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A Day in Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is such a unique destination full of history! Mesa Verde National Park isn’t really a hiking or adventure park, it’s more about educating yourself on the history of the pueblo people. I remember learning about the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in high school and they just fascinated me! I’m not normally interested in history but I do like to imagine how people lived during those times. If you’re in the area, then you have to stop by for a few hours to check them out!!
Before You Go
The only thing you really need to do beforehand is determine which NPS tours you’d like to reserve for your trip. The tours do NOT go year round, so you’ll need to check the NPS (National Park Service) website for info on dates and times. You have to reserve your NPS tour tickets online 14 days in advance. The tickets go quickly so I recommend creating your NPS login in advance and setting an alarm 10-15 minutes before the tickets go on sale to give yourself time to prepare. Tour tickets can sell out in 2 minutes sometimes, so you need to be prepared!
I also recommend packing a picnic for your day trip into Mesa Verde National Park. There are a few food options in the park, but I always feel like everyone is wanting to eat at the same time as me (meaning I have to wait a long time to eat).
And the last thing you’ll need to do before you start off on your journey into Mesa Verde National Park is make sure you have enough gas in your car. You’re going to do lots of driving through the park, so be prepared!
Mesa Verde National Park is about a 45 minute drive from Durango (Colorado), 3.5 hours from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado), and 2 hours from Moab, Utah (Arches National Park & Canyonlands National Park are located in Moab).
When to Visit
The best time of the year to visit Mesa Verde National Park is May through October ,when the NPS is offering guided tours of the sites. If you decide to go in the summer, be aware of the heat when hiking (pack lots of water and lather up on that sunscreen). To avoid the high heat of summer, I would recommend visiting in September and October (if possible).
During the winter months you may be able to do some cross cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at the park (depending on the weather and snow conditions). Check out the hours of operation to learn about your winter activity options in the park.
Where to Stay
We stayed in Durango the night before our trip to Mesa Verde National Park and then continued on our journey to Moab afterwards. We got the cutest AirBnB in Moab, I highly recommend it! Our AirBnB in Durango was a disaster, so I’m not sharing it with y’all! haha…it was my first bad experience with AirBnB and it was my fault for not reading the description 100% (they had me peeing in a bucket y’all…hahaha).
If you prefer to stay closer to Mesa Verde National Park, then the Fairview Lodge is located within the park. I love staying at the national park lodges, it’s nice to be close to all of the attractions. If you decide to stay at Fairview Lodge, then I recommend going to one of the evening cultural dances (times available on the NPS calendar).
Mesa Verde National Park Itinerary
When you first enter the park, stop by the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center. The park is full of history so they keep a lot of interesting artifacts in the Visitor and Research Center. If you don’t have time to check out the visitor center, then I recommend reading the back of the park pamphlet to learn more about the pueblo people.
You’ll continue your journey driving south on the park road for about 30 minutes before you come to an intersection. If you go to the left, then it’ll take you about 15 minutes to get to the Chapin Mesa Area. If you go to the right at the intersection, then it’ll take you about 25-30 minutes to get to Wetherill Mesa Area. This intersection is important because it defines the two sections of the park. These two sections are 45 minutes drive from each other so you may not want to do both. Honestly after you’ve seen a few cliff dwellings, they all start to look the same.
If you’re going to spend a full day in Mesa Verde National Park, then I recommend the following itinerary:
9:00-10:00 Long House Tour (ticket required)
10:00-11:00 Step House
11:45-12:00 Spruce Tree House Overlook
12:00-1:00 Lunch Break
1:00-1:20 Square Tower House Overlook
1:30-1:50 Pit Houses & Villages
2:00-2:20 Sun Point View
2:30-2:50 Sun Temple
3:00-3:45 Cliff Palace Tour (ticket required)
If you’re like me, then you’re most likely confused now by all of the different historic sites at Mesa Verde National Park. The names start running together and you can’t figure out what’s what. Below you’ll find the highlights of each section of the park (including things I didn’t add to the itinerary) to help you in your planning.
Wetherill Mesa Area
Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park. The only way to view Long House is through the NPS tours. It’s important to note this tour is 2.25 miles long, contains two 15-foot ladders, and typically takes 2 hours to complete. If you’re interested in reserving tickets for this tour, be sure to check the NPS website for more info.
Step House is is a self-guided 1 mile hike, which typically takes 45 minutes to complete. On the tour you’ll be able to walk through the sites including a pueblo and pit house. There are also petroglyphs on this hike, such an interesting site to see!
Chapin Mesa Area
Spruce Tree House used to have self-guided tours, however, they closed the tour trail in 2015 due to danger of rock fall. Now you can only view Spruce Tree House from the Spruce Tree House Overlook. To get to the Spruce Tree House Overlook, you’ll park in the museum parking lot and then walk 3-5 minutes to the overlook.
Square Tower House can easily be viewed from the Square Tower House Overlook, which takes less than 5 minutes to walk too. The tower is the tallest cliff dwelling structure in the park, such an interesting site to see! The NPS also offers a tour of Square Tower House, which takes about 90 minutes to complete this 1 mile strenuous hike (includes 2 ladders). Based on the reviews, we decided to skip this tour because you only get to walk into one small section of the cliff dwellings. If you’re interested in reserving tickets for this tour though, be sure to check the NPS website for more info.
Pit Houses & Villages is a self-guided tour through a few kiva’s and pit houses. You can learn about some of the history on the back of the NPS pamphlet and by reading the information provided at the sties.
Sun Point View provides some great views of multiple cliff dwellings. You can view Cliff Palace, Sunset House, the 20 Room Cliff Dwelling, and the 15 room Cliff Dwelling.
Sun Temple is a site that’s a bit of a mystery. Historians believe the site was used for some type of ceremony or perhaps it was never finished being built. It only takes about 10 minutes to walk around Sun Temple. You can also view Cliff Palace from the Sun Temple path.
Cliff Palace is the largest and most impressive cliff dwellings in North America. The best way to view Cliff Palace is through the NPS tours, otherwise you can view Cliff Palace from the Cliff Palace Overlook or the Sun Temple Overlook. It’s important to note the Cliff Palace tour is 1.4 mile long, contains four ladders, and typically takes 30-45 minutes to complete. If you’re interested in reserving tickets for this tour, be sure to check the NPS website for more info.
Balcony House Tour is another option for you to consider if you’re up for the challenge. I didn’t include it in the itinerary because it can be a little intense for some people. You’ll hike 0.5 miles, climb a 32 foot ladder, climb two 17 foot ladders, and crawl through an 18 inch and 12 foot long tunnel on this tour. They say the tour typically takes an hour to complete. If you’re interested in reserving tickets for this tour, be sure to check the NPS website for more info.
Far View Sites is a self-guided tour through a historic farming community (old ruins now). Honestly by the end of the day, the far view sites will feel like a let down. I prefer the other sites mentioned above, but that’s just me!
Where to Next?
I recommend continuing your journey to Durango or Moab!