Plan a trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado? Check our detailed guide with lots of tips and the best things to do in Mesa Verde. We tell you how to prepare for the visit to the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. What to see and how to visit this place? Which tickets are required for sightseeing cliff dwellings, and how to get them? And much more. So, check our guide to enjoy your stay at Mesa Verde.
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What is Mesa Verde National Park famous for?
Mesa Verde means “green table” (Spanish). Mesa Verde National Park is not only an American national park, but it’s also a park on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, which protects some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States.
There are more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings Ancestral Puebloans who lived here from AD 600 to 1300. One of the most magnificent structures is Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. The park occupies 52,485 acres (21,240 ha).
Mesa Verde National Park Directions
Mesa Verde National Park is located in Montezuma County, Colorado, near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.
You can visit it during the Colorado road trip – here you can check our detailed Colorado itinerary.
PRO TIP: Below, we give you approximately the driving time to the entrance gate to the park. But please, note that it takes at least 1-hour driving from the entrance gate to cliff dwellings. The road is narrow, and it climbs upwards like a serpentine, so drive carefully.
- From Cortez, CO is only 10 miles and 15 minutes of driving to Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Take US-160 E to get there.
- From Mancos, CO, is 8 miles and 10 minutes driving to the park entrance via US-160 W.
- From Durango, CO is 36 miles and about 40 minutes driving via US-160 W.
- If you are going from Shiprock, NM, take US-491 N and US-160 E. It’s 53 miles and one hour of driving.
- From Page, AZ, take AZ-98 E and US-160 E. It’s 225 miles and approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes of driving to Mesa Verde.
- If you go from the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, take AZ-64 W to Cameron, then US-89 N and US-160 E. It’s 255 miles and at least 4 hours of driving.
- From Moab, UT, take US-191 S and US-491 S. It’s about 125 miles and 2 hours and 15 minutes of driving to Mesa Verde.
Remember, that it takes at least 1-hour to drive from the entrance gate to cliff dwellings.
What is the best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde National Park is open all year round. But for sure, the best months for a visit are late Spring and Fall. The weather is much nicer for hiking when it is not sweltering. Moreover, the park is less crowded.
Summer is the peak season. Daytime summer temperatures can reach 90-100F, so drink plenty of water. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August.
In Winter and early Spring, some attractions are closed for tourists. But winter is also a great time to visit Mesa Verde National Park. Most important is to know, that cliff-dwelling tours are not operated in winter. But you can admire many cliff dwellings from overlooks. The weather in winter is mild, so it’s good to consider a visit.
Considering the time of day, make sure you have time to explore Mesa Verde National Park in the early afternoon and afternoon. The best light then falls on the cliffs’ dwellings. They are illuminated with warm golden and orange colors.
While in the Mesa Verde, you will be traveling between 7000 feet (2134 m) and 8400 feet (2560 m) in elevation, and weather can change quickly. So wear layers, pack something warm for sudden winds and weather breaks. Check our Day Hiking Packing List and weather forecast before your visit to Mesa Verde.
How long do you need at Mesa Verde National Park?
The minimum time you should spend on a quick visit to Mesa Verde National Park is at least half a day. Reserve 3-5 hours for a quick visit during your Colorado Road Trip. It’s enough for self-guided sightseeing, driving through the park road, and stop at all viewpoints. But you won’t have too much time for hiking.
Since Mesa Verde has an amazing history, it is worth finding out as much as possible about this place. So, consider the Mesa Verde Express Tour with a guide. You will learn details about the rise of unusual houses on the cliffs. You will hear how people lived in them, what they did, and much more. Thanks to this, you will gain valuable knowledge. The tour takes 4.5 hours, a departure from Mancos, so it is perfect if your time visiting Mesa Verde is limited.
The park has several interesting trails, so it is worth spending at least 1 day there. But even for 2 – 3 days, you can explore and enjoy this amazing landmark, especially if you are lucky and got Cliff Dwelling Tour Tickets.
But if you fail to get tickets for the cliff dwellings tour, you can consider a full-day commercial tour from Durango.
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Mesa Verde Entrance Fee
As with any US national park, there is also a fee at Mesa Verde. Entrance Fees for private vehicles are $30.00 from May 1 through October 31. And $20.00 per vehicle from November 1 through April 30. The fee is good for entrance to Mesa Verde National Park for up to 7 days.
If you plan to visit several national or state parks over the year, it pays to purchase the annual America the Beautiful Pass. It’s only $80. It is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including all national parks. You can buy it when entering the park, but we recommend buying it online in advance. Thanks to this, you will shorten standing in the line, especially if you plan your visit during the high season.
If you plan to visit more national parks in Colorado, check our Colorado Road Trip Itinerary with lots of tips and inspirations.
Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
You can explore Mesa Verde National Park on your own or by booking a guided tour. But there are some differences in what is allowed. Below, we describe the possibilities of visiting this national park and suggesting spending your time in it most effectively and interestingly. So, check our best things to do in Mesa Verde.
Please, note that some things to do in Mesa Verde vary from season to season. Some attractions in Mesa Verde are closed during winter, and some are also vary depending on the month. So, before your visit, check on the official website what is open. Below you will find a description for all attractions open from May through October.
Here you can check what’s going on in late Fall in Mesa Verde. And here what is open during Winter, including winter activities like nordic/cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking opportunities.
Cliff Dwelling Tour Tickets
Most important before your visit to Mesa Verde is to know that those cliff dwellings can be entered only on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The one cliff dwelling that can be visited without a tour is Step House on Wetherill Mesa. So if you want to enter some of the cliff dwellings, you must purchase your ticket ahead. It’s not easy to get them because demand is very high. Limits arise from the need to protect these ancient structures, already decaying, for future generations. In addition, they are very delicate, still damaged by weather conditions.
How to buy a ticket?
You can purchase your tour tickets 14 days in advance on Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.
There are several types of ranger-guided tours to several different cliffs dwellings of varying difficulty and length. Prices vary too, ranging from $8 to $45 per person.
A detailed description you will find on the official website of Mesa Verde. The best option is to buy tickets to Cliff Palace, Long House, Mug House, or Square Tower House. Please note the Cliff Palace Ranger-Guided Tour is not available until July 1st due to road construction.
Comercial Mesa Verde Tours
If you fail to book a ranger tour for your visit, but you want to learn about the mysterious history of Mesa Verde, you can also consider buying a commercial tour provided by Viator.com, which is the Tripadvisor company.
They offer three guided tours, thanks to which you will learn about the extraordinary history of this place. These tours are also worth buying in advance as it might be a chance to visit Cliff Palace during these trips. But it depends on availability. The park has limited the season schedule and the capacity of the tours to Cliff Palace Ruins. But, please note the Cliff Palace Ranger-Guided Tour is not available until July 1st, 2021 due to road construction.
You can choose:
- Mesa Verde Express Tour
- Mesa Verde National Park Half-Day Tour
- Full-Day Mesa Verde National Park Tour with Guide
You can explore Mesa Verde on your own. You do not need to purchase an organized trip. The only difference is that you cannot enter most of the cliff dwellings. But you can admire them from the viewpoints. The one cliff dwelling that can be visited without a tour is Step House on Wetherill Mesa. Moreover, you can do some short hikes to amazing archeological sites. So check our tips on how to sightseeing a Mesa Verde on your own.
Drive slowly. The road is like a serpentine, and there might be a lot of wildlife.
Start your trip from Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center should be your first stop before your visit. You can take actual maps from here, check current weather and road conditions, ask the ranger about hiking trails. Is located near the park entrance, just off of US 160. Visitor Center also houses a museum collection of exhibits about the richness of Ancestral Puebloan culture and daily life. So, it’s a perfect place to learn about Mesa Verde. You will also find a bookstore and souvenir shop. Due to COVID-19, the center was closed, so check before your visit to see if it is already open.
Pro Tip: There are two parts: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa area in the Park. If you only have half a day to visit, start from Mesa Top Ruin Road, and focus on the Chapin Mesa part. And after that, the second part.
Visit Chapin Mesa
- Take Mesa Top Loop Road. For sure is one of the best things to do in Mesa Verde. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily from 8:00 am to sunset. It is a 6-mile (10 km) drive. During this trip, you can admire 700 years of Mesa Verde history. The highlights are Square Tower House Overlook and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. Along the road, you’ll find short, easily accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. So you can imagine how people lived here.
- Admire Spruce Tree House. The best views of Spruce Tree House you will get from viewpoints near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. It’s worth your stop, due to Spruce Tree House is the best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde.
- Visit Far View Sites Complex. During a drive through Chapin Mesa is also worth stopping at Five Mesa Top Villages & Far View Reservoir. This part of the mesa top community includes Far View House, four other villages, and a dry reservoir. In ancient times, the community was a place of modest homes interspersed with small farm fields. It was a place filled with people, vibrant life, and constant change. During this short 3/4 mile trail (1,2 km), you can learn about Ancestral Pueblo life between 900 to 1300 CE.
- Don’t miss Cedar Tree Tower. Stop also at Mesa Top Tower and Kiva. You can spot an Ancestral Puebloan tower and the kiva complex from a parking area. Nearby is also the 0.5-mile (0.8 km) Farming Terrace Loop trail. It leads you through a series of ancient check dams built by the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Visit Wetherill Mesa
- Take the Wetherill Mesa Road. But, please note that the road is currently open from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm.
- Take the Badger House Trail. The trail to Four Mesa Top Sites is an easy 2.25 mile (3.6 km) round-trip trail through Badger House Community surface sites. It begins at Wetherill Mesa Kiosk. It’s available from early May to late October.
- Visit Step House. The place offers Pithouse, Petroglyphs, and Cliff Dwelling. But most important is to know that Step House is only open as staffing allows. We had no chance to visit it. There is a 100 foot (30 m) descent and ascent on a winding path. The total walking distance is about one mile (1.6 km) round-trip. The trail begins near the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk.
Go for a hike in Mesa Verde National Park
If you have more than half a day to visit Mesa Verde, consider one or two hiking trails in the park. You can choose from a dozen of them, of varying length and difficulty.
The best hiking trails in Mesa Verde are:
- Knife Edge Trail, which is 2 miles (3.2km) round-trip
- Point Lookout Trail, which is 2.2 miles (3.5km) round-trip
- Petroglyph Point Trail, which is 2.4 miles (3.9km) round-trip
- Spruce Canyon Trail, which is 2.4 miles (3.9km) round-trip
- Badger House Community Trail, which is 2.25 miles (3.6km) round-trip
- Long House Loop Trail, which is 6 miles (10 km) round-trip.
Trail map and profile for each hike and trail description you can check on the NPS website. You can also download maps.
Mesa Verde Hiking Tips
If you decide to hike in Mesa Verde, prepare yourself for it depending on the season of your visit. It seems like easy and short hikes, but trust us, they are not easy. You can get very tired. Some of them are moderate to strenuous.
It can be hot in summer, but it can also be windy. There might be violent storms. You will be hiking in areas from 7000 to 8572 feet (2130 to 2613 meters) in elevation.
For sure, take a lot of water and stay hydrated. Pack some snacks. Wear layers. Even in summer, be prepared for weather breakdown. Trekking poles will be useful. Trails can be muddy and slippery after summer rains and winter snow. So, remember to wear comfortable hiking shoes with a good grip. Remember about sun protection. On this elevation hiking hut and sunscreen are a must. Check our hiking packing list to prepare for your adventure.
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Things to do in Mesa Verde – where to stay?
Hotels near Mesa Verde
You will find the greatest choice of accommodation in Cortez and Durango. Both places are worth stopping at. In Cortez, we stayed in Retro Inn at Mesa Verde, and we can highly recommend it. In Durango – Adventure Inn.
Mesa Verde Camping
You can also consider camping overnight. Morefield Campground is just four miles inside Mesa Verde. It offers 267 sites. Moreover, each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents, trailers, and RVs, including 15 full hookup RV sites.
It’s open from May 1 to September 30. After season from April 15 to April 30 and October 1 to October 15 is Off-Season Limited Camping Only (no services).
To make reservations call 1-800-449-2288 or visit the official Morefield Campground website.