Homepage / Excursion Guides / Mesa Verde National Park: Our Expert Visitor's Guide

Mesa Verde National Park: Our Expert Visitor's Guide

Every U.S. national park is worthy of a visit, but Mesa Verde National Park offers something special — something most national parks, no matter how beautiful, can ever replicate. It protects and preserves one of the oldest and most significant cultures in the American Southwest: the Ancestral Puebloans. To visit Mesa Verde National Park is to take one step in understanding this culture, which famously built their homes into the cliff walls high above the canyon floor. This is perhaps why I keep coming back — I have not visited any national park as many times as I’ve visited Mesa Verde National Park. There is so much to see, to learn, to imagine.

Unlike most parks, which have plenty of blocked-off areas, you can hike into the preserved cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and inspect an ancient kiva or petroglyph up close. It makes it easy to imagine what it might have been like to live here long ago.

In this guide, we'll share all you need to know about visiting Mesa Verde National Park, including how to get around the park and the best time to visit. We’ll also provide a rundown of our favorite nearby tours and activities, so you can get the most out of your visit to this sacred corner of Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park: What Makes It So Special

After visiting Mesa Verde National Park numerous times over the years, there are three things that standout:

The Sacred, Ancestral Home of 26 Tribes of Today

Mesa Verde National Park preserves the cultural heritage of 26 tribes that continue to see the land as a sacred place. It connects the past and present ways of life of the Puebloan Peoples, and for that reason, visiting the park is a privilege.

Access to Ancient Puebloan Cliff Dwellings

homes built into the side of mountain in Mesa Verde National Park

There are over 600 cliff dwellings inside Mesa Verde National Park. Each was built by Ancestral Puebloans, often over the course of several centuries. And while most date back to the late 1190s and 1270s, many are in excellent shape.

The most famous of the cliff dwellings is the Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling in North American and once housed over 100 people. Visitors can still walk inside it today. I will never forget my first visit to Balcony House, which can only be accessed via several tall ladders and a narrow tunnel that requires you to get on your hands and knees.

Mesa Verde’s 600 cliff dwellings are just a small part of the almost 5,000 archaeological sites the park protects, including petroglyphs, kivas, and mesa dwellings.

Dramatic Landscapes and Rare Species

Much of the park is set on top of a green, flat-topped mesa, hence the name, Mesa Verde or “green mesa.” Surrounding the mesa are a series of deep canyons lined with sheer cliff walls. The top of the mesa provides panoramic views of the canyons, while the cliff walls, some of which house ancient dwellings, are the landscape’s biggest draw.

The beautiful vistas and ancient sites are also home to over a thousand species, including several that have disappeared or are rarely seen in the rest of the region. Rare and threatened species within the park include breeding pairs of peregrine falcon and Mexican spotted owls.

Where is Mesa Verde National Park?

Mesa Verde National Park is situated in the Montezuma Valley in Southwestern Colorado. It is roughly halfway between the towns of Cortez and Mancos in a quiet corner of Colorado. The city of Durango is 30 minutes to the east, while the ski town of Telluride is 1.5 hours northeast of the park.

The entrance to Mesa Verde National Park is off of Highway 160.

The History of Mesa Verde National Park

The history of Mesa Verde National Park dates back over a thousand years when the Ancestral Puebloans selected the high mesas and natural cliff alcoves of the area as the site of their home. They started construction long before Europeans explored North America and lived in their Mesa Verde homes for more than 700 years, constructing elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves along the canyon walls. The Ancient Puebloans left their Mesa Verde home in the late A.D. 1200s, but many of their homes, kivas, and petroglyphs remain.

The area was abandoned for many years, before President Theodore Roosevelt established the land as a national park in 1906. It was the first national park of its kind, with a goal of working to "preserve the works of man."

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park Today

view of pueblan homes in hillside of national park

During a visit to Mesa Verde National Park today, visitors will experience a blend of the old and new. There are paved roads, bathrooms, and a beautiful visitor center and museum, but most of the park is remote and without reliable cell service. I recommend entering the park with a full tank of gas as you will have to drive at least 50 miles to get to the cliff dwellings. A meandering road winds around the rim of the park’s many canyons, with plenty of viewpoints, including cliff dwellings that can be seen (and, in some cases, visited) from the road.

When to Visit Mesa Verde National Park

The best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park is during the spring and fall when the weather is mild, the entire park is open, and there are fewer people. The park is technically open year-round, but many of the facilities and offerings — including the cliff dwelling tours — close in the fall and don’t reopen until spring. Because of that, winter can be extremely peaceful and quiet, but you will only be able to view cliff dwellings from the road overlooks and are not able to go inside. Summer is the park’s busy season.

What You'll See When You Arrive at Mesa Verde National Park

Upon arrival at Mesa Verde National Park you’ll come upon the Mesa Verde Visitor & Research Center, which is open daily (only closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day).

From there, the road winds along the mesa, past the Mancos, Montezuma, and Park Point Overlooks. At the Far View Area, home to the Far View Lodge, the road splits. To the right is the lesser-traveled Wetherill Mesa Road, which leads to the Step House and Long House cliff dwellings. (Wetherill Mesa Road will be closed all of 2024 for construction.) A turn to the left leads to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and the popular Mesa Top and Cliff Palace Loops, where visitors can access the Cliff Palace and Balcony House, and see Spruce Tree House.

Self-guided Versus Ranger-led Tours of Mesa Verde National Park

The only way to go inside a cliff dwelling is to book a ticketed tour with a ranger. Tours are typically only available during the park’s high season — from spring to fall — and are available to book 14 days in advance of your trip on a rolling daily window. To book a tour, visit Recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777. Exact tour dates for the 2024 season have not yet been announced.

Cliff dwelling tours include visits to the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and Balcony House, which requires a strong level of fitness and comfort with heights and small spaces. There are also backcountry tours to Square Tower House, a lesser-visited site with the tallest standing structure in the park.

Although a tour is the only way to go inside the park’s renowned cliff dwellings, you can see the ancient homes on your own from the park’s overlooks, year-round. From the Mesa Top Loop overlooks, for example, you can see the Cliff Palace and Square Tower House from above.

Sleeping and Eating in Mesa Verde National Park

The park has one lodge, Far View Lodge, which is located at the center of the park (around 30 minutes from the park entrance) and is open from spring to fall. Near the park entrance is the Morefield Campground, a large campground with 267 sites, including spaces for full RV hookups. It is also open from spring to fall.

There are six eateries in Mesa Verde National Park, that range from the fine dining in Far View Lodge to a simple campground store in Morefield Campground. Only one restaurant, Spruce Tree Terrace deep inside the park is open in the winter, with most closing in the fall and reopening in the spring.

Staying Safe & Fitting In While Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

ladder extending from hole in Pueblan home in Mesa Verde

There are a few rules that will keep you safe and the park in good condition for future generations. For starters, the park is set at a high elevation — between 7,000 and 8,400 feet above sea level — and the climate is dry. You will need more water than you think and will get tired faster than you are used to. Always carry extra water and choose your hiking route carefully. For the best experience, book a guided tour. You will not only be with someone who knows the park and the landscape, but will leave with a better understanding of Mesa Verde’s important role in history.

And finally, keep in mind that you are visiting ancient sites that are fragile — do not touch, climb, sit, or lean on ancient walls. The backcountry of Mesa Verde is closed to visitors and it is illegal to hike off trail or camp outside of the designated campground.

Cell service is extremely limited inside the park. You will find Wi-Fi at the Morefield Campground Store, Far View Lodge, Far View Terrace, and Spruce Tree Terrace.

Mesa Verde National Park Weather & Climate

The best weather in Mesa Verde National Park is found in spring and fall, when the snow has melted and the temperature is cool. Summer temperatures can reach into the 90s, with afternoon thunderstorms common in July and August. Winters can be cold and snowy.

No matter when you visit the park keep in mind that the elevation ranges from 7,000 to 8,400 feet above sea level, so along the course of a hike the weather can go from warm to frigid.

Getting To & Around Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is tucked in the quiet southwestern corner of Colorado. The nearest airports are all smaller, regional flight hubs: Cortez, Colorado (CEZ); Durango, Colorado (DRO); and Farmington, New Mexico (FMN). The nearest international airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Every visitor to Mesa Verde National Park should have a car. Once you turn off Highway 160 and enter the park, the first cliff dwelling view is still another 45 minutes drive into the park on a steep, narrow, and winding road. There is only one gas station within the park; Morefield Campground near the entrance.

Our Favorite Tours & Excursions Near Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park takes time and effort to get to, so once you’ve spent a full two or three days exploring the park, I’d recommend visiting some of the neighboring communities and sites surrounding the park. This part of Colorado is extremely special, with beautiful mountains and high alpine lakes that lend themselves to adventure.

Durango

black train engine with steam stack in Colorado The small city of Durango is an easy 30 minute drive from the Mesa Verde National Park entrance. The mountains north of the city are covered in hiking trails [LINK to Durango hiking guide] and off-road adventures

[LINK to Durango jeeping guide].

The city is also the launch point of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a heritage rail journey that travels over the mountains between the two towns

[LINK to expert railroad guide].

Telluride

The mountain town of Telluride is around 1.5 hours from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, but the landscape is as different as it gets. The high desert of Mesa Verde is replaced by a high-density of 14,000-foot mountains set around the wildly picturesque and remote community. The town is best known for its skiing, which is some of the nation’s steepest and most scenic

[LINK to Telluride Ski Resort expert guide], as well as snowmobiling and ice climbing in the winter and Jeep tours and rafting in the summer [LINK to various Telluride activity guides]. It is also a summer festival destination with a bluegrass music festival in June and a film festival over Labor Day Weekend

[LINK to Telluride festival guides].

avatar
Evie C
Writer, Editor & Telluride Local
Evie is a Colorado native who lives in a small town in the San Juan Mountains. When she's not skiing or running, she works as a freelance writer and editor for publications like Travel + Leisure, Outside, and SKI. She loves playing in the outdoors, but her real passion is travel — so far, she has visited well over 50 countries and lived in 5 and has no plans to stop.