Despite having been occupied for a relatively brief period of time, the cliff dwellings of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park are arguably the most breathtaking archaeological sites in the United States. But with the park covering such a massive area, and with accessible attractions changing from year to year, planning a visit can be daunting. In the following Mesa Verde guide, we’ll be covering the park’s top highlights along with tips on planning your visit.
Mesa Verde Guide
- Visiting Tips
- Mesa Verde: A Brief History
- Entering the Park
- Wetherill Mesa
- The Cliff Palace Loop (Chapin Mesa)
- Around the Museum
- The Far View Community
- Exiting the Park
- Accommodation & Transport Info
Frankly speaking, Mesa Verde is one of the more complicated national parks to visit, as the main attractions require guided tours that can only be booked in advance.
On top of that, the overall park is huge, so one must take logistics into account before even considering which time slots to reserve.
To make matters even more complicated, certain attractions or areas may be closed during certain years for maintenance or restoration, so you’ll also have to stay up to date with what’s currently open. As such, you’re unlikely to find an itinerary online that you’ll be able to copy exactly.
Mesa Verde National Park is divided into two main areas: Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. At the time of writing, however, Wetherill Mesa is closed due to road work and may remain closed through the 2024 season. Nevertheless, I’ll be covering the Wetherill Mesa sites I visited in the Mesa Verde guide below.
Speaking of seasons, most ruins are only open between May and October.
BOOKING RANGER-LED TOURS
Ranger-led tours can be booked on the Recreation.gov website or smartphone app. Tours can only be booked 14 days in advance beginning at 8:00 am MST. As national parks in general have been exploding in popularity these days, I’d highly recommend getting your tickets as soon as they go on sale to avoid any potential disappointment.
But first, it’s best to come up with a rough itinerary and consider logistics before deciding on which time slots to go for.
As Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa are quite far apart, things can get tricky if you plan on visiting both on the same day (but contrary to what many others say, it can indeed be done). But as mentioned, only Chapin Mesa is open at the time of writing, which will allow you to be more flexible.
Before booking, be sure to check the possible booking times on the NPS website. The times seem to change from year to year. For example, at the time of writing, Cliff Palace tours will only be running in the mornings for much of 2023, while in 2022 I was able to visit in the afternoon.
Furthermore, the Square Tower House will only be accessible for a few days of the week and only at 8:30 am.
While Mesa Verde does have some restaurants, if you’re trying to pack in as much as possible into a single day, I’d recommend just bringing a lot of snacks and eating some when you have a spare moment.
Note that many of the tours require your reservations to be printed, so it would be wise to take care of that well in advance to avoid any last-minute stress.
For details on things like entry fees and lodging, be sure to check the end of the article.
Below is a sample of my itinerary, which you’re unlikely to be able to copy exactly. As mentioned Wetherill Mesa is closed, so I would recommend starting your day with the Mesa Top Loop on Chapin Mesa (home to the Square Tower House) that was closed during my visit.
If you’re hoping to see as much as possible within a single day, this sample itinerary should give you an idea of how much time to budget for certain activities (including transport between them).
- 7:00: Depart from Cortez, Colorado
- 8:30: Arrive at Weatherill Mesa, walk to Long House
- 9:00: Long House Tour (1 hr tour plus walking)
- 10:30: Start walking to Step House
- 11:30: Start driving to Chapin Mesa, stop at overlooks
- 13:00: Balcony House Tour (1 hr)
- 14:00: Short break
- 14:30: Head to Cliff Palace overlook to enjoy the views
- 15:00: Cliff Palace tour (30 min)
- 15:30: Head over to Spruce Tree House overlook and hike the Petroglyph Trail
- 17:00: Head to the Far View Ruins
- 17:30: Start heading out of the park, stop at overlooks on the way out
Mesa Verde: A Brief History
Southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde has been inhabited for thousands of years. Following what archaeologists call the Archaic era, the so-called Basketmaker culture emerged in the region around 1000 BC.
Named for their elaborate weaved baskets, the Basketmakers were indeed direct ancestors of the Puebloans who’d start building in the area around 750 AD. Nevertheless, archaeologists still consider the Puebloan period, which started in the 8th century and lasted until the site’s eventual abandonment, as a distinct historical era.
But who were the Puebloans? For hundreds of years, this group, also known as the Anasazi, would build countless impressive structures throughout the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.
Notable sites include Chaco Canyon, the Aztec Ruins National Monument, Hovenweep, and of course, Mesa Verde.
As ‘Anasazi’ is actually a Navajo term which roughly translates to ‘ancient enemies,’ their modern descendants aren’t a big fan of the label. As such, many archaeologists now refer to the builders of Mesa Verde as ‘Ancestral Puebloans.’
Before the establishment of the stunning cliff dwellings for which the site is now known, the Puebloans first inhabited the mesa tops, where they farmed corn, squash and beans. They also ate various animals – especially turkeys, which they domesticated.
Surprisingly, the cliff dwellings weren’t constructed until the late 12th century. While the Puebloans would continue to farm and hunt atop the mesas, the reason for the sudden shift remains a big mystery, especially considering how hard the cliff dwellings must’ve been to build.
One theory for the change is that the Puebloans wanted to free up more space for farming atop the mesas. Other archaeologists, meanwhile, theorize that it could’ve been for security.
What’s also puzzling is that the elaborate cliff dwellings were inhabited for less than a couple of centuries. We still don’t know if the entire community left at once or if it gradually happened family by family. In any case, by around the year 1300, the Mesa Verde region had been abandoned entirely.
Interestingly, this was just several decades after the total abandonment of Chaco Canyon. The Puebloans, however, never disappeared. They’d resettle at other sites like Aztec, New Mexico. And in modern times, their descendants make up tribes like the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma.
In more recent times, many of Mesa Verde’s ruins were rediscovered in the late 19th century, and it quickly attracted archaeologists from around the country.
Mesa Verde was then declared a national park in 1906, occupying 52,485 acres which are home to thousands of individual ruins. Today, many consider it among the finest archaeological sites in North America.
Entering the Park
As you can learn more about at the end of this Mesa Verde guide, the closest town to the national park is Cortez, Colorado, while Durango also makes for a good base.
Turning off Highway 160, you’ll pass the official entrance, which still may be closed if you’re coming early. That’s why it would be a good idea to buy a park pass in advance.
From the entrance, you’ll still have a lot of driving to do, with Chapin Mesa being about an hour away and Wetherill Mesa about 90 minutes. But if you’re not in a huge rush, be sure to stop at a few scenic overlooks on the right-hand side of the road.
Among them is Knife Edge, which is actually at the top of a treacherous, steep road some of the early explorers would climb to reach the ruins.
Also nearby is the Geologic Overlook, where some informative signage details the region’s geology. But as beautiful as the area is, the manmade dwellings, of course, are Mesa Verde’s main attractions.
As we’ll cover below, there are a couple of additional scenic overlooks to enjoy on the way out.
The long and narrow Wetherill Mesa is located in the western part of the park, and is home to two main attractions: Long House and Step House.
If this is where you’re starting your day, be sure to carefully read the signs and turn right at the Far View Junction (the other road leads to Chapin Mesa). Wetherill Mesa Road, however, doesn’t even open until 8:00, so no need to show up extra early.
As mentioned above, Wetherill Mesa is closed for 2023 and may even remain closed through 2024. If you’re visiting during this time, I’d recommend replacing it with the Mesa Top Loop (Chapin Mesa), which happened to be closed during my visit.
As mentioned, I started my day with a Long House tour at 9:00 am. While the tour itself lasts about an hour, you’ll need to factor in the round-trip walking times from the parking lot, not to mention the drive to Wetherill Mesa itself.
From the parking area, it takes around twenty minutes to walk to Long House. And along the way, you’ll see that most of the trees atop the mesa are dead. This is a result of wildfires that occurred a few decades ago due to lightning strikes, and things are clearly a long way away from returning to normal.
While the trail is mostly flat, getting to Long House requires walking down some fairly steep terrain which could be challenging for those with knee problems.
But once you make it, Long House – Mesa Verde’s second-largest cliff dwelling – will finally come into view.
Situated within a 298-foot alcove, Long House contains around 120 room and 21 kivas in total. But first, you’ll have to climb up two modern ladders to access it.
A lot of what we know regarding the chronology of Ancestral Puebloan sites comes from tree ring dating. And from this data, we know that the site was at least inhabited from 1145-1279 AD.
In its prime, the elaborate complex was inhabited by around 150-200 people. And as with many cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Long House underwent frequent remodeling over the years.
As you enter the site, you’ll notice that the alcove behind the buildings features a seep spring, which is formed from rainwater percolating down from the mesa top. At Long House and at other cliff dwellings throughout Mesa Verde, the inhabitants would collect the water for drinking and cooking.
Long House’s buildings were made of sandstone blocks that were laid in mortar. And while colorless today, some buildings would’ve been covered in plaster and painted.
Given Long House’s large size, it’s likely that families from dwellings elsewhere on Weatherill Mesa would meet here for community events. Its central plaza is especially spacious, which suggests it likely hosted large religious gatherings.
Long House was largely excavated from 1958 to 1965 and remains one of Mesa Verde’s most impressive sites to this day. While the Cliff Palace is still the most breathtaking site at the park, fewer visitors to Wetherill Mesa makes it a more intimate and engrossing experience overall.
Finished with the tour, it’s time to return the way you came. But there’s yet another cliff dwelling to check out before you make it to the parking lot.
Wetherill’s Mesa Step House is one of the only cliff dwellings you can visit freely without a guide. You’ll encounter the start of the trail there as you leave Long House and head back toward the parking area.
The roundtrip journey to the ruins is about 1 mile, or 1.6 km. In my case, after my 9:00 Long House tour, I still had plenty of time to check out Step House before my 13:00 Balcony House tour at the opposite end of the park.
What’s most remarkable about Step House is that you can see (reconstructed) pit houses that are as old as 620 AD!
As discussed above, Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings were mostly built from the 12th century, but some of the previous residents (the Basketmaker civilization) did indeed inhabit these alcoves much earlier.
There were originally six pit houses, and they were built in the style that was common throughout the American Southwest at the time.
It’s believed, in fact, that while dwellings evolved over time, the Puebloans took the circular design of the old pit houses and applied them to kivas, which were instead used for religious and social functions.
Appropriately, the adjacent Step House, which was constructed in the 13th century, features a kiva. This was a relatively small dwelling that was home to around 30-40 people.
Notably, residents could access it via a staircase that was quite rare at Mesa Verde. Most other cliff dwellings, in contrast, could only be reached via crude hand-and-toe holds on the rock face.
More recently, Step House was first excavated in the late 19th century by Richard Wetherill and Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiöld.
The Cliff Palace Loop (Chapin Mesa)
The Cliff Palace is a one-way loop road situated atop Chapin Mesa. It’s home to two major cliff dwellings: Balcony House, and as the name suggests, Cliff Palace.
The area is about an hour from the park entrance sign and also about an hour from Wetherill Mesa (exact driving times will vary a lot based on traffic and driving speed).
Once on the loop, be sure to pay attention as you drive along, as if you miss something, you’ll have to go all the way around again. But in total, the loop road is only about six miles, or 10 km.
In my case, I visited the Balcony House first (13:00), which is actually past Cliff Palace. But it was no big deal to start the loop again and park near Cliff Palace in time for my 15:00 tour.
The Cliff Palace Loop is also home to a few overlooks if you have some time to kill before one of your tours. From one of the overlooks, you can glimpse the Sun Temple, which is located on another of Chapin Mesa’s loop roads: the Mesa Top Loop.
Every winter solstice, inhabitants of Cliff Palace could view the setting sun over this temple. While I couldn’t see the Sun Temple from up close due to maintenance taking place in that area, seeing it from across the Fewkes Canyon was the next best thing.
Other highlights from the overlooks, meanwhile, include the House of Many Windows and the Hemenway House.
*Note: These pictures were taken with the telephoto zoom lens and the structures can be quite hard to see without binoculars.
Balcony House is the most difficult of the cliff dwellings to access for those with mobility issues. Accessing the ruins requires climbing up a 32 ft ladder. And as we’ll cover below, exiting the ruins requires crawling through a narrow opening.
But if it’s something you think you can handle, Balcony House should not be missed. In total, this tour lasts about an hour.
After meeting the ranger near the parking lot, visitors will walk down a long series of steps. And before long, you’ll reach the aforementioned ladder, which is so wide that two people can climb up it side-by-side.
Reaching the cliff dwelling, one of the first structures you’ll encounter features a balcony after which the house was named. The wood here is original, and the balcony appears to have been used to get back and forth between floors in the place of steps.
The Balcony House features 38 rooms and two kivas and was only home to about thirty people. Likely started in the late twelfth century, a wooden beam dated to 1278 suggests that construction – or at least remodeling – was taking place here in Mesa Verde’s very final days.
After remaining untouched for centuries, it was first explored by prospector S. E. Osborn in 1884. Then, a few decades later, the ruins were heavily restored by a young archaeologist named Jesse Nusbaum and his team.
Nusbaum, in fact, would later serve as Mesa Verde National Park’s superintendent in the 1920s and ’30s.
One building is remarkable for having an especially long wooden beam (completely original) jutting out from its side. While the shorter ones may have supported a now-lost balcony, it’s hard to picture exactly what the long one would’ve been used for.
Notably, this building features a T-shaped entryway. At Puebloan ruins like Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito, these doors were used to delineate sacred spaces or residences of the elite. But centuries later, their use became more widespread.
The kivas here are incredibly deep, and it’s amazing to see something so complex built right next to such a steep drop (600 ft, or 183 m, above the valley floor).
During our visit, our guide explained how inhabitants entered through a gap in the roof, which was also through which the smoke of the fires lit during ceremonies would escape. Air shafts at the bottom, meanwhile, would allow fresh air to enter.
Incredibly, the kivas were largely rebuilt by Nusbaum, but his team did such a good job that it’s hard to distinguish the newer stone from the original.
As mentioned, exiting the Balcony House requires crawling through a 12 ft opening that’s only 18 inches wide. Most people should be able to handle it, but photographers should be sure to pack away their camera gear first!
You’ll then climb another ladder which, while a modern addition, was placed next to the original hand-and-toe hold that Balcony House’s residents used to get in and out.
Once at the top, be sure to turn around for a magnificent view of the Soda Canyon. Aside from all the climbing and crawling, Balcony House will also be the toughest for those with a fear of heights.
Cliff Palace is easily Mesa Verde’s most iconic landmark. Not only is it the largest of the cliff dwellings, but it can also be admired in detail from a nearby overlook.
With that in mind, I decided to save my visit for the last slot at 15:00, as I’d read that the lighting is best in the late afternoon. While this turned out to be true, clouds were obscuring the light for much of my visit, with the sun only coming out sporadically.
The overlook is free to access at any time, so you could also try revisiting it later even if attend the morning tour (at the time of writing, it appears that there are currently no afternoon tours).
Cliff Palace, with its 150 rooms and 23 kivas, is the closest thing Mesa Verde had to a proper city. Interestingly, it had about one kiva for every nine rooms, as opposed to an overall average of one for every twelve in the region as a whole.
And the best views of many of these structures are from the free overlook. At the time of writing, Cliff Palace cannot actually be entered, with visitors only able to walk along the path below it. So you’ll surely want to spend time taking in the details before and after your tour.
Built between 1190 and 1260, as many as 125 people lived here. But given its size, it likely hosted larger community gatherings, with visitors coming from throughout the Mesa Verde region.
In more modern times, it was rediscovered in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason.
After your tour officially begins, the ranger/guide will lead your group down some steps. And before entering the ruins (or walking under them, in this case), visitors will stop in the adjacent alcove to hear a detailed explanation.
From here, you can enjoy more great views of the entire dwelling, including details like the upper storage rooms built above the main buildings.
With the ranger’s explanation included, the total duration of the Cliff Palace tour is only about thirty minutes. And while you can’t enter any of the buildings, you will at least get some time to walk along the path below at your own pace.
One of Cliff Palace’s most notable features is its large square tower at the far end, which stands at 26 ft, or 7.9 m tall (largely restored). Amazingly, the alcoves at Mesa Verde didn’t prevent the Puebloans from building multi-story buildings as they did at Chaco Canyon and Aztec.
There’s also a round tower in the center, similar to those found at sites like Hovenweep.
Eventually, the ranger will have everyone gather at the kiva at the edge of the dwelling. As at the other tours, he or she will go into detail on the functions of these ceremonial spaces. At the kiva, be sure to turn around for amazing views of the entire ‘city.’
Again, during your exit via a narrow canyon, look carefully and you can spot the original hand-and-toe holds the inhabitants would’ve used to get in and out.
Around the Museum
The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is located to the north of the Cliff Palace Loop. While closed at the time of writing, the parking area offers access to the Spruce Tree House overlook and the Petroglyph Trail.
The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
As mentioned, the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is currently closed and has been for some years now for renovations. Constructed in the 1920s, it was the first-ever museum built in the National Park System.
When the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned Mesa Verde, they left behind numerous tools, pottery and various other objects. Presumably, many of these are on display at the museum, which hopefully reopens in the near future.
Spruce Tree House
A short path starting near the museum will take you to a vantage point of the Spruce Tree House – yet another of Mesa Verde’s many cliff dwellings. While accessible in the past, it’s been closed for several years now due to danger of rock fall.
Archaeologists, in fact, call it the very best preserved cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. And having housed up to 80 people, it was one of the larger ones.
The overlook, which offers a direct view of the dwelling in the distance, is well worth the quick walk. And it’s also around here that you’ll find the start of the Petroglyph Trail.
The Petroglyph Trail
Unlike most national parks, Mesa Verde isn’t really known for its hiking. One exception would be the Petroglyph Trail, which is a relatively easy hike taking you to – you guessed it, some petroglyphs.
Time estimates seem to vary greatly, with the park itself saying to plan for two hours, and the AllTrails app saying it could be as little as one hour. In my case, it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to complete the loop.
I ended up doing the trail in reverse, starting above the Spruce Tree overlook. It wasn’t until I noticed that every other hiker I encountered was coming from the opposite direction that I even realized, but in the end it didn’t matter.
In fact, I’d recommend doing the loop trail in reverse, as it makes it easier to walk at your own pace.
After walking across relatively flat terrain along the cliffs of the mesa, I eventually arrived at the petroglyphs after a brief descent. Among the myriad of well-preserved symbols, you’ll find things like hand prints, spirals, various animals and human-like figures.
While the true meaning of each petroglyph may never be deciphered, it’s believed that the ancient inhabitants carved them as a way to communicate with the spirit world.
The way back was much more tiring, even though I was gradually descending. As there were constant ups and downs, I’m not sure whether doing this trail the ‘proper’ way would’ve been any harder or easier.
Be sure to use a free offline map like Maps.me for this one. While the trail is pretty well-marked and straightforward, it’s always good to know how far you’ve come or how much distance you have left.
The Far View Community
After having visited the other main attractions of this Mesa Verde guide, you’ll surely be exhausted by this point. But true archaeology enthusiasts should be sure to visit the Far View Community ruins on the way out.
There are a couple of reasons to save this for the end: It will be located on the right-hand side of the road as you head toward the exit, and no tour guide or reservation is required.
And unlike Step House, you won’t have to hike to get there, though a bit of walking is required to see it all. In total, the trail is .75 mi, or 1.2 km along flat terrain.
The Far View Community is remarkable because it’s one of the few accessible ruins that’s not a cliff dwelling, meaning it was built atop the mesa before the major shift to the alcoves below.
It’s believed to have been settled for several centuries beginning from around 800 AD. And what we see today actually would’ve been several neighboring villages.
Near the beginning, you’ll find the Far View House and the Pipe Shrine House – both quite typical of Puebloan houses found throughout the Southwest. Here you’ll encounter kivas and the foundations of various rooms and towers.
Next, head further north, where you’ll see the massive Far View Reservoir which stretches out to 90 ft in diameter.
Under a nearby roof, meanwhile, you’ll find the ‘Megalithic House,’ which is believed to have served as a residence.
Considering how easy it would’ve been to get between villages on the mesa, the Puebloans must’ve had a good reason to start building such elaborate structures within the hard-to-reach cliffs.
Exiting Mesa Verde
After a full day at Mesa Verde National Park, the lighting should be spectacular on your way out. I had to stop along the way a couple of times to catch shots of the beautiful mountain scenery.
And as you make your way closer to the park entrance, be sure to stop at one of the official overlooks with stunning views of the Mancos Valley. It was through here that many of the early explorers and archaeologists traveled on their way to the ruins. Thankfully, things are currently much easier.
As mentioned in the Mesa Verde guide above, the two closest towns to Mesa Verde National Park are Cortez and Durango, both in Colorado. The best way to get to and around Mesa Verde is to rent a car and drive. Alternatively, you could try taking an organized tour departing from Durango.
From Cortez, it’s just a 15-minute drive along Highway 160 until you reach the turnoff for the park.
From Durango, meanwhile, the drive lasts about 40 minutes.
Note, however, that once you reach the entrance sign, you still have a lot of driving to do. It will take you about an hour to reach Chapin Mesa, or roughly 90 minutes to Wetherill Mesa (currently closed).
On its own, Mesa Verde costs $30 to enter (learn more here).
If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.
But considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.
These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.
What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.
As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.
Even if you already have an annual pass, you’re usually supposed to ‘check in’ at the park or monument Visitor Center. But if you arrive before the office opens, you should be fine just leaving your pass visible on your dashboard.