A Complete Guide to Visiting Mesa Verde National Park (+ things to do, where to stay, & more!)

In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before visiting Mesa Verde National Park, including hikes, tours, where to stay, tips for the park, and more!

We recently spent two months traveling around Colorado in our self-converted Sprinter van and it was truly the best two months we have ever spent on the road! We started our Colorado road trip in the Southwestern part of the state, which is amazing, and our first major stop? Mesa Verde National Park!

At the time of writing this guide, we have visited 39 of the 63 US national parks and each one has been different from the last. But Mesa Verde is one of the most unique parks of them all! 

Some national parks are known for their epic mountain views or wildlife, but Mesa Verde is known for preserving the works of man (and is the first national park to do so!), with thousands of Pueblo archeological sites and cliff dwellings.

Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park | Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

While we normally spend our time at national parks hiking, we spent the majority of our time at Mesa Verde National Park learning and seeing history. It was such an educational experience, as well as a nice change of pace!

But if we are being honest, our time at the park wasn’t the smoothest. There were park and trail closures (both ones we knew about and unexpected ones), a ranger pulled us over and falsely accused us of illegally camping, AND our bumper got smashed in a parking lot while we were gone for 20 minutes (they didn’t leave a note either).

Watch our experience (the highs AND lows) at Mesa Verde National Park

But despite the frustrating and upsetting moments, none of which were really the park’s fault, we still really enjoyed visiting Mesa Verde National Park. We learned SO much, got to see some impressive structures, and the scenery was beautiful too!

And in this guide our goal is to share everything you need to know about Mesa Verde National Park, including the best things to do, where to stay, and tips to avoid some mishaps, plus our top suggestions of how to spend one day in the park.

Looking For More Things To Do In Colorado? Check Out Our Other Colorado Guides:

Leave No Trace Principles

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

  1. Plan ahead & prepare. Make sure you research and prepare for every adventure so that you know the rules, stay safe, and to minimize resource damage.
  2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces. Stay on the trail and only camp in designated areas, as well as the required length away from water sources.
  3. Dispose of waste properly. Whatever you pack in, pack it out! Make sure to carry out your trash, as well as any trash you find. If you have a dog, please do not leave poop bags on the trail. For human waste, use a trowel to dig a hole far from water sources or use a wag bag (sometimes required).
  4. Leave what you find. Do not take any items from the trail with you, including rocks, plants, or artifacts.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts. Know the rules of where you can and cannot have campfires and if allowed, use designated fire rings. Use local firewood to prevent bringing any pests or diseases to the area you’re visiting and make sure to fully extinguish your fire.
  6. Respect wildlife. Keep your distance from wildlife, control your pets on the trail, and never ever feed them! Make sure to keep your food stored properly as well (we like this bear canister).
  7. Be considerate of other visitors. Be respectful to others on the trail. Hikers going uphill have the right of way on hikes and it’s always courteous to let those quicker than you pass. Avoid playing music out loud, talking loudly, and having your pets bother others.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Mesa Verde National Park

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park | Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is home to over 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people, who lived in this area from 600 to 1300 AD. In the park you can see a variety of types of Pueblo structures, including pit houses, a farming community, towers, and temples.

Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906 and since then has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in 1978), with the park’s major focus being on preserving the sites for future generations and sharing the Pueblo Native American history. 

But beyond the Pueblo structures and history that make the park an important part of the United State’s history, Mesa Verde is also home to some beautiful views! In fact, Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish, due to the abundance of Juniper trees and other greenery that cover the mesas, canyons, and valleys.

The different areas of Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park Map

Mesa Verde National Park has a few different areas to explore and for the sake of this guide, we will be organizing the park up into four main areas: Mesa Top Ruins Road (the main road through the park), Mesa Top Loop, Cliff Palace Loop, and Wetherill Mesa. 

Each area of the park gives you the chance to see different dwellings and sights, so they are all worth a visit! And since the park isn’t too huge and the areas are all next to each other, you could visit all areas in one day, as long as you don’t mind not seeing everything each area has to offer.

When to visit Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is open year round (in some capacity), but your experience will vary depending on when you visit. 

Winter

If you want to escape the crowds and don’t mind snow and colder temperatures, winter is a great time to visit Mesa Verde National Park! There are limited services during this time, including the campground and lodge being closed, as well as no cliff dwelling tours, but winter does bring the chance to experience the park in a way you cannot in other seasons, either by snowshoe or cross country skiing!

You can see a more in-depth guide to winter at Mesa Verde National Park here

Spring & Fall

For mild temperatures, more services than the winter, and less crowds than the summer, the spring and fall (in our opinion) are the best times to visit Mesa Verde National Park, especially if it’s your first visit to the park and you want to experience as much as possible.

We visited Mesa Verde towards the end of May and the weather was super nice, we were able to see most of what we wanted to see (more on that later), and the park really wasn’t that busy!

Note: If you want to do a cliff dwelling tour (highly recommended), the cliff dwelling tours begin in early May (different tours open on different dates) and end towards the end of October, so make sure to plan your spring or fall visit accordingly!

Summer

The summertime is the busiest time to visit Mesa Verde National Park, as kids are out of school and families are vacationing. However, this is the season where the most tours and amenities are open in the park, so if you want the most options, this is a good time to visit as long as you can tolerate higher crowds.

As for the weather, it’s the warmest time to visit and while not horribly hot, the lack of tree coverage at many overlooks may make it feel warmer. The summers in Colorado are also notorious for afternoon thunderstorms, so that is something you’ll want to be prepared for when planning your time in the park.

Getting to + around Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is located in between Mancos and Cirtez in Southwest Colorado, close to both the Utah and New Mexico borders. While Mesa Verde is close to SO many incredible things to do in Colorado (and southern Utah), it is a bit far from any major cities, which makes getting to the park a little bit trickier. 

Flying to Mesa Verde National Park

If you plan to fly to Mesa Verde National Park, the closest decent sized airport is the Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO), which is just under 1 hour from Mesa Verde. This is a small airport, but it is serviced by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines and has nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Phoenix (PHX), Salt Lake City (SLC), and Denver (DEN).

If you can get a decently priced flight to Durango from where you live, even with layovers, this would definitely be your best bet!

However, if you cannot find a flight to Durango, the closest major airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), which is a little over a 4 hour drive.

Park Point Fire Lookout

Driving to Mesa Verde National Park

Since Mesa Verde National Park is a bit harder to fly to and only really needs a couple days to explore, it’s typically just one stop many people make while on a road trip in the area. 

If you plan to drive to Mesa Verde National Park, here’s how long you can expect to drive from other popular destinations nearby.

Moab, Utah: 2 hours, 124 miles
Monument Valley: 2.5 hours, 133 miles
Page, Arizona: 3.5 hours, 225 miles
Great Sand Dunes National Park: 3 hours 45 minutes, 199 miles
Grand Junction, Colorado: 4 hours, 202 miles
Denver, Colorado: 6.5 hours, 371 miles

Getting Around Mesa Verde National Park

Unlike some national parks, Mesa Verde National Park does not have a park shuttle. You will need to either rent a car or drive your own to get around, or hire a tour to show you the top sites. 

Where to stay at Mesa Verde National Park

When visiting Mesa Verde National Park, there are quite a few options of where to stay, including multiple towns and cities, options inside and outside of the park, as well as different lodging types.

While Mesa Verde does have some lodging options inside the park, if you want to stay outside the park, the closest towns are Mancos (super cute!) and Cortez, which both have a handful of options of places to stay.

But if you want to have a wider variety or plan to explore more of the area, we’d suggest staying in Durango (40 minutes from Mesa Verde), which we LOVE! It is the perfect sized town, has all of the amenities you would need, plus even more things to do, and is in a beautiful area.

We will include options for both inside the park and the neighboring towns below!

Airbnbs + VRBOs

Mancos

The Hilltop Hideaway (2 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This remote house is perfect for a family, couples getaway, or friend getaway, with enough room for 5 people and a great living area and outdoor area! Pets are allowed too!

Eclectic 1 Bedroom Casita (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This casita is so charming, with super nice features and lots of character.

Cairn Cottage (Studio, 1 bathroom): Location, location, location! This cottage has amazing nature all around it and it is dog friendly!  

Studio with mountain views (Studio, 1 bathroom): This dog friendly studio is bright and open, with fun pops of color, and an amazing patio!

Cortez

The Sleeping Ute Tiny Home (2 beds, 1 bathroom): This tiny house is tiny, but it can sleep 3 people and has amazing views!

Southwest Bungalow (3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom): This bungalow is super cute on the inside, sleeps 6 people total, and has an awesome backyard for hanging out! 

Serene Mountain Retreat (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): This house would be great for a family or group, with lots of space to hang out, including multiple patios!

Durango

Downtown Durango Studio (Studio, 1 bathroom): We stayed here when riding the train in Durango and it was a great spot! Spacious and cozy inside and walkable to downtown! It’s also pet friendly, which was key for us!

Hip In-Town Condo (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom): This condo is super aesthetic, with lots of beautiful design choices, including a swing inside!

Cedar House Condo (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This very stylish condo is located about a mile from downtown and has so many nice touches!

New, Modern Condo (1 bedroom, 1.5 bathrooms): As the name implies, this condo has lots of modern finishes and is close to downtown.

Hotels

Cortez

Hampton Inn Mesa Verde/Cortez
Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez
Best Western Turquoise Inn & Suites

Durango

Hampton Inn Durango
Homewood Suites
Fairfield Inn & Suites

Lodging inside the park

There are two lodging options in Mesa Verde National Park: a campground and a lodge.

Morefield Campground

Morefield Campground is located about 4 miles into Mesa Verde National Park and is open from May 1- September 30 with services and then without services from October 24 – November 10. There are about 267 dry camping sites for tents or RVs, as well as 15 additional sites with full RV hookups.

All of these sites do allow reservations, but are not required. We suggest making a reservation if you can, incase sites fill up. Each site has a fire pit and picnic table and the campground does have a dump station and showers.

You cannot camp overnight in parking lots at national parks. We know this and always follow this rule, but since we were falsely accused of this in this park (and have been accused before as well), we wanted to extra stress the importance of not breaking this rule.

While we had photo and video evidence to show the ranger (he believed us before it led to this), we now always take photos and videos of where we slept and what time we arrived just in case this happens again.

Far View Lodge

Open May 1- September 30
Mesa Verde National Park is home to its own lodge, the Far View Lodge, which is very centrally located in the park and is the perfect home base if you just plan to explore Mesa Verde and not much of the surrounding area. 

This lodge is open from May 1-September 30 and has 150 rooms and each room has Western decor, its own balcony, coffee maker and mini fridge, and wifi. They do not have TVs though!

Free camping

Our favorite boondocking spot in the area is Madden Peak, which has quite a few sites and has cell service! It’s about halfway between Durango and Mesa Verde, so it’s a great spot to make your home base for the area.

We have stayed here in both 2020 and 2021 and have loved it both times. But beware, we had a weasel get into our engine and leave us a present, so make sure you check your car to ensure they don’t chew any wires! One other thing to note–they do close the road to this site in the winter.

After we maxed out our 14 day allowed stay at Madden Peak, another spot we checked out was Crystal Creek Ditch, which was close to Mancos. There are quite a few areas to go and we struggled to have the best cell service here, but were able to make it work to get some work done.

Need water or a dump station? The Speedway right outside of Durango has free water and dump!

How much time do you need at Mesa Verde National Park?

We spent only one day at Mesa Verde National Park and were able to see almost as much as we wanted to see (closures and our hit and run caused us to see less). We think you could easily spend one day in the park and see the best sites, ruins, and dwellings, including going on a ranger-guided tour.

If you want to do everything we include on this guide, you will need two days, but we think you can get a true feel for the park and its history in one day. We will include our top suggestions of things to do in one day at Mesa Verde National Park at the end of this guide! 

Things to know before visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park | Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Before visiting Mesa Verde National Park, here are a few important things to know!

Cost to enter

It costs between $20-$30 per vehicle, depending on the time of the year, to enter Mesa Verde National Park, which covers 7 days. You can either pay at the entrance gate or buy a digital pass in advance to show when you get there. If you buy the digital pass, make sure to take a screenshot of it, as there is barely any cell service in the park.

If you’re visiting more than one National Park on your trip or during the year, we highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass which is $80 per year and will get you into any National Park, monument, or forest for free.

Cell Service is limited

There is a small amount of cell service at the beginning of the park, but it is very limited the further you go into the park. We were able to get some bars every now and then (thankfully we had a bar or two when we had to call 911 when our van was hit), but don’t count on having service most of the time.

Make sure to download offline Google Maps, AllTrails maps, and take screenshots of any reservations so you’re able to access everything you need in case you do not have service.

Do not arrive too early

Normally we suggest arriving at the national parks before or right at sunrise, but for once we have the opposite advice: don’t arrive too early to Mesa Verde National Park.

While Mesa Verde National Park is open 24 hours (you can enter the gates early), the trails and sites do not open until 8 AM. We knew that some spots did not open until 8 AM, but we thought one trail was open sooner, so we arrived early only to find that we couldn’t really do anything. We also then got pulled over because we seemed suspicious parking in a lot that early…oops! 

We suggest entering the park around 7:30 AM or so, that way by the time you enter the park and head to where you want to explore first, everything is open and you can still beat the crowds.

Dogs are not allowed

Dogs are not allowed on most trails or in any buildings at Mesa Verde National Park. The only areas they are allowed is on the 5 mile Long House Loop in Wetherill Mesa and at paved roadside pull offs, but for the majority of the items of this guide they will not be allowed, so please leave your furry friend at home or in a safe, cool spot. There is a kennel at the Morefield Campground if you need somewhere to leave your pup for a few hours!

Learn what we do with Kona when she cannot join us

Vehicle restrictions for Wetherill Mesa

Wetherill Mesa is a windy and steep road and because of this, vehicles over 8,000 pounds and 25 feet in length are not allowed. This includes our van, which is why we were unable to explore this area. 

Driving through the park takes time

Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to drive around! The entrance of Mesa Verde National Park is a bit far from some of the top things to do in the park and driving between the main area to the Wetherill Mesa area can take a lot of time as well. Above is a chart from Mesa Verde National Park, which shares how long it takes to go between specific areas of the park.

Be aware of closures

During our visit, there were some closures in the park, which impacted our experience. Most notably, Cliff Palace Loop, which is a popular area to visit, was closed during our visit in May 2021 and is closed at least through summer 2021. We have read that once it reopens, Mesa Top Loop Road will close for construction.

For this guide, we are listing ALL options of things to do in Mesa Verde National Park and will note the most recent closures at the time of writing this guide, but please check the NPS website for a more up to date list of closures. 

What to Bring to Mesa Verde National Park

Park Point Fire Lookout

As always, we recommend having the 10 essentials on you when venturing into nature, but here are a few key items we want to point out that will especially help you during your visit!

To ensure you have a safe and enjoyable time at Mesa Verde, here are some items we’d suggest bringing with you! 

HIKING SHOES

Although none of the trails are intense, if you plan to do one of the backcountry cliff dwelling tours, you’ll want to have a sturdy shoe. We almost always wear our Lowa Renegades (Kathryn) and Altra Superiors (Adam), but also love our Chacos, which are great hiking sandals for the warmer months and for sandy and smooth rock terrain.

LAYERS

We always suggest packing layers, especially when exploring at higher elevations. The park ranges from 7,000-8,500 ft, which means the weather can vary a bit as you go throughout the park, as well as throughout the day.

SUN PROTECTION

While there are lots of trees in Mesa Verde and covered areas, some of the overlooks are pretty exposed and the Southwest Colorado sun can be pretty harsh, so make sure to bring sunglasses and sunscreen. We have been using Bare Republic, which is a “better for you” sunscreen, although it may give you a nice white, vampire-esque sheen. 

WATER

The air is SO dry in Southwest Colorado. Our noses and throats struggled big time adjusting to the dry air. So make sure to bring and drink tons of water! 

We love our Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink from while moving.

DASH CAM

Just kidding on this one, but it would’ve saved us some $$$ by catching the person who backed up into our van 🙂 We’re clearly not still bitter about it.

Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park

With tons of history, different structures, and some shorter trails, there are so many things to do in Mesa Verde National Park! Below are the top things to focus on when planning your adventures, split up by the different areas of the park, that way you know what sites are close together. 

Cliff Dwelling Tours

Going on a cliff dwelling tour is the #1 thing we suggest doing in Mesa Verde National Park and since three out of the four areas in the park offer them, we’re giving it its own section on the guide! 

While there are many areas to view the cliff dwellings from afar, the cliff dwelling tours are the only way to get to see the dwellings up close and for the majority of them, you’ll have a ranger with you who will provide tons of history about the dwelling and park, which makes for an extra memorable experience.

The cliff dwelling tours are only available between May and October (the exact dates vary), so make sure to plan your trip during this timeframe if you want to experience this. We truly cannot say enough great things about the tour. It’s the BEST way to experience Mesa Verde!

NOTE: The actual dwellings you can tour seem to vary often due to closures or restoration, so check the Mesa Verde National Park website to see what tours are currently being offered, as well as the time slots and months they are offered. We are listing the ones that are available as of writing this guide, but they may have changed since.

Our experience

During our visit, there were only a few tour options available and we ended up touring the Square House Tower on a small, 10 person backcountry tour. It was incredible and we loved how small the group size was, as the ranger was able to answer all of our questions. 

Not only did we learn so much from the ranger, but the journey to get to the cliff dwelling was super fun, with ladders to climb up and down. We had both kids and adults on the tour, so even though it had some obstacles, it was doable for everyone and a blast!

How to get tickets

However, getting tickets for these can be tough! For those that require a ticket, they go on sale 14 days before at 8 AM MST and they go FAST! You will need to be logged into recreation.gov and ready to go minutes beforehand so you can refresh right at 8 AM MST. 

The first time we tried to get tickets we lucked out and got some, but then had to change the date of our visit and canceled our tickets. We tried again for a different day and despite refreshing right as the clock turned 8 AM MST, we didn’t snag any. So we checked everyday before our visit to see if any became available and while some single tickets opened up for some tours, we couldn’t find two tickets.

But by some miracle, the day before we planned to visit we checked one last time and TWO tickets were available for the Square Tower House. We were SO pumped and snatched them up right away! 

Square Tower House Cliff Dwelling Tour at Mesa Verde National Park

Types of Cliff Dwelling Tours

There are a few different types of cliff dwelling tours, either ranger-assisted, ranger-guided, or self-guided, which will each offer a slightly different experience. Here’s a rundown of each type, as well as the current cliff dwelling tours that are offered for each type. 

Ranger-assisted tours

On ranger-assisted tours, you will enter the cliff dwelling during a specific time slot and explore more at your own pace. There are rangers along the way to provide information, but you’re not committed to staying in a small group with just one ranger, and have more freedom to explore.

Long House (Wetherill Mesa)
Dates: May 29-October 23
Length: These tours happen every 30 minutes from 9:30-11:30 AM and 1:30-3 PM and last about one hour.
Distance: 2.25 miles of walking and includes some ladders
Cost: $8/person
Number of spots per tour: 25 per time slot 

The Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling in the park and also has amazing views of the park’s canyons and mesas!

Square Tower House Cliff Dwelling Tour at Mesa Verde National Park

Ranger-guided backcountry tours

The ranger-guided backcountry tours are more intimate, with small group sizes, and provide an in-depth experience of some lesser seen cliff dwellings.

Mug House (Wetherill Mesa)
Dates: May 2-October 23
Length: 90 minutes and two time slots per day
Distance: 2.25 miles of walking and includes some boulder scrambling
Cost: $25/person
Number of spots per tour: 10 per time slot 

Mug House is one of the dwellings that cannot be seen from any overlook, which makes it even more special to visit! It gets its name from three mugs tied together, which are hanging inside one of the rooms. 

Square Tower House (Mesa Top Loop)
Dates: May 2-October 23
Length: 90 minutes and one time slot per day
Distance: 1 mile of walking, which includes some ladders
Cost: $25/person
Number of spots per tour: 10 per time slot 

This is the tour we did and we loved it! Square Tower House can be viewed from an observation area off Mesa Top Loop, but getting to walk right up to it is even more spectacular. The dwelling is home to the tallest structure in the park, a 28 ft tall tower, and on the tour you’ll get to climb down ladders, see an intact kiva roof (which is rare!), as well as other structures.

Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park | Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace (Cliff Palace Loop)
Currently closed 
Length: 30 minutes
Distance: 1/4 mile of walking, which includes five ladders and 120 steps

Cliff Palace is the most iconic and largest cliff dwelling in the park, with 150 rooms!

Balcony House (Cliff Palace Loop)
Currently closed 
Length: 1 hour
Distance: 1/4 mile of walking, which includes a 32 foot ladder and crawling through a tunnel

This is one of the most adventurous cliff dwellings to visit and not for those who do not like heights or small spaces!

Spring House (Mesa Top Ruins Road)
Dates: Currently only 4 dates offered in May and September
Length: 8 hours
Distance: 8 miles of walking, which includes 1,500 ft of elevation changes and a ladder
Cost: $45/person
Number of spots per tour: 10 per time slot 

If you want to spend an entire day visiting a dwelling that hardly anyone gets to see , this is the tour for you! With 86 rooms and 7 kivas, Spring House is the largest unexcavated cliff dwelling in the park! While you will not be able to enter the dwelling, as it’s very fragile, you will get great views of it and 8 miles of adventuring along the way! 

Self-guided tours

If you’re unable to get tickets to one of the guided tours, a self-guided tour is a great option! On a self-guided tour you’ll get to wander around on your own, but you will not get the experience of having a ranger guide you through the dwelling.

Step House (Wetherill Mesa)

Step House is the only cliff dwelling open for self-guided tours. To experience this cliff dwelling, you’ll have to walk about 1 mile and should expect to spend about 45 minutes-1 hour.

Mesa Top Ruins Road

Mesa Top Ruins Road is the main road that runs through the park. Along this road there are various sites and trails to check out, all of which tell different stories of the area’s history.

Far View Sites

We really enjoyed exploring the Far View sites, which is a former Pueblo village and farming area from 900-1300 AD. The Ancestral Pueblo people lived here before the cliff dwellings were built and at one point was the most densely populated area of the mesa! 

There are a few different areas to explore here, including a reservoir, multiple villages, the pipe shrine house, and the far view tower, all of which are connected by pathways.

Petroglyph Point Trail

Miles: 2.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 328 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions

This hike includes views of Spruce Tree House at the beginning, petroglyphs along the way, amazing views of the park’s scenery, and some rock scrambling! The trail has a ton of amazing features for a short distance and we hear that this is one of the BEST hikes to do in the park. 

Unfortunately we were unable to hike it because it was closed due to bear activity the day before, which was a huge bummer. But our experience was probably pretty rare, as while bears are present at Mesa Verde, they are pretty uncommon to see. Make sure to keep your distance if you do see one though!

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House is the third largest cliff dwelling, with 130 rooms and 8 kivas, built into a large natural alcove. Due to this alcove, it is one of the best preserved dwellings in the park, with 90% of materials being original. 

While you used to be able to go on a tour of Spruce Tree House, due to rock falls it is currently closed. But the view from the overlook is still impressive!

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Normally open year round, but currently closed until further notice
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is one of the oldest museums in the national park system and has displays about the Ancestral Pueblo peoples, artifacts, and a film to watch. 

Park Point Fire Lookout

A quick, 0.4 mile (round trip) walk up a paved walkway takes you to the Park Point Fire Lookout, which was built in 1939 by the CCC and is consistently staffed 7 days a week from June to September. Not only is the fire lookout cool to see, but this lookout also marks the highest point in the park at 8,572 feet and the views of the park and surrounding area are incredible!

This would be a great, easy spot to see the sunset!

Point Lookout Trail

Miles: 2.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 531 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions

This hike takes you up to the Point Lookout, which has expansive views of the San Juan Mountains, La Plata Mountains, and the Mancos and Montezuma Valleys. With a western facing view like the Park Point Fire Lookout, the views will be similar, but this hike will give you slightly less crowds and is more of a nature experience vs. the fire lookout. This would also be a great spot for sunset if you don’t mind a little bit of hiking! 

Mesa Top Loop

This road will be closing in 2021 once the construction at the Cliff Palace Loop is completed

Mesa Top Loop is a 6 mile road that includes 12 overlooks and archeological sites that showcase 700 years of Mesa Verde history. This road is open from 8 AM-sunset and is such a great, accessible way to see different views of the park, many cliff dwellings, and learn the progression of structures that made up the park, from the original pithouses to the larger cliff dwellings.

While we recommend stopping at all sites, some of our favorite spots along the route were the Navajo Canyon View, Square Tower House Lookout, Sun Point View, and Sun Temple (where you can see Cliff Palace as well!).

Each site along the route has a lot of signage to read so you can learn more of the history, but there is an audio tour you can use while you drive! Plan to spend 1-2 hours wandering through this area and reading all of the signs.

Cliff Palace Loop 

Currently closed for construction. For updates, check the Mesa Verde National Park website.

Drive Cliff Palace Loop

Cliff Palace Loop is home to two of the most iconic dwellings in the park, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. While these require a ranger-guided tour to visit, there are still a couple other things to see along this route, including the Cliff Palace Overlook, House of Many Windows, Hemenway House, and the Soda Canyon Overlook, which we will cover below.

Soda Canyon Overlook

Miles: 1.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 59 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions

The short and flat Soda Canyon Overlook trail leaves from the Cliff Palace Loop and takes you to the edge of the canyon where you can overlook the canyon below, as well as see Balcony House! 

Wetherill Mesa

Besides going on one of the ranger-assisted, ranger-guided, or self-guided tours in Wetherill Mesa, there isn’t a ton to do, expect hiking the 5 mile Long House Loop Trail, which is a paved, dog friendly trail that will take you to different viewpoints and sites along the way, including views of Long House, Kodak House, Nordenskiöld Site #16, and the Badger House Community. 

How to spend One Day at Mesa Verde National Park

Square Tower House Cliff Dwelling Tour at Mesa Verde National Park

While there are a lot of things to do in Mesa Verde National Park, you can get a very good feel for the park, and learn tons of history, in one day. 

And while we normally love to include a step by step itinerary to hopefully make planning easier, it’s a bit hard to do that for Mesa Verde because if you do a ranger led tour, the starting time varies and the locations vary. But we’d suggest prioritizing the following during one day in Mesa Verde:

  • Go on a ranger-assisted or ranger-guided tour or do the self guided tour of Step House
  • Hike the Petroglyph Point Trail and see Spruce Tree House along the way
  • Drive the Mesa Top Loop and stop at all of the sites
  • Visit the Cliff Palace Loop (if open) to get more views of Cliff Palace and hike the Soda Canyon Overlook trail
  • Explore the Far View Sites
  • Watch the sunset from the Park Point Fire Lookout or Point Lookout Trail 

Ready to explore Mesa Verde National Park?

Pin this guide with the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park to help plan your trip!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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