Mesa Verde National Park Travel Guide
Mesa Verde was the first national park intended to “preserve the works of man,” in the words of Theodore Roosevelt. To this day, it’s the only park designated as a cultural park. Established in 1906, Mesa Verde offers visitors a rare chance to step inside some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. These mesas were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people for over 700 years. For the first six centuries, people lived on top of the mesas. In the last 100 years, they built and lived in the cliff dwellings you can see today. No one knows why the Ancestral Pueblo abandoned these dwellings around 1300 AD.
Mesa Verde offers natural beauty, too. It’s an International Dark Sky Park and home to over a thousand species, including some that live nowhere else on earth.
You only need one day to see Mesa Verde National Park, unless you want to take multiple tours or hike several trails. The park is divided into two sections: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. Chapin Mesa is the most popular half of the park, while Wetherill Mesa is quieter.
If you only have half a day, take a guided tour of Cliff Palace or Balcony House (more on the cliff dwelling tours below) and drive along Mesa Top Loop, stopping at the viewpoints along the way.
If you have a full day, add a visit to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, hike one of the park’s several trails, or explore Wetherill Mesa.
- Buy tour tickets at the Visitor Center, or online ahead of your visit. We recommend booking a cliff dwelling tour ahead of time, as they do sell out. You can book as far ahead as 14 days before your visit.
- Arrive with a full tank of gas. Mesa Verde is in a remote area, and the loop roads require a few hours of driving if you want to see it all.
- There is RV parking at the cliff dwelling sites for those that travel in a Class B & C without a tow vehicle. If you’re just passing through (and have a towable RV), there is a lot just before the park entrance to detach and visit the park.
- Some park roads limit vehicle size to 25 feet and 8000 pounds, so plan to leave big rigs outside the park.
- Bring binoculars to get a closer look at the more distant dwellings.
- Bring snacks, sunscreen, and plenty of water. There is also a restaurant and gift shop on site. Mesa Verde gets very hot and has little shade, so plan for a full day in the sun.
- Watch out for signs of altitude sickness. It may feel like you’re in the desert, but Mesa Verde sits at an elevation of 7,000 to 8,500 feet.
- Bonus tip: keep an eye out for the free-roaming horses that can be spotted in the park!\
Where to stay in the park
Morefield Campground is the only campground inside Mesa Verde National Park. Full services are available April 28-October 12, with limited services (dry camping) available April 14-27 and October 13-26, 2022. The campground is not open year-round.
Morefield Campground is located just 4.5 miles from the park entrance and provides 282 campsites, including both full hookup and dry camping options. But only 15 full hookup sites are available, so book early if you don’t enjoy dry camping. Water, a bathhouse with showers, and a dump station are available onsite for those who dry camp. The campground is also near a full-service village with easy accessibility to bus tours, hiking trails, a gift shop, and a grocery/camp store.
Where to stay outside the park
Cortez (about a 15-minute drive):
- La Mesa RV Park: https://lamesarvpark.com/
- Sundance RV Park: https://sundancervpark.com/
- Cortez RV Resort: https://rjourney.com/locations/co/cortez/cortez-rv-resort-llc/
- Country Road 34 BLM: https://www.campendium.com/county-road-34
Durango (about a 45-minute drive):
- La Plata County Fairgrounds: https://www.co.laplata.co.us/services/fairgrounds/index.php
- United Campground of Durango: https://www.durangorv.com/
- Oasis RV Resort: https://www.myrvoasis.com/durango
- Junction Creek Campground (rough washboard road): https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234475
Harvest Hosts/Boondockers Welcome:
- Yellow Car Country Wines
- The Turner Ranch
- Mcinne’s Place
- Mancos Brewing Company
Things to do
- Go at your own pace: Self-guided tours are available of Spruce Tree House, Far View Sites, and the Cliff Palace and Mesa Top Loop Roads. An audio tour is available as a podcast or as a download.
- Take a guided tour: Half-day guided tours of Mesa Verde depart daily from Far View Lodge or Far View Terrace. These bus tours are led by National Park Service rangers. The “700 Years” tour includes some short hikes to archaeological sites along the Mesa Loop Road and a walking tour of Cliff Palace.
- Explore the cliff dwellings: Guided walking tours are offered May-October. Tickets are required and are available online 14 days before the tour date. You must download or print your ticket before the tour; note that cell service in the park is very limited, so don’t rely on pulling up your email!
- Cliff Palace: The largest cliff dwelling in North America. This tour is rated moderate: a 60-minute tour covering .25 miles
- Long House: The second-largest cliff dwelling in the park and on the quieter side. The tour is rated difficult: a 120-minute tour covering 2.25 miles
- Balcony House: One of the more adventurous tours in the park, and not for the faint of heart! The tour is rated strenuous: a 90-minute tour including a 32-foot ladder, a 12-foot crawl through an 18-inch wide tunnel, and a climb up a 60-foot open cliff face with uneven stone steps and two 17-foot ladders.
- Take a hike: Mesa Verde offers nearly 30 miles of hiking trails. The park is an ancestral home sacred to 26 tribes, so be sure to stay on trails and leave the land as you find it. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails in the park, except for Nordenskiold Site #16, Badger House Community, and Long House Loop. Bring plenty of water and snacks to stay hydrated and keep your electrolyte levels up.
- Cultural dances and demonstrations: Check the calendar for details.
Where to eat & shop
We’ve been to Cortez, CO a couple of times when traveling through. There are some good spots for food and even outdoor gear.
Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant Cortez is where we ate in the Mesa Verde episode. We were skeptical (at least Marc was), but it turned out to be great. And that’s not the large Margarita’s talking!
fb organics is a natural grocery with good protein shakes if you’re just passing through. Right around the corner (on the same block) is Run + Hike with high-quality running and hiking gear.
Permits and closures
Road work is ongoing in the 2022 season, so allow extra time to reach your destination. Starting in mid-August 2022, visitors should plan for up to 30-minute delays between mile markers 1.6 and 3.2 from the park entrance at US 160.
The Cliff Palace Loop Road is now open, but Mesa Top Loop Road is set to close on the evening of Sunday, August 7 to begin construction. The closure will be in effect until construction is completed. Visit the park website for updates.
Spruce Tree House has been closed to visitors since 2015 due to safety concerns, but you can see the dwelling from overlooks behind the Chapin Mesa Museum.