Mesa Verde Tours: Step Inside the Wonders of History

by | Nov 4, 2022 | Destinations, Family Adventures, South West, Traveling with Teens, USA

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Mesa Verde National Park is home to some of the most famous and best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. As a kid, I was fascinated by the photos of cliff dwellings in my school books, wondering how the inhabitants climbed up into those amazing houses. But never in a million years did I think I would ever go inside one of the elaborate structures.

When our family scheduled a trip to the Southwest for the summer, I couldn’t wait to add Mesa Verde to our vacation itinerary. As I planned our trip, I discovered that the park offers ticketed tours of cliff dwellings, and I jumped at the chance to book a tour for our family. It was the experience of a lifetime. 

While visitors can see Mesa Verde National Park with no preplanned itinerary, booking advance tour tickets is worth the extra effort. Tours are popular and sell out quickly, so use these traveler-tested tips to make the most of your family’s visit to Mesa Verde.

 

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Mesa Verde National Park: What to Know Before You Go

 

Mesa Verde National Park

Tucked in the corner of southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park contains hundreds of pithouses and cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans between 550 and 1300 CE. Thanks to its rich cultural history and stunning archaeological sites, the park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

While the cliff dwellings are the park’s showpiece, don’t skip the Mesa Top sites you’ll find dotted around the area. These pueblos and pithouses are the earliest, oldest structures in the park, and viewing them first before seeing the cliff dwellings gives visitors a sense of how the communities developed over time. 

During your visit, be sure to watch for bears, mountain lions, jackrabbits, collared lizards, and even horses that have wandered over to the park from the Ute Indian Reservation. Mesa Verde is still an active archeological area, and the park’s land is considered sacred to at least 26 Native American tribes. Visitors will want to follow park rules and treat the trails and cultural sites with respect. 

 

The remnants of a pithouse at Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde’s pithouses and pueblos are even older than the cliff dwellings, and they’ve been enclosed in pavilions to protect them from weathering. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

Cliff Dwelling Tours

When deciding which tours to schedule at Mesa Verde, consider the physical abilities of everyone in your group. Check the Mesa Verde site to see which destinations involve strenuous hikes, ladder climbs, or sheer cliff drops. Take plenty of water to drink as you hike. And keep your return trip in mind. 

 

A ranger told us it’s always better to turn around halfway than to pay the bill for a helicopter evacuation due to dehydration or altitude sickness.

 

Cliff Palace and Long House are both ranger-assisted tours. As some of the most popular tours, these sites host groups moving through each structure every half hour. Our family toured Long House, and the experience was worth the time and effort, even with a bit of a crowd. Our teen and tween had no problem with the steep hike or short ladders, and we also saw much younger children relishing the adventure (as well as one brave parent hiking with a toddler on their shoulders).

The ranger-led tours to Balcony House, Mug House, and Square Tower House are more strenuous and require visitors to navigate boulders, tunnels, and long ladders. They aren’t for the nervous–especially the Balcony House Tour–but they’ll prove memorable for families who take on the endeavor. (Spruce Tree House is no longer open for tours due to instability.)

If you prefer an in-depth or luxury tour experience, consider the 700 Years Tour, which takes three to four hours and includes a walking tour of Cliff Palace. Much of the 700 Years Tour takes place on an air-conditioned motor coach with a certified guide providing additional history and context. You can also book a private tour for your family or group. 

 

Visitors hike down a rocky trail toward Long House, part of a tour at Mesa Verde National Park

The trail down to Long House was steep and a bit rugged, but it was absolutely worth the effort to step into this bit of history. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

How To Get Tickets for Mesa Verde Tours

“Congratulations on winning the lottery!” That’s what a park ranger told us when we showed up for our cliff-dwelling tour. While it’s not technically a lottery, snagging tickets for the popular tours do require patience and planning.

Ranger-guided tour tickets are available during Mesa Verde’s warm season, May 1 through October 21. Most tour tickets can be purchased 14 days in advance, and they sell out right away, especially during the peak summer months. Know in advance exactly which tickets you want, set a reminder for the morning when they are released, and hop onto Recreation.gov to buy them as soon as they become available (usually 8 a.m. MST). Yes, it’s a lot like buying tickets to see Lizzo or Hamilton.

Another important note: there’s very little cellphone service in the park. We had patchy reception during our stay there, even when my phone claimed to have a signal. This means you’ll need to have screenshots of your tour tickets downloaded to your phone before you arrive at the park. And yes, rangers do check to make sure you’ve got tickets for the right tour!

 

Self-Guided Mesa Verde Tours

If you’ve already planned your trip but missed out on tour tickets, don’t stress. While the ticketed tours are an awesome experience, you can fill an entire trip to Mesa Verde with self-guided tours and activities that don’t require advance scheduling. If you couldn’t book that desired tour of Cliff Palace, instead visit Sun Temple and enjoy expansive views of Cliff Palace from across the canyon. Drive around Mesa Top Loop Road and stop at each archaeological site to investigate the pithouses and see a beautiful overlook of Square Tower House. Visit the Far View Sites to see the thousand-year-old remnants of a farming village. And if you’re still hoping to tour a cliff dwelling, head up Wetherill Mesa Road to walk through Step House at your own pace.

 

A woman holds onto a ladder while looking at the camera during a Mesa Verde Tour

Nervous selfie while I contemplate ladder climbing as part of our tour of Long House. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

How To Schedule Your Itinerary

The sites at Mesa Verde are spread out, with long drives between them. For example, driving between Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, the two main sections of the park, can take an hour and a half. Driving from the park entrance to either of these areas also takes an hour to an hour and a half, so this park doesn’t work as a quick roadside stop.

Recreation.gov provides scheduling tips on each ticket page, and I recommend sticking to those guidelines. During our visit, I hoped to cram in some extra sightseeing before a scheduled tour, but a ranger heard my plan and warned me that I hadn’t factored in enough travel time. Spoiler alert: She was right. If we had followed my plan, we would have missed our cliff-dwelling tour. (Always listen to park rangers.) Plan extra time to drive from one place to the next, and factor in at least 30 extra minutes when walking to your tour site. 

At the most, you can plan to do one guided tour in the morning and one in the afternoon. But even then, you’ll be rushed. Instead, I recommend a two-day plan, minimum: On your first full day, head to Cliff Palace Road and Mesa Top Loop Road on Chapin Mesa. Pick one tour in this section and add short hikes and stops along the route. The next day, pick one tour at Wetherill Mesa and then spend the rest of that day with short visits to the other Wetherill sites. Even spending two days at the park won’t give you time to see everything, so plan a longer stay if you want to do it all. 

 

Pro-Tip: The park is currently in a maintenance phase of updating park roads and paths for Mesa Verde visitors. Parts of the park may be closed during your visit, but it is absolutely still worth the trip. 

 

If you have extra time, be sure to check out the hiking trails, such as Petroglyph Point Trail and Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. Longer hikes often have views of petroglyphs and cliff dwellings you can’t see from elsewhere in the park. 

 

Burned trees at Mesa Verde National Park

Portions of Wetherill Mesa have no shade due to a wildfire a couple of decades ago, so come prepared with water and sun protection. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

When You Go

 

 

Where to Stay Near Mesa Verde

We stayed in Far View Lodge, which is the only on-site hotel at the park. The lodge isn’t fancy, but its location inside the park means it’s the most convenient place to stay and the best way to make the most of your time there. We especially enjoyed the breathtaking view of the night sky from our balcony. Mesa Verde is an International Dark Sky Park, and we could even see the Milky Way during our evening stargazing.

For more lodging options, check out the nearby town of Cortez, which has a Holiday Inn Express, a Hampton Inn, and several other hotels located about 10 minutes from the park entrance.

For tent, RV, and primitive camping, Morefield Campground offers over 200 sites just inside the park entrance. On select days during the summer, the campground amphitheater hosts dances and cultural presentations by Native American educators. 

 

Pro-Tip: The Morefield Campground offers a scavenger hunt for any park visitors, not just campground guests. It’s a great activity to do with kids and a terrific way to learn more about the park.

 

A wooden lodge overlooks a valley at Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge offers a spectacular look at the surrounding land and the gorgeous night sky. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

Where to Eat At Mesa Verde

Far View Terrace is the main dining option and has a cafeteria, a coffee shop, and a large gift shop. Dining there is a bit chaotic, but there’s plenty of seating. I recommend the Navajo taco, made from fry bread and loaded with toppings. 

Wetherill Mesa has a tiny snack bar, which is helpful if you plan to spend an entire day there. However, the meal options are limited to boxed lunches with sandwiches.

Far View Lodge offers dinner at the Metate Room, as well as drinks in the Fair View Lounge (send teens and tweens to the game room and enjoy a mini-date night!). Spruce Tree Terrace is located on Chapin Mesa and offers lunch and a gift shop, although the building isn’t always open. Guests at Morefield Campground can head to the camp store to find groceries and a hot breakfast each morning. 

 

 

When to Go To Mesa Verde

Most tours, lodging, and archeological sites at Mesa Verde are open from May through mid-October. While you can visit the park in late fall and during the winter months, pay attention to weather forecasts and the likelihood of snow, which may alter your plans. If you prefer cold temperatures and decide to go in the off-season, you’ll be able to enjoy scenic overlooks and hiking trails without the crowds, but many areas will be closed. 

 

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Getting To Mesa Verde

Entering Mesa Verde National Park and traveling from one area to the other requires driving along steep, winding roads for several miles. The roads are not well-lit, so I recommend arriving during the daylight hours. 

If you’re flying to Mesa Verde, fly into the Durango – La Plata County Airport (DRO), which offers connecting flights on United Airlines and American Airlines.

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The Durango airport is about an hour away from the Mesa Verde park entrance. While in Durango, take a quick detour to see their historic downtown. If you have an extra day, schedule a family-friendly whitewater rafting experience!

Mesa Verde National Park is about a two-hour drive from Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Add in the longer drive to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon to make a fun family road trip. 

 

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A cliff dwelling called Square Tower House, one of many Mesa Verde tours

The Square Tower House Overlook is easily accessible from Mesa Top Loop Road thanks to a short, paved trail. Photo by Christy Nicholson.

 

Our family loves the history we find in old castles and cathedrals. With Mesa Verde National Park, we discovered that the United States has its own wondrous architectural heritage that we owe to the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest. Mesa Verde was a highlight of my national park travels so far, and it’s worth putting at the top of your travel list. 

 

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Touring Mesa Verde: Why This National Park Needs To Be at the Top of Your List

 

Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When not traveling with family, she enjoys cozy days at home reading, gardening, making music, and wrangling two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.

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