Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado just outside the city of Cortez. Mesa Verde’s rich landscape became home to the Ancestral Puebloan people approximately 1400 years ago. Over a 700-year period, their communities flourished in what is now the national park we see today. Inside the park’s 52,000 acres are almost 5000 archeological sites to date. The 5000 sites include 600 cliff dwellings built and lived in by the Ancestral Puebloan People. The park provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about the ancient culture and their modern descendants as you walk through lands, homes and communities they once inhabited.
Entrance Fee: November 1st to April 30th – $20 per vehicle. May 1st to October 31st – $30 per vehicle. If you are visiting multiple parks, and are not traveling with a 4th grader, I highly recommend an America the Beautiful Pass. It covers the entrance fees for over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all national parks. It also makes your entrance into most parks a little quicker😊 All ranger assisted tours are $8 per person/per tour for those ages 3 and up and $1 per person/per tour for those 2 and under.
Lodging: There is one lodge and one campground inside the park. The Far View Lodge is open April through October. It is located 15 miles inside the park and comes with unbelievably remarkable views at an elevation of over 8,000 feet. Reservations for the lodge can be made here- Far View Lodge. The Morefield Campground is located 4 miles from the park entrance and has over 260 sites, a gas station, laundry facilities, café, grocery store and gift shop. It is open spring through fall and reservations for the campground can be made here- Morefield Campground. If you would prefer to stay outside the park, the city of Cortez has plenty of hotel options. Cortez, CO is located about 10 miles from the park entrance.
Dining: There are several food options inside the park. Spruce Tree Café (Chapin Mesa), Far View Terrace Café, Metate Room (Far View Lodge), Far View Lounge, Knife Edge Café (Morefield Campground), and a Snack Bar (Wetherill Mesa). All hours and menus can be found here- Mesa Verde Dining. The Snack Bar in Wetherill Mesa closes at 3 most days, check the board near the ranger desk for day specific information. I highly recommend bringing in food on at least for your Wetherill Mesa visits. Cortez, CO also has many dining options. Our favorite dinner option in Cortez is The Farm Bistro– both the food and atmosphere are lovely. Reservations are not necessary but recommended😊
Must Know Before You Go:
1. Be prepared to carry at least 1 liter, per hour per person when hiking, especially in the summer months. Water filling stations are available at the Wetherill Mesa Information Kiosk, Cliff Palace, the Visitor Center, and park headquarters near Spruce Tree House.
2. Most of the park is at elevations of 7000-8400 feet. Please watch for signs of altitude sickness, if you are not acclimated to high elevations.
3. Chapin Mesa is open year-round. Wetherill Mesa is open May through October. Also, Step House, Long House, and even a ranger or the snack bar on Wetherill Mesa are all only available before 3pm, even during the summer months. We left the parking lot right at 4 pm, in June, and we were the last car left in the lot.
4. Access to Long House, Balcony House and Cliff Palace are available through ranger led tours. Tickets are available at Recreation.gov and should be purchased ahead of time. Tickets are released 14 days prior to the tour date at 8am MST. Balcony House and Cliff Palace can be toured on the same day, just make sure the tour start times are at least 2 hours apart.
Cell Service: Cell service is unavailable throughout most of the park. We carry walkie talkies in case someone is separated from the group.
2 Day Itinerary
Day 1 (Wetherill Mesa)
Mesa Verde Visitor Center and Research Center- The Visitor Center is immediately inside the northern park boundary, before you even get to the park entrance station. The beautiful building is filled with stunning artwork and educational exhibits about the Ancestral Puebloan people and their modern descendants. There is also information on the park’s impressive landscape. It is a great place to fill up water, grab maps and speak with a ranger if you have any questions. There are also restrooms available just outside. From the Visitor Center, head into the park and take the long and winding road to Wetherill Mesa.
*The parking lot at Wetherill Mesa is only 28 miles from the Visitor Center, but it will take at least 45 minutes to reach your destination.*
Step House- The trailhead for Step House starts just to the left of the Wetherill Mesa Information Kiosk. The Step House Trail is only 1-mile round trip to a self-guided tour of Step House. And while the tour is self-guided, and does not require a ticket or reservations, a ranger must be present at the site for you to explore the area. I would make this your first stop of the day on Wetherill Mesa. If you choose to do it later in the day, the last entry time is 2:45 pm.
Long House- Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling in the park with over 150 rooms. To experience these impressive structures up close, you will need to purchase a ticket/reservation at Recreation.gov ahead of time. The tour is 60 min long with over 2 miles of walking. Getting in and out of the main tour will be a steep, strenuous climb and you will have to climb two 15-foot ladders once you are inside the site. The walk down to the Long House Tour Trailhead is 0.75 miles from the Information Kiosk and not included in your tour time. Plan to arrive in plenty of time to make the walk down to the first ranger. The trailhead has both picnic tables and a restroom available.
*Mom advice you can choose to take or not- you know your kid best. If you have kiddos under 4, this tour is best completed with them in a carrier. If you have little ones that love to roam, (we had 3 of those toddlers not that long ago), then I would skip the tour and just do the hike to the overlook instead. You can then continue on to the Badger House Community area,. We have a 6-, 8-, and 9-year-old and they did great, but even they got a little antsy near the end.
Badger House Community- Depending on your tour time, I would either do this trail right before or right after the Long House Tour. From the Long House Trailhead, head right to the Badger House Community Trail. It’s about 0.3 miles to the start of the Badger House Community Loop Trail. This trail takes you to 4 sites where you can learn about and see hundreds of years of architectural changes in the Ancestral Puebloan communities. The entire trail from the Long House trailhead, through the Badger House Community sites and back to the Information Kiosk is just over 2 miles.
If you plan on visiting the Long House Overlook, add another mile onto your hike. This trail had very little shade. However, we did have several wild horses and a few snakes join us right on the trail! There are also restrooms and a trail guide available.
Far View Sites- To get to the Far View Sites, head out of Wetherill Mesa and head south(right) when you reach the main road near the Far View Lodge. The area is about 2 miles south of the lodge on Chapin Mesa. The Far View sites trail is roughly 1-mile round trip. The sites were once one of the most densely populated areas of the mesa with over 50 villages within a half square mile. There is a lot to see in this area so I highly recommend picking up a trail guide to learn about the specific buildings and the people you once built and populated them. To complete the entire trail, first check out the Far View House and Pipe Shrine House, then head back to the parking lot loop and follow signs to coyote village to see the rest of the structures and compete the trail loop.
Park Point Overlook- This trail is 0.4 miles roundtrip and takes you to 2 overlooks and a fire lookout. It’s located at the park’s highest elevation of 8500 feet and it’s spectacular 360 views are a wonderful way to end your first day at Mesa Verde. The road up to the parking lot will be on your left on the way out, about 5 miles north of the Far View Lodge.
Day 2 (Chapin Mesa)
*If you plan on doing both ranger led tours today, you will want to arrive at Spruce Tree House to start the Petroglyph Point Trail no later than 8am. *
Spruce Tree House- I would start your day at Spruce Tree House. The overlook is also where you’ll start the Petroglyph Point Trail. After parking in the lot across from the park headquarters, use the restrooms on the parking lot side of the street and bring everything with you for the 3-mile hike. Don’t forget to fill up on water if you need to!
Spruce Tree House is the most well-preserved cliff dwelling in the park and the third largest, with approximately 130 rooms. The first time I visited Mesa Verde (pre-2015), I was able to tour the structures. However, the sandstone above the cliff dwelling has become unstable over the years leading to the closure of Spruce Tree House to the public. The overlook is still quite impressive and definitely a must stop. We ran into a ranger at the overlook this last visit who was able to point out the cracks in the stone and discussed what the park service is doing to help stabilize the area. I highly recommend seeking out a ranger at this overlook if you have any questions! The walk down to the overlook from the park headquarters building is 0.25 miles. The overlook is on the cliff ledge and there are no railings present, so keep little ones close.
Petroglyph Point Trail- To begin the Petroglyph Point Trail, head down the trail to the right of the overlook. When you get to the Spruce Canyon Trail split, follow signs for the Petroglyph Point Trail. The first half of this trail has quite a bit of rock scrambling, especially at the turn around point. The walk back on the mesa top is a relatively flat, easy hike. The park and AllTrails put this trail at 2.4 miles. However, it is at least 3 miles total to complete the entire trail and reach the parking lot. I’m guessing the 2.4 miles starts at the trail split, a little ways into your hike. Almost the entirety of this very cool trail is on the cliff ledge so you will want to keep little ones close, especially with the rocky terrain. And for those under 4- a carrier is recommended for at least the climb up to the mesa top. You will need two hands available for scrambling. The views are spectacular the entire trail and the petroglyphs can be seen about 1.8 miles in, just before your last, but most difficult scramble up the cliffside.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum- After the last hike, enjoy the indoors for a moment while checking out the Archeological Museum. There is a short film and many cultural objects on display, giving a glimpse into the history and daily life of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Cliff Palace Tour- Not only is Cliff Palace the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park with over 150 rooms, but it is also the largest cliff dwelling in all of North America. If there is only one ranger led tour you have time for, this is the one I would recommend. The Cliff Palace Tour is 30 minutes long, requires walking 0.25 miles (at 7000 ft), and climbing five, 8–10-foot ladders. Just like Long House, I would recommend a carrier for those under 4, because you cannot touch anything, once you are inside the dwelling and will need both hands to climb the ladders. This very impressive cliff dwelling is a must see during your Mesa Verde visit.
*If you plan on doing both the Cliff Palace Tour and Balcony House Tour, schedule the start times 2 hours apart. *
Balcony House Tour- If you have a crew that loves adventure, then this is the tour for you! While Cliff Palace is certainly the most impressive, Balcony House is certainly the most exciting to walk/climb through. To get into the site, it will require walking down 130 very narrow steps, only to climb up a 32 ft ladder right on the open cliffside. To get out of the site will require climbing through a 12-foot tunnel that is only 18 inches wide, then climbing uneven steps to make the 60 ft assent up the open cliffside. After that it will still take 2, 17-foot ladders to finally land you back on the mesa top. If you or anyone in your crew is afraid of heights and/or tight spaces, then this may not be the tour for you. And not to worry, if you skip this tour there is plenty more to see!
Mesa Top Loop– After the Balcony House Tour, head over to the Mesa Top Loop, to complete the informative, scenic and remarkable stops along the 6-mile, one-way road. With a visit to each site, you get to experience the evolution of architecture occurring in Mesa Verde over hundreds of years. You will also get the opportunity to learn more about the people who built and lived in these communities. I would recommend making every stop on the loop road to truly take in the whole experience, but if you are short on time, do not miss Square House, Sun Point View (my favorite view in the park😊), and Sun Temple. Check out this wonderful audio tour that goes along with the walk through 700 years of Ancestral Pueblo history- Mesa Top Loop Audio Tour.
Cedar Tree Tower/Farming Terrace Trail- If you skipped Balcony House, I would recommend stopping at Cedar Tree Tower on your way out of the park and walking the short, 0.5-mile loop trail. Along the Farming Terrace Trail are check dams, farming terraces, and a chance to learn about the soil and water conservation techniques used by those who once farmed the land hundreds of years ago.
Montezuma Valley Overlook- If you are looking for one more phenomenal view on your way out of the park, I highly recommend the Montezuma Valley Overlook. It’s a wonderful way to end your visit to Mesa Verde National Park😊
Hope you have a wonderful adventure!