If you’re considering southwestern Colorado for vacation, Mesa Verde National Park protects some of the best-preserved and most impressive Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the United States. Within the park’s 82 square miles, there are over 5,000 known archaeological sites. These include around 600 cliff dwellings plus mesa-top sites like pit houses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures.
A trip to Mesa Verde is like a journey back in time. Around 1,500 years ago, a nomadic group of Native Americans from the Four Corners area settled at Mesa Verde. They mostly lived in small villages of pit houses on the mesa tops, as farming slowly replaced hunting and gathering as their main source of food. Over the next 500 years, they began building mud and eventually stone houses.
Sometime around the year 1200 C.E., they moved their settlements into the cliff alcoves beneath the mesa tops. The reason for this shift is unclear, possibly due to a combination of factors, like protection from the weather and defense from attacks. For nearly 100 years, they expanded their impressive stone dwellings into grand palaces where hundreds of people lived.
But around 1300 C.E., within a generation or two, the people of Mesa Verde mysteriously vanished. Evidence suggests they moved south toward present-day Arizona and New Mexico. The reasons for this sudden migration are unclear. Once again, it was possibly a variety of factors, including drought, crop failures, resource depletion, tribal conflicts, and seeking a more hospitable region.
Today, visitors to Mesa Verde National Park can explore these mysterious ruins for themselves. Park highlights include visiting cliff dwellings (mostly ranger-guided tours with a few self-guided tours), plus short hikes, and driving to scenic viewpoints. There’s also a park museum, lodge, and campground. Below is a list of attractions to help you plan your trip.
The Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
Visiting cliff dwellings tops the list of things to do in the park. There are multiple cliff dwelling complexes, and most of them require joining a guided tour. These tours are offered from late April or early May until late October, and tickets must be purchased in advance. Demand for tours is high, and tickets cannot be obtained at the park upon arrival. The park service requires you make a tour reservation up to 14 days in advance by phone (877-444-6777) or online at recreation.gov.
Note that the tours offered change each year, so call the park or visit their website for updated offerings. Because Mesa Verde is located at an elevation around 7,000 feet, and most sites require some combination of steep access, ladders, and rugged trails, the park service considers most tours to be strenuous.
Cliff Palace is the largest and best-known Mesa Verde cliff dwelling. With about 150 rooms and 23 kivas (ceremonial chambers), this multi-story dwelling was home to an estimated 125 people. Cliff Palace can only be visited on a one-hour guided tour, which requires walking 0.25-mile round trip, climbing 120 uneven steps and five 10-foot ladders.
Nearby, Balcony House is a 45-room, two-kiva structure perched on a high ledge. Access to Balcony House is by a one-hour guided tour, which requires hiking a quarter mile, climbing stone steps and ladders, and crawling through a small tunnel.
Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park, located in the less-visited Wetherill Mesa area. The tour to this site lasts around two hours and requires hiking 2.25 miles with 130 feet of elevation gain and climbing two 15-foot ladders.
Visiting Mug House requires a two-hour tour into the backcountry of Mesa Verde. This village has 94 rooms, one large kiva, and a reservoir. The tour requires hiking 2.25 miles along a rough trail with steep drop-offs, switchbacks, and boulders to scramble over.
Square Tower House is a cliff dwelling with the tallest standing structure in the park, a four-story stone tower. This impressive complex also includes an intact kiva roof, original plaster and paint, and works of rock art. The 90-minute tour requires a rugged one-mile hike with steep drop-offs, switchbacks, and boulders to scramble over.
By far, the park’s most strenuous tour is to Spring House, the largest unexcavated cliff dwelling, with 86 rooms and seven kivas. Due to the fragility of the site, visitors cannot enter the village but instead view it from a nearby platform. This tour lasts eight hours and requires an 8-mile round-trip hike with 1,500 feet of elevation change.
There are two self-guided tours of cliff dwellings in the park. One such tour is Spruce Tree House, near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Spruce Tree House is the third-largest cliff dwelling in the park, with 130 rooms and eight kivas. The walk to this site is relatively easy—a half-mile round trip on a steep but paved path. The other self-guided tour is to Step House on Wetherill Mesa. This small cliff dwelling has 27 rooms and 3 kivas. The one-mile trail is paved and steep with some stairs.
Other Highlights at Mesa Verde National Park
Just inside the park entrance, on Highway 160, the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center offers planning information and exhibits about Ancestral Puebloan culture and descendants.
The main park road is about 21 miles long, offering access to several scenic vistas. Located at the end of the main park road is the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. The museum offers dioramas and exhibits about Ancestral Puebloan life and culture.
Nearby, the Mesa Top Loop is a 6-mile loop road which leads to twelve archeological sites, accessed by short, paved trails. These sites include early pit houses and pueblos. There are also overlooks of cliff dwellings.
There are about 30 miles of hiking trails at Mesa Verde. Most of the trails are short, in the one- to two-mile range, and lead to archeological sites. These include an easy 0.75-mile walk through several mesa-top villages called the Far View Sites. Petroglyph Point Trail is a strenuous 2.4-mile loop trail that leads to a large petroglyph panel. And the Long House Loop, located on Wetherill Mesa, is a 5-mile paved loop trail open to bikers, hikers, and pets, which leads to the Badger House Community and a pair of cliff dwelling overlooks.
When to Go and Where to Stay
While Mesa Verde National Park is open year-round, most visitors will come from late April or early May through late October, when the cliff dwelling tours are offered. Weather during late spring and early fall is mild, with daytime highs in the 60s and 70s. Summer weather is warm, with daytime highs in the 80s.
There is one campground in the park, Morefield Campground, with 267 sites. The campground is open from mid-April to mid-October, and there are typically sites available. Morefield has a full-service village with a gas station, grocery store, laundry, and showers. Located at Far View Area, on the main park road, the Far View Lodge is the only hotel inside the park.
Outside the park, most visitors stay in communities located on U.S. Highway 160. These include the towns of Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, and the city of Durango. Each is within a 15-minute to 45-minute drive from the park entrance.
Beyond Mesa Verde, there’s plenty more to visit in the region, including a Colorado national forest, San Juan National Forest. San Juan NF is best known for its staggering San Juan Mountains covering 1.87 million acres. Mesa Verde NP is one of four national parks in Colorado. The other three are: Rocky Mountain NP, Great Sand Dunes NP, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Mesa Verde is also considered part of the Grand Circle, an informal collection of ten western national parks that include nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Petrified Forest NP, Grand Canyon NP, Great Basin NP and Utah’s Mighty 5—Arches NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, and Zion NP. Click the links for each park to learn more about them!
We hope these tips have been helpful for planning your trip to Mesa Verde National Park! There’s plenty more to share, so if you have a tip to share, please leave it in the comments below!