15 Epic Things to Do When You Visit Mesa Verde National Park 

Mesa Verde is one of the most remarkable National Parks I’ve ever been to. Think of it as a giant outdoor museum highlighting the ancient history of the Western United States. Visit Mesa Verde to combine education and adventure.

There is so much to do and see here. Let me help you plan your visit to Mesa Verde by sharing 15 epic things to do that will highlight the beauty and history of this unique National Park. 

Experience Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde

What You Need to Know for your First Visit:

  • Mesa Verde is Open Year-Round, however, most tours, accommodations, and roads (such as Wetherill Mesa) are closed in the winter. 
  • There is one entrance to the park, however, there are two mesas to explore. Make sure you follow your map to end up in the correct place for your cliff-dwelling tours and hikes. 
  • Planning Ahead Required! All Cliff Dwelling Tour tickets must be purchased in advance.
  • Cliff Dwellings on either mesa are a 1-hour drive from the park entrance.
  • Accommodations in the park are limited to Morehouse Campground and Far View Lodge. Free camping is less than 10 minutes from the park entrance, and the town of Cortez is about a 15-minute short drive west of the park entrance. Here you can find the nearest gas station and grocery store.
  • Mesa Verde’s location in Southwestern Colorado means it is hot and dry through the summer months, please hydrate accordingly!
  • Mesa Verde National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. It is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States!

Remember that Mesa Verde National Park is a sacred place to many people. It’s incredibly important that you treat this space with respect. When you visit Mesa Verde, you’re visiting a space that is protected not only for its natural beauty but for the rich cultural heritage of 26 different tribes. 

8 Epic Cliff Dwellings Tours

You can’t visit Mesa Verde National Park without experiencing the high-elevation homes the park is best known for. The Cliff Dwellings make Mesa Verde one of the most unique National Parks you can visit, so be sure to plan ahead and book a tour

The Long House Tour

1. The Long House

  • Ranger-Assisted
  • May – October
  • Location: Wetherill Mesa

Explore the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park! Put aside 2 to 2.5 hours to tour the Long House. This ranger-assisted tour allows you to learn about the ancestral Pueblos who inhabited the Long House on your own terms. Stick to the ‘guided tour’ where a Ranger will share interesting information with you or take off on your own and explore the Long House on your own terms.

A photo of Balcony House from Canva since I couldn’t get this tour!

2. Balcony House

  • Ranger-Led
  • Late May – Late June
  • Location: Mesa Top Ruins Road

The Balcony House Tour is by far the most adventurous tour you can take when you visit Mesa Verde National Park. On the tour, you’ll climb multiple ladders, including a 17-foot ladder to leave the sit, and crawl through a small tunnel. This tour is not for the faint of heart.

Cliff Palace Overview

3. Cliff Palace

  • Ranger-Assisted
  • Late July – Late October
  • Location: Mesa Top Ruins Road

At about 150 rooms, Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Allot for about 1 hour of learning, traversing 120 uneven stone steps, and climbing 5 ladders when you visit Cliff Palace.

Photo Credit: Gear Junkie

4. Mug House

  • Ranger-Led
  • Late May – Late June
  • Location: Wetherill Mesa

The Mug House Tour is a strenuous adventure that includes a 2.25-mile round-trip hike that includes switchbacks, steep drop-offs, and scrambling up and over boulders. Along the hike, you’ll get to see Adobe Cave, Ancestral Pueblo Rock Art, and great views of Rock Canyon. Plan for about two hours when completing the Mug House Tour (offered in May and June only)

Photo Credit: American Southwest

5. Square Tower House

  • Ranger-Led
  • Late May – Mid June
  • Location: Mesa Top Loop

The Square Tower House is the tallest standing structure in the park. It’s an impressive sight to see with an intact Kiva roof and plentiful rock art. The strenuous 1-mile hike to Square Tower House is steep and includes uneven terrain. It is only suggested for individuals who can complete the hike, including climbing 2 ladders. 

photo credit: roadtrippers

6. Step House

  • Self-guided
  • Spring-Fall
  • Location: Wetherill Mesa

If you’re planning to visit Mesa Verde National Park and can’t get a ticket to any of the above-mentioned tours, check out Step House. Step House provides a free, self-guided cliff-dwelling experience. 

7. Drive Mesa Top Loop Road

  • Cliff Dwelling Overlooks
  • Open Year-Round

Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road for overlooks of spectacular cliff dwellings. Whether you aren’t able to purchase a ticket or don’t have the physical ability to take one of the tours, this is a great way to experience them. There are a number of pull-offs along the road where a short, paved walk will lead you to beautiful views. 

Photo Credit: National Park Service

8. Spruce Tree House 

  • Location: Chapin Mesa

Unfortunately, the third largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park is closed to the public for safety reasons. Fortunately, you can see the 130 rooms and 8 Kivas of Spruce Tree House from an overlook near the museum. 

Due to the protection of the alcove, it’s one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the park. Unfortunately, the very natural sandstone arch that so well guards the past is proving difficult for those in the present to safely access the site.  

Guided Tours are definitely the best way to experience and learn about the park. I highly recommend trying to book at least one ranger-guided tour of a cliff dwelling that best matches your ability level when you visit Mesa Verde National Park. 

7 Amazing Hikes in Mesa Verde National Park 

There are a number of hiking trails you can’t miss when you visit Mesa Verde. If you have enough time, I recommend booking one of the early tours to see a Cliff-dwelling and then take a longer hike for a spectacular look at what life on the Mesa truly felt like.

Petroglyph Point, Mesa Verde

1. Petroglyph Point

  • 2.4 Mile Loop
  • 328 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Chapin Mesa

The Petroglyph Point Trail is a moderately strenuous hike that will bring you down along the edge of Chapin Mesa overlooking Spruce canyon. 

You’ll reach the Petroglyph Panel after a 1.4-mile hike with some light rock scrambling and steep drop-offs. After, you’ll have to climb a long stone staircase back to the parking lot. The return portion of the loop is full of beautiful views of the valley below. 

Pro Tip: The gate for Petroglyph Point and Spruce Canyon is closed and locked each evening. Plan your hike accordingly!  

Photo Credit: National Park Service

2. Mesa Verde Point Lookout Trail

  • 2.1 Miles Out and Back
  • 531 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Morefield Campground

A short, steep climb will bring hikers to the top of a narrow elongated Mesa with an impressive viewpoint at its northern tip. 

Enjoy the impressive switchbacks from the park’s entrance and with the flats of the Montezuma and Mancos Valleys in the distance. 

Photo Credit: USGS

3. Knife Edge Trail

  • 2 Mile Out and Back
  • 154 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Morefield Campground

Take a stroll on the historic, old roadway. The Knife Edge trail was the original automobile route in Mesa Verde National Park.

This scenic route was narrow and steep and couldn’t hold up to erosion despite the excellent views. 

Photo Credit: Expedia

4. Soda Canyon Overlook Trail

  • 1.2 Mile Out and Back
  • 59 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Cliff Palace Driving Loop

An easy out and back among pinyon and juniper trees lead hikers to a rewarding view of Balcony House. 

Along your route, you’ll see several other cliff dwellings across the canyon. Keep your eyes open for various forest-dwelling animals such as mule deer, desert cottontail, wild turkey, and jackrabbit.

Photo Credit: Dismal Wilderness

5. Spruce Canyon Trail

  • 2.2 Mile Loop
  • 498 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Chapin Mesa

The Spruce Canyon trail provides hikers with the opportunity to explore the canyon bottoms of Mesa Verde. These are unique views considering the majority of Mesa Verde’s trails lead to Mesa-top overlooks. 

Be prepared for a steep climb out of the canyon. Be sure to bring adequate snacks and to drink enough water throughout your day! 

Photo Credit: National Park Service

6. Far View Sites

  • .8 Mile Loop
  • 82 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Chapin Mesa

Explore the area of Mesa Verde that was the most populated in A.D. 900 through A.D. 1300. Far View Sites features several excavated and stabilized sites linked by a trial system to guests to learn about living at Far View. 

Before ancestral Pueblo people moved to their cliff dwellings, they lived on top of the Mesa. Many continued to reside on the Mesa Top after their neighbors moved cliff side.  

View of Nordenskiold Site 16 from the overlook

7. Nordenskiold Site 16

  • 1.7 Mile Out and Back
  • 104 feet of Elevation Gain
  • Wetherill Mesa

From the Wetherill Mesa Information Center, this easy stroll will bring you to an overlook.

The viewpoint provides an impressive view of the two-story ruins of Nordenskiold Site 16.  

Family-Friendly Things to Do When You Visit Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is definitely Family-Friendly. Although some of the ranger-guided tours might be too intense for small children, the self-guided tours provide great opportunities for families to experience and learn about the park’s historic sites. 

Many of the hikes are short and have minimal elevation gain/loss making them appropriate for park visitors of all abilities. Additionally, there are a number of sites that can be reached via bicycle, making the experience less exhausting for little legs! 

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum

The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is the oldest in the National Park system! The building was constructed between 1922 and 1925, replacing a log cabin that housed cultural objects. 

This building is receiving a bit of a makeover and it is set to reopen in the Spring of 2023. A bookstore and snack bar are also available near the museum along with bathrooms and water fountains.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Mesa Verde Visitor Center & Research Center

This should be your first stop if it’s your first time visiting Mesa Verde National Park. Check in with a park staff member to have them help you plan your visit and check out the gift shop. 

The state-of-the-art research center and visitor center include exhibits highlighting the modern descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo People, the park’s research collection, and the LEED building’s sustainability features. Additionally, there are several sculptures and other pieces of art that reflect a modern perspective of Mesa Verde’s people and landscape. 

Photo Credit: Hip Postcard

Scenic Drives

Pile the family in the car and take them on one of the most breathtaking drives they’ll ever know. The best way to learn about the park might be to take a cliff-dwelling tour, but the best views are found on the pavement. 

We’re talking steep drop-offs, twists and turns, and amazing views every which way you look. Enjoy the ride but be sure the driver is paying attention to the road. 

Photo Credit: Durango Mountain Bike Tours

Bike Wetherill Mesa

The Long House Loop, at the end of Wetherill Mesa Road, is closed to motorized vehicles and only open to hikers and bikers. Bring your family’s bicycles along for a run ride around the Mesa Top. 

Bike to the Kodak House Overlook Trail, the Long House Overlook Trail, and the Badger House Community Trail. All three of these trails provide great educational opportunities for the whole family. 

Mesa Verde Area Weather

It’s important to note that you can visit Mesa Verde National Park all year long. The best time to visit the park is late Spring and early Fall. The temperatures are milder and some of the coolest ranger-led tours are available during these times. You can check the park website for specific tour dates and times.

Winter is a great time to visit Mesa Verde for low crowds and cross-country skiing. Mesa Verde is at high elevation making winter storms and snow a very real possibility between December and February which means park accessibility could be limited. Additionally, cliff-dwelling tours are not available in the winter months. 

Summer is one of the most popular times to visit Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde sits at 7,000-8,500 feet of elevation. It’s important that you plan to carry plenty of water and pack the necessary sun protection items as June is the driest month and July is the hottest month in the park. It’s important to note that the main road may be busy during these months as it is the only way into and out of the park, so plan accordingly.

Two Lovebirds checking out Mesa Verde National Park

What Other Colorado National Parks are There?

Colorado is known for having a few amazing National Parks and Monuments. Each park showcases a unique aspect of Colorado’s landscape.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado National Monument

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Rocky Mountain National Park

Aside from these federally protected natural spaces, Colorado has amazing outdoor hubs perfect for exploration. Check out towns like Leadville and Glenwood Springs for unique outdoor opportunities in really fun little towns!

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