to walk nearly a mile (about 20-30 minutes) along the paved and mostly flat Long House Loop Trail. A sign marks the start of the unpaved Long House Trail, which is where the tour officially starts. From there, you have to hike an unpaved trail down the cliffside to reach the cliff dwelling.
Additionally, touring Long House requires climbing two 15-foot ladders. All that to say, if you’re interested in doing this tour (or any cliff dwelling tour), you need to be physically able to hike on uneven surfaces with moderate elevation change and scale ladders.
The tour itself was extraordinary. Seeing a cliff dwelling is fascinating. Walking through one is simply spectacular. There really is just no way to describe the awe that we felt thinking about what it took to not only build these structures but live here.
As we walked through the various rooms, rangers provided historical details about the structure and the Ancestral Puebloan people. While getting advance tickets is a bit of a hassle, I have to say that having the guided tour really makes a difference. One, it’s important to limit the traffic through these fragile sites. Two, getting historical insight really makes the place come alive.
And while the cliff dwelling is amazing in and of itself, the view throughout the canyon is breathtaking as well.
Badger House Community
There are several other archeological sites along the paved Long House Loop Trail. If you have time either before or after (or instead of) your Long House tour, you should definitely check out the other sites. The entire loop is about 5 miles but there are several places where you can cut it short.
After leaving Long House, we continued our hike through the Badger House Community. Here, a one-mile loop takes you to four excavated mesa top villages where you’ll learn more about the Ancestral Pueblo life and culture.
From there, we made our way back to the parking lot and then over to Step House.
Step House is currently the only cliff dwelling that can be toured without advance reservations. That said, the trail is only open when it is staffed by a ranger. Typically, that is 9 am until about 3:00 from May 1 to late October. The exact times and dates vary, so be sure to check the park’s website for current information.
The one-mile loop trail descends 165 feet, so it is moderately difficult. During our visit, there was some construction on one side of the trail, so we had to do it as an out and back.
At the bottom, you’ll reach the small cliff dwelling tucked into an alcove. As noted, there is a ranger there to answer questions but you will not have nearly the same experience as on a ranger-guided tour.
Still, if you are unable to get tour tickets, this is a great opportunity to walk through one of these mind-blowing structures.
Additionally, while the hike down (and back up) isn’t easy, the trail is not quite as difficult as the one down to Long House. And, you can tour Step House without climbing any ladders. (As you can see in the photo above, there is one ladder but you do not have to climb it to tour the structure.)
Planning Your Visit to Mesa Verde National Park
As you can see, visiting Mesa Verde National takes a little more advanced planning than some other national parks. Yes, there are quite a few things you can do that do not require advanced reservations. Still, with seasonal road closures you want to make sure that you are able to see everything you want to see, especially if you know this will be your one and only visit.
Of course, if you’re like us, you may not mind “needing” to go back to feel like you’ve fully explored the park!
When to Go
Additionally, consider the weather and how that might impact your visit. Late spring and early fall are great times to visit. All roads should be open and temperatures will generally be mild. In the summer, high temperatures frequently climb into the 90s. You’ll need to carry plenty of water with you if you are doing any hiking. That includes hiking to and from cliff dwellings.
Afternoon thunderstorms are also frequent in the summer, especially in July and August. Use caution while driving and hiking if it is raining and, especially, if there is any lightning.
Winter temperatures are typically mild, though it can snow as early as October and as late as May. Also, remember that Far View Lodge, Wetherill Mesa and Cliff Palace Loop are all closed October-May.
How Much Time
Finally, be sure to allow yourself enough time to see and do everything you are interested in. If you aren’t planning on doing a lot of hiking and/or ranger-guided tours, then one day is probably enough for visiting Mesa Verde National Park. If you want to do guided tours on both Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, I’d suggest allowing yourself at least two days.
We did almost everything in one day (remember, Cliff Palace Loop was closed) but it was a really long day. And, we did drive back into the park a second day to tour the Far View sites. I think that scheduling two tours in one day would just be really rushed and would not allow you time to actually enjoy the rest of the park.
Yes, touring the cliff dwellings and the archeological sites is the big draw. That said, the drive through the park is really nice, so allowing yourself time to stop at the overlooks and enjoy the views is part of the experience. Don’t limit your time so much that you can’t enjoy it.
Where to Stay
The closest town to Mesa Verde National Park is Cortez, CO, which is just about 10 miles west of the park. Durango is a larger town that is about 35 miles east. We decided to stay in Cortez and are really glad that we did! While it is fairly small, Cortez has a cute downtown area, plenty of hotels and campgrounds and tons of great restaurants.
In Cortez, we camped at Sundance RV Park for a full week while we were visiting Mesa Verde National Park and several other park sites in the area. What we enjoyed most about Sundance RV Park is that it is located right on Main Street, just on the edge of downtown. This meant that we were able to easily walk into town for restaurants or shopping.
Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article on the other national park sites near Cortez.
Before our arrival, we were concerned that there may be a lot of road noise since the campground was so close to town. I have to say, we were pleasantly surprised that the noise really wasn’t that bad. Additionally, while the campsites weren’t quite as large as you’d find at a public campground, they were big enough and we had plenty of room for our trailer and truck.
If you prefer to stay at a hotel, there are plenty in the area. You can choose from small, local motels or many of the national chains, including Hampton Inn. While we haven’t stayed at this particular location, we’ve always had a good experience with Hampton Inn and other Hilton brand hotels.
There are a couple of vehicle restrictions inside the park that are important to note. These are especially important for anyone driving or towing an RV into the park.
First, trailers and towed vehicles are not permitted past Morefield Campground, which is located 4 miles off the highway. If needed, there is a parking lot near the entrance station where you can park these vehicles.
Second, there is a tunnel just beyond the campground (between mileposts 4 and 5) with a height restriction of 20.5 feet. This should not be an issue for more vehicles, but it is important to be aware of. Bicycles passing through the tunnel must have a white light on the front and red light reflector on the back.
Finally, Wetherill Mesa Road has steep grades and sharp curves. For this reason, vehicles on this road are restricted to 25 feet in length and 8,000 pounds. If driving a large motorhome, you’ll need to use a towed vehicle to access this area of the park.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cortez
For such a small town, we ended up finding quite a few great places to eat and drink in Cortez.
For breakfast, check out Beny’s Diner for a large and tasty Breakfast Burrito! It’s stuffed with potatoes, eggs, cheese and your choice of meat. Then you can top it with green or red sauce, which I definitely recommend! There’s also a wide variety of Mexican-style breakfast dishes, such as huevos rancheros, or traditional American breakfast.
If you need something fairly quick and casual, stop in at Burger Boy, a traditional drive-In burger joint. Just stay in your car, a server will come out to take your order, then bring your food when it’s ready. It’s nothing fancy, but it is a tasty burger!
For a nicer meal, The Farm Bistro serves lunch and dinner with a focus on local meat and produce. We particularly enjoyed the Moroccan-style Lamb Meatballs and Mesa View Ranch Yak Burger. They also have a nice cocktail menu or you can try local Colorado wine. We particularly liked that we were able to get a nice meal in a casual atmosphere.
If you’re looking for local beer, you’ve got a couple of options. In terms of a brewpub, Main Street Brewery & Restaurant has a fairly extensive beer selection and a large food menu. While we enjoyed our food and drink, it wasn’t anything super special. Still, everyone is sure to find something they would enjoy here.
Our top choice for local beer goes to WildEdge Brewing Collective. We actually enjoyed it so much, we went back the next day. And, if we had discovered it earlier in our stay, we might have gone another time or two. Yes, it was really that good. This quickly won us over as one of the best local breweries we’ve ever visited.
They have a rotating beer menu, so we won’t recommend anything specific but I will say that everything we had was fantastic. We particularly enjoyed that we actually found unique beers but nothing super crazy. They have a small food menu, consisting mostly of bar-style appetizers and a couple of sandwiches. Whether you sit at the bar, on a couch or enjoy the patio, you’re sure to enjoy an afternoon at WildEdge Brewing!
Final Thoughts on Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
Without dizzying mountains, flowing waterfalls, spewing geysers or epic hiking trails, Mesa Verde National Park may not hold the same awe as some other national parks. But it has something most other parks don’t: a rich cultural heritage and a vast array of archeological artifacts.
And that’s why we don’t like comparing parks to each other. Each park is unique and holds its own treasures, whether that is natural beauty, culture, history or wildlife.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park provides the opportunity to learn about a culture that is so vastly different from modern life it is difficult to comprehend. And that’s exactly why we visit America’s national parks. To enjoy, to learn, to grow.
Taking a ranger-guided tour of a cliff dwelling is special. Just make sure you plan ahead and book a tour before you arrive. But, if you aren’t physically able to do a tour or miss your opportunity to get tickets, there are other ways to enjoy the park and learn about the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Whatever you do at Mesa Verde, we hope that you leave with a better understanding of the people who lived here more than 1,000 years ago and their way of life.
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