12 Tips and Complete Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

     

    In southwest Colorado, the hills of mesas have almost flat tops but are separated by narrow, frequently sheer-walled canyons up to 1,000 feet deep. The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in this area between 550 and 1300 AD. Most of the cliff dwellings were built between 1190 and 1270s. 

    Mesa Verde National Park was established to protect the 600 cliff dwellings and part of the nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites found within the park. A must-visit park, Mesa Verde deserves to be on your family’s vacation list. We visited the park as part of a 6-day Southwest Colorado 3 national park road trip.

    Plan Your Visit to Mesa Verde with Kids

    Before you head to the entrance, stop at the Visitor and Research Center to pick up a Junior Ranger program and buy your guided-tour tickets to either Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House.

    The park is divided into two sections, Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. Fifteen miles from the park entrance, the road arrives at the Far View visitor center. Stop to stretch your legs, to get general information, souvenirs, or a bite to eat.  You have another chance to buy tour tickets here. Now you’ll choose which road to follow depending on the section of the park you decided to visit. Chapin Mesa is the most popular part of the park while Wetherill Mesa is the quieter side. You can visit both areas but many visitors explore just Chapin Mesa.

    Chapin Mesa

    The mesa consists of two loops, Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop, and an extended parking lot/mini-loop, Spruce Tree House. I recommend starting with Spruce Tree House, followed by Mesa Top Loop, and then Cliff Palace Loop.

    Far View Sites

    Before you reach the loops, stop at the Far View Sites to explore a mesa-top farming community, five villages, and a reservoir. The path is stroller or wheelchair-accessible.

    Spruce Tree House 

    Before you head over to view your first cliff dwelling, take a moment to enjoy the unspoiled views of Spruce Canyon. Park to your right early in the first parking lot to enjoy the bold, picturesque, and beautiful views of the valley below.

    Hold on tight to your little ones as there isn’t any fencing in this area, but the views are a must-stop. During our visit, we could feel a cool breeze coming up from the lower elevation.

    In this same mini-loop, you’ll find the viewing point for Spruce Tree House. Take time to enjoy the delightful panoramic of the Navajo Canyon.

    Spruce Tree House is the third-largest cliff dwelling in the park and is the best-preserved. Due to its location, almost 90% of the walls, wood, and plaster are original. Containing 130 rooms, the dwelling was home to 60-80 people. Stability concerns and rockfalls have closed access to the dwellings.

    Visit the bookstore, amphitheater, ranger station, gift shop, or break for lunch at the picnic area. Also in this parking lot loop is Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe with convenient cafeteria service with indoor and patio dining.

    Square Tower House

    Mesa Top Loop

    At 6 miles long with 12 sites to stop and visit along the way, this loop along the rim of Chapin Mesa has a lot to see and do. Highlights include pit houses, Square Tower House Overlook, Sunset House, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. These viewpoints are fenced in and more little kid-friendly.

    Sunset House
    Cliff Palace from Mesa Top Loop, Sun Point View stop.
    Oak Tree House

    The last stop on the Mesa Top Loop is the ceremonial building, Sun Temple. The structure is “D” shaped and was perhaps used in ceremonies for the Ancestral Pueblo, including solstice and astronomical observations.

    Cliff Palace Loop

    Following the edge of Cliff Canyon, the Cliff Palace loop is also 6 miles long with numerous overlooks. Stop to view more distant ruins including House of Many Windows and Hemenway House.

    Cliff Palace Overlook at the first parking lot is the closest to the Cliff Palace dwellings. There are some steps down to this platform.

    If you bought tour tickets, this is where you would join the park ranger. If you are short on time visiting the park, I would recommend coming here first and taking the tour (after you bought your tickets at the entrance). Tours depart every half hour during peak season and last an hour.

    Cliff Palace is the largest and most famous cliff dwelling in the park, comprising of 150 rooms and 23 kivas.

    Balcony House, Mesa Verde National park
    The loop leads on to the Balcony House parking lot. If you don’t have tickets to tour Balcony House with a park ranger, you can view Balcony House from Soda Canyon Overlook Trail, a 1.2-mile walk.

     

    Wetherill Mesa

    The narrow winding, 12-mile road ends with a parking lot and begins a 6-mile paved trail loop.

    Step House

    Along the trail, Step House is available through a self-guided trail. Enjoy viewpoints of Nordenskiold Site 16 and Kodak House.

    Long House, Mesa Verde National Park
    Long House, the second largest dwelling in the park, can be toured with a park ranger.  The loop concludes (or starts) with Badger House Community consisting of a pithouse, Pueblo Village, Badger House, and Twin Raven House.

    Mesa Verde Guided Tours

    Ranger-led tours are the only way to view the park’s best attractions up close. Get your tickets to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House at the Visitor Center & Museum at the entrance. Click on each link for an overview and virtual tour of each house.

    • Cliff House Tour – Ranked as a Moderate tour, this 60-minute tour covers a distance of 0.25 miles.
    • Long House Tour – Rated as Difficult, this 120-minute tour covers 2.25 miles.
    • Balcony House Tour – Considered Strenuous, this 90-minute tour includes a 32-foot ladder, crawl through an 18-inch wide and 12-foot long tunnel, and a 60-foot open cliff face with stone steps and two 10-foot ladders to exit.
    • Explore more options, including Mug House, Oak Tree House, Spring House, and Yucca House tours.

    When To Visit Mesa Verde

    The park is open all year. During the winter, some areas are closed and tours are unavailable. We recommend going in May or late August. Although this does conflict with most school schedules, you’ll find the crowds to be light.

     

    Time to Cover

    Give yourself  1.5-2 hours to drive in and out of the park. Without taking a tour, plan on 3 hours to cover Spruce Tree, Mesa Top, and Cliff Palace Loops. Add an additional 1-1.5 hours to tour one of the cliff dwellings. Tours were not running during our visit so our visit time was 4 hours. Plan an additional couple of hours to visit Wetherill Mesa.

     

    12 Tips for Visiting Mesa Verde with Kids

    1. Visit the Visitor Center & Museum first to get your tickets to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House. Don’t tour the center until after you complete your visit. This will allow you to beat the crowds to the views, enjoy the morning cooler temps, and cool down in the air conditioning during the hottest time of the day.
    2. Arrive with a full tank of gas. You can fuel up before you leave Durango or Cortez. There’s also a gas station at the exit off of Highway 160 and at the Morefield Campground near the entrance.
    3. Don’t forget to pick up your Junior Ranger activity booklet at the visitor center or Chapin Mesa Museum.
    4. Look for wild/free-roaming horses! Seeing them is a real treat. Although it is planned to remove the 65 to 80 horses from the Park in the next five years. We saw three during our morning visit near the Fair View Terrance.
    5. Parts of the park’s roads have restrictions on vehicle size. Weatherill Mesa Road vehicle limits are 25 feet and 8000 pounds.
    6. Donate fifty cents each for the three small guide booklets to the Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony to aid in your understanding of the park.
    7. Have snacks and plenty of water for your crew. Depending on what time you arrive, you might want to pack a lunch too. Or you can get a bite to eat at one of the park’s three restaurants. Metate at the Far View Lodge, The Spruce Tree Terrace, and Far View Terrace.
    8. Don’t rush through. Take your time during your visit. Hang out at the overlooks and try to imagine what it might have been like to live in the dwellings. Ask your kids what they think. Read the informative placards throughout the park to learn about the area and the people who lived there.
    9. Bring binoculars to view the dwellings from afar in greater detail.
    10. Be aware of altitude sickness. Be prepared for car sickness due to the twist and turns in the roads.
    11. Sunblock, sunblock, sunblock! Don’t forget to reapply! And drink plenty of water.
    12. Ask the rangers questions! They love to share their knowledge with you.

    Fun Facts

    1. The park is also home to thousands of species of rare, diverse wildlife including the Mexican spotted owl and the peregrine falcon.
    2. On a clear day, the views southwards from Montezuma Valley Overlook stretch 50 miles to Shiprock Peak in New Mexico.
    3. Mesa Verde is both a national park and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
    4. Descendants of Mesa Verde Ancestral Pueblo people spread out far and wide, and include the Hopi in Arizona and the T19 Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico.
    5. Mesa Verde is the only cultural park in the National Park system. This designation is for parks that preserve the works of man as opposed to nature.
    6. At one time, the National Museum of Finland had a large collection of Mesa Verde artifacts taken from the ruins by Gustaf Nordenskiold. In the late 1800s, Nordenskiold was an archaeological excavator from the Academy of Sciences in Sweden. Today, some items are being returned. You can read his book,  The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde online.
    7. The park has been accredited as the 100th International Dark Sky Park. The certification is awarded to parks that improve night skies with more energy-efficient and sustainable lights and provide educational opportunities and programs.

    Where to Stay Near Mesa Verde

    Hotels near Mesa Verde

    • Durango offers plenty of activities for your big family to do. The park is a short 35 miles west. Close enough to get a quick hotel breakfast and arrive at the park early.
    • Cortez is a short 10 miles away but doesn’t have as many big family friendly hotels.

    Camping and RV

    • Morefield Campground (in the park) has 267 campsites available first-come, first-served. Amenities include a free dump station, coin-operated showers and laundry, general store, and gas.

    Vacation Rentals

    A vacation rental can make for a good choice for visiting the area. Check out rentals near Mesa Verde.

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    Theresa Jorgensen

    Theresa is the mother of four including twins. She is the owner of SixSuitcaseTravel, a travel site for big families of 5, 6, 7, 8. She enjoys helping other big families build life-long travel memories. Her family's travel bucket list includes Washington, DC (done!), Yellowstone (done!), London, and anywhere in the Caribbean.