If you're a history buff, you'll have a field day at Mesa Verde National Park. On the 52,000-acre property are the remnants of an Ancestral Puebloan town that flourished centuries ago.
Mesa Verde National Park consists of more than 40 miles of scenic roads, a visitor and research center, an archaeological museum, and 8,500 acres of protected wilderness. Most notably, the park is home to 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings that illustrate what life was like in the area centuries and centuries ago.
The History Of The Cliff Dwellings
The Ancestral Puebloans lived in and around what is now known as Mesa Verde National Park for more than 700 years. The mesa, an elevated piece of land with sharp drops on all sides, provided a hospitable and safe environment for the indigenous population.
From 600 to 1200, the community lived above the mesa, but they later began to construct cliff dwellings within the canyon walls, which provided shade and protection from wildlife and other communities. The first cliff dwellings were built around 1200, but by 1300, the stone cities had been abandoned. It’s theorized that this was due to drought, but that hasn’t yet been confirmed.
Mesa Verde was established as a national park on June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was the first national park that was founded specifically to “preserve the works of man.” The dwellings range from small structures of a few rooms to the 150-room Cliff Palace.
Where Are Mesa Verde's Cliff Dwellings?
Mesa Verde National Park is located 8 miles outside of Mancos, Colorado. A town of 1,400 people, Mancos is about an hour’s drive northeast of the Four Corners Monument, where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.
Although Cortez Municipal Airport is about 22 minutes away from Mesa Verde, due to its size, flights are limited, and most depart for and arrive from Denver. The next closest airport, Durango-La Plata County Airport, offers daily nonstop United and American Airlines flights to Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix. The airport is located 12 miles outside of Durango, Colorado. Although there is a bus from the airport to the town, it’s necessary to rent a car to access the park.
An hour’s drive from Durango, the park’s entrance is 20 miles from the actual cliff dwellings. Nestled inside the national park, the cliff dwellings are located near the Chapin Mesa area.
How To Get To The Cliff Dwellings
The drive from the park entrance to the Chapin Mesa area takes about 45 to 60 minutes. Although there are more than 600 cliff dwellings, the three most well-known ones are Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House. It takes another 15 minutes to drive to the Balcony House parking lot, where the ranger-guided tours begin.
You can only purchase tickets in person for the guided cliff-dwelling tours. Tickets are available at the visitor center at the mouth of the park, the archaeological museum, and the Durango Welcome Center. Tickets sell out quickly, so it’s better to purchase them at the park’s visitor center. You’ll be able to pick from a variety of tour times, and it will save you a 45-minute drive in case your desired time is unavailable. However, it’s possible to buy your tickets up to two days in advance. Tickers cost $5 per person.
Keep in mind that some of the cliff dwellings may be difficult to access. The guided ranger tours entail walking down a 100-foot staircase, crawling through small spaces, and climbing tall ladders.
Not all the cliff dwellings require a ranger-led tour, and there are several self-guided options. Although Spruce Tree House is unavailable for on-the-ground touring due to potential rockfall, it can be seen from an overlook. The Mesa Top Loop Road and Far View Sites Complex are also self-guided, with short trails, overlook points, petroglyphs, and other archaeological sites to explore.
Although it might not seem like it, Mesa Verde’s elevation is quite high. Take into consideration that with the elevation ranges from 7,000 to 8,600 feet, the air may feel dry and thin. It’s important to drink plenty of water -- especially while hiking -- as dehydration isn’t as noticeable in dry climates as in humid ones.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Mesa Verde?
Mesa Verde National Park sees a range of weather conditions throughout the year. During the summer, the average temperatures are in the mid-80s, while during the winter, the highs are in the low 40s. The best time to visit is during late May or early September, when the temperatures are in the mid-70s.
Each season brings its own attractions: You’ll see the leaves change during fall, the flowers bloom during spring, and the ground covered in snow during the winter. Although there are plenty of activities available in the area during the winter, guided tours to the cliff dwellings are not available then. Balcony House closes on September 22, and the Cliff Palace and Long House close on October 20. The Cliff Palace reopens on April 13, and the Balcony House and Long House reopen on May 18.
The visitor center, archaeological museum, and hiking trails are open year-round, with the exception of some holidays.
Where To Stay When Visiting Mesa Verde
While you can stay within Mesa Verde National Park during the spring, summer, and fall, the campground and lodge close during the winter. If you’re planning to visit during the colder months, you can stay in nearby Durango or Cortez, Colorado.
Far View Lodge
The Far View Lodge is located between the park’s entrance and the Chapin Mesa area. Consisting of 150 rooms, the lodge is situated on a hill with views of the three states surrounding Mesa Verde. Without cell service and television, the lodge is the perfect place to reconnect with history and nature far away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Rooms generally range from $120 to $170 per night and are available from April through October. The lodge is closed during the winter season.
Approximately 4 miles from the park’s entrance is Morefield Campground, with 267 RV and tent sites equipped with tables, benches, and barbecue grills. The campground offers access to a gas station, laundry facilities, showers, a grocery store, and a cafe that serves an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. It’s also close to several hiking trails, the Mancos Valley Overlook, and the main road to the cliff dwellings.
The campground is only open from April through October. It closes for the winter at the end of October.
Other Things To Do In The Area
The Four Corners region has much more to offer than just Mesa Verde National Park. If you make the trek to southwestern Colorado, here are a few other things to do in the area.
Visit The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Located in nearby Cortez, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center provides additional information on the cliff dwellings and Ancestral Puebloan culture. At the center, you can visit an archaeological lab and a working excavation site. Crow Canyon is an active research center, and the archaeologists and historians there are constantly uncovering new artifacts and information. Educational public lectures are regularly offered at the center.
Stand At The Four Corners
An hour from Mesa Verde National Park, the Four Corners National Monument is the only place in the United States where you can straddle four states at the same time. Additionally, you can tour the visitor center and meet local artists at their booths. The Navajo Nation manages the monument and charges $5 per person.
Drive The San Juan Skyway
Starting in Cortez, the San Juan Skyway spans 236 miles across Colorado. The road loops through Durango, Silverton, Telluride, and Stoner before arriving back in Mancos. Along the way, you’ll see gold mines, historic towns, waterfalls, national forests, and some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the West.
Planning a trip to Mesa Verde? Make time for nearby Durango, one of Colorado’s most unique mountain towns.