Updated: Oct 11, 2019
Over 700 years in the making, Mesa Verde is one of our favorite National Parks and one of the most unique destinations in the State of Colorado offering history, adventure and beauty like none other.
On June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man," the first national park of its kind. Today, the continued preservation of both cultural and natural resources is what keeps this treasure alive.
Mesa Verde has over 4,700 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings and the mesa top sites of pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures, with many more yet to be revealed. These sites are some of the most notable and best-preserved dwellings in the United States.
Mesa Verde National Park offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloans. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished in this region, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away.
The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best-preserved ruins in the North American continent. Sometime during the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa top for 600 years, many Ancestral Puebloans began living in pueblos they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. The structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms. While still farming the mesa tops, they continued to reside in the alcoves, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century. By the late 1270s, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended.
Mesa Verde is a discovery of wonder and it is a very popular destination in South West Colorado and we hope this destination guide will inspire you to visit, but also give you some tips on enjoying your stay.
Mesa Verde National Park is famous for the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings constructed within its cliff alcoves. A trip to Mesa Verde would not be complete without a visit to one of these culturally significant sites. While the park is always open, many services and tours have seasonal dates of operation. Lodging, dining and tours all operate on their own schedule and we will provide further details at the end of this destination guide.
There is so much to do and see in Mesa Verde National Park, we don't want you to miss out on anything! Whether you stay in a comfortable guest room in Far View Lodge, or camp in your personal RV or tent in Morefield Campground, or simply go for a drive along its scenic parkway you will be sure to have a memorable experience. The views are spectacular, historic and simply unforgettable.
Due to the popularity of Mesa Verde it is important to plan ahead. Lodging in the park is limited and therefore we suggest booking far in advance. There is also lodging available in the nearby town of Cortez which is about a 12 minute drive to the Park entrance. There are plenty of options and prices usually range from $40 - $180 USD.
On our stay we chose the Tomahawk Lodge, which is a historic Route 66 type of roadside motel that offered a quiet nights rest. The innkeeper was pleasant and the rooms, although small were affordable and clean.
Here are the most popular choices of lodging in Cortez, Colorado:
Tour of Mesa Verde's Cliff Dwellings
It is important to either purchase tickets a day ahead of time at the park or online or very early in the morning. Tours sell out very fast and a lot of tourists didn't even know the only way to see the major sites at Mesa Verde is with a park ranger guide.
And the best part of your experience to Mesa Verde will be on one of these guided tours. You will not only be well educated and entertained, you will experience Mesa Verde up-close and personal when you descend down into one of the many cliff dwellings.
When you first get to the park entrance you will need to pay for admission. It is only between $15 to $25 per vehicle, depending on the season. This will allow you to travel the 40 miles of roadway, hike, and experience the upper portions of the park which include a museum.
Once inside the first thing you want to do if you have not done so already is book your tour. We chose to visit Balcony House, a medium sized cliff dwelling that was the most adventurous. Within 15 minutes of arrival most of the tours throughout the day were already booked with popular ones like Cliff Palace sold out immediately.
Our tour was for 11am and we had plenty of time to drive leisurely to all the mesa top sites and enjoy the on site museum. We also managed to squeeze in a mini hike along a cliff top trail before arriving in the designated meeting point for the Balcony House Tour.
Here is our 360 Video of our tour of Balcony House. Use your VR Goggles or simply use your mouse to look around.
Visiting Balcony House was a truly amazing experience. You descend into the canyon only to look up at a 40 foot wooden ladder you must climb to get into the cliff dwelling. Once you climb up, you squeeze through a narrow rock tunnel and into the main area where your guide explains the ruins and points out interesting items. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and then you climb up a small staircase and into a very narrow and tight tunnel to the exit – where you are now confronted with a very steep rock wall ledge with cutout stairs on an angle. And again, more wooden ladders to climb back out to the mesa top.
The tour will leave you breathless as you experience one of the most unique and hands-on National Park experiences. The views and historical experience is well worth the admission price of just $5 per person.
Another popular tour is the Cliff Palace:
Mesa Verde Restaurants & Dining Options
If you have not brought food and beverages with you, Mesa Verde offers a many choices to hydrate and energize.
Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe is located in a historic building near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Spruce Tree House and is a perfect place for a casual lunch or dinner. Dine inside, on the outdoor patio, or pick up a lunch-to-go and enjoy a picnic in the park.
Metate Room Restaurant is located in the nationally recognized Metate Room at Far View Lodge, offering wild game, fresh fish, and local organic produce, all with a contemporary Southwestern flare. Relax atop the lodge in the Far View Lounge and end your evening with a sunset, the moon, or under the stars.
The Far View Terrace Restaurant offers a casual dining atmosphere located just a quarter mile from Far View Lodge. There is something for everyone with a wide variety of choices from breakfast through dinner, including classic fare and local favorites such as the house favorite, a Navajo taco. An additional feature is the Java City Coffee Bar with lattes, cappuccinos, smoothies, ice cream, and a special house made Mesa Verde fudge!
If you are staying at the Morefield Campground they have a small cafe, the Knife Edge Cafe which serves breakfast, lunch and supper.
Mesa Verde Hiking Trails
After visiting the archaeological sites and cliff dwellings many visitors take to the many hiking trails.
Prater Ridge Trail 7.8 miles, round-trip Begins on the west end of Morefield Campground. The trail ascends Prater Ridge and follows a loop around the top of the ridge, returning via the same route. A cut-off trail can be taken which shortens the trail to five miles. Natural History: Changes in elevation and vegetation along with views of the surrounding area are highlights of this trail.
Knife Edge Trail 2 miles, round-trip The trail follows a section of the old Knife Edge Road, from the northwest corner of Morefield Campground towards the Montezuma Valley Overlook. This trail provides good views of Montezuma Valley. Trail guide available. Cultural History: Built in 1914 as the main access into the park, old-timers still proudly talk about what a feat it was to build, or "hang," a road on this steep bluff.
Point Lookout Trail 2.2 miles, round-trip The trail switchbacks up the back side of Point Lookout and traverses the top of the mesa. This trail provides excellent views of both Montezuma and Mancos valleys, as well as the surrounding countryside.
Petroglyph Point Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip This adventurous trail provides excellent views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and takes you past a large petroglyph panel located 1.4 miles (2.3 km) from the trailhead. The trail is narrow, rugged, and rocky, with several steep drop-offs along the canyon wall on the way to the petroglyph panel. After the panel, you’ll scramble up a large stone staircase using hands and feet to climb to the top, then enjoy an easy return through forest to complete the loop. The trailhead is located near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Please contact a ranger for times the gate above the trailhead is open. Trail guide available. Registration at the trailhead or museum is required.
Spruce Canyon Trail 2.4 miles, round-trip Begins from the Spruce Tree House trail, follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon, turns up Spruce Canyon, and returns to the museum via the picnic area. The trailhead is located near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Please contact a ranger for times the gate above the trailhead is open. Registration at the trailhead or museum is required. Natural History: The Spruce Canyon Trail offers an opportunity to explore the canyon bottoms of Mesa Verde and discover the plants and wildlife that live in this habitat.
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail 1.2 miles, round-trip Begins one mile north of the Balcony House parking area along the Cliff Palace Loop Road. The trail is an easy walk to the canyon edge and offers views of Balcony House and other archeological sites along Soda Canyon. Natural History: The trail goes through big sagebrush, Utah juniper, yucca, and gambel oak.This is a fairly low-growing, open area and will be hot in the summer.
Farming Terrace Trail .5 mile, round-trip Beginning and ending on the spur road to Cedar Tree Tower, this 1/2 mile loop leads to a series of prehistoric check dams built by the Ancestral Puebloans to create farming terraces. Natural History: This trail is a good place to look for lizards, hummingbirds, and a wide variety of plants.
Nordenskiold Site No. 16 Trail 2 miles, round-trip from information kiosk This trail offers a leisurely stroll on the quietest trail in Mesa Verde, and leads to an overlook of Nordenskiold Site No. 16. The 2000 Pony Fire severely burned this area. As a result, there is no shade available along the trail. Cultural History: In 1891, 23-year old Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold visited Mesa Verde. Using painstaking field methods for his time, he excavated many sites, including this one. His book, "The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde," was the first extensive examination and photographic record of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings.
Badger House Community Trail 2.25 miles round-trip from information kiosk This combination gravel and paved trail begins at the information kiosk and winds through four mesa top sites, covering 600 years of occupation.
Mesa Verde Self-Guided Tours
For others looking to explore more of Mesa Verde we recommend the self-guided tours of:
Spruce Tree House Best-Preserved Cliff Dwelling (Early March to early November) You can observe Spruce Tree House from viewpoints near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Rangers will be available at the overlook daily, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (with extended hours in late spring and summer) to answer questions and share information.
Mesa Top Loop Road Auto Tour - 700 Years of Mesa Verde History A 6-mile (10 km) driving tour with short, paved trails. Twelve easily-accessible sites, including surface dwellings and cliff dwelling overlooks. Highlights include Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point and Sun Temple stops. Overlooks also found on the 6-mile (10 km) Cliff Palace Loop Road. Open 8:00 am to sunset.
Far View Sites Complex Five Mesa Top Villages & Far View Reservoir Far View House plus four other villages and a dry reservoir on a level 3/4-mile (1.2 km) unpaved trail. Four miles (6.4 km) north of the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Open 8:00 am to sunset.
Cedar Tree Tower Mesa Top Tower and Kiva Ancestral Puebloan tower and kiva complex can be viewed from the road. Open 8:00 am to sunset.
Step House Pithouse, Petroglyphs and Cliff Dwelling A 100 foot (30 m) descent and ascent on a winding path. Total walking distance is about one mile (1.6 km) round-trip. Allow 45 minutes to one hour. Trail begins near the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk.
Mesa Verde recently added another incredible opportunity for visitors:
The Cliff Palace Twilight Tour
Enjoy an intimate, leisurely encounter with Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. Dramatic sunset lighting will appeal to both amateur and professional photographers as well as those seeking a deeper connection with this extraordinary treasure. Tours are limited to 15 people. Tickets are $20.00 per person and can be purchased by calling 1-877-444-6777.
Mesa Verde is an incredible National Park with a great number of opportunities to learn, enjoy and experience. We recommend at least 6 hours to visit the park and an ideal 2 days to visit all the locations. Below is a park map will help guide you in determining your best route with what you are most interesting in seeing and doing.
Mesa Verde National Park Lodging
We highly recommend staying within the park at the Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde. Below is a link to get the best possible rate for this amazing lodge located right in the park!
Mesa Verde National Park Tours and Excursions
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