You could spend weeks exploring every nook and cranny of Mesa Verde National Park, a cultural gem located in southwestern Colorado. But what if you only have 48 hours? Don’t worry. We have you covered! Stick to our detailed itinerary, and you’ll hit all the most important stops
Early Bird Gets the Best Tour
Buy tickets in advance at recreation.gov for the Balcony House Sunrise or Earlybird Tour. These early tours will let you experience one of Mesa Verde’s most adventurous cliff dwellings before the heat of the day. On this tour, you’ll climb with a ranger up exposed ladders and through narrow tunnels to explore Balcony House, an Ancestral Puebloan compound on the side of a cliff.
If you’re not an early bird, it’s still recommended you reserve a tour of the Balcony House, Cliff Palace or Long House in advance at recreation.gov or by phoning the call center at 1-877-444-6777 starting March 9, 2020. You will need a hard copy of your ticket for the tour, so pick it up at four locations, including the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Morefield Ranger Station or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum in the park or outside the park at the Durango Welcome Center.
Stop by the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center on your way into the park to get limited first-come, first-served same-day tickets to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Long House. Tickets are $7 per person and it’s strongly recommended that you stop by before 10 a.m. during the summer months for your best chance for getting tickets. The visitor center is open from 7:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. late May through early September.
If you didn’t reserve a ticket in advance, be at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center when it opens at 7:30 a.m. to get same-day tickets for a tour, the Cliff Palace Tour being more moderate than than Balcony House. While you still have to climb exposed ladders, they are shorter and there is no crawling through tight tunnels involved! Tickets are $7 each.
Tip: If you’re driving from out of the park, allow yourself an hour to get from the entrance to the Balcony House parking lot, as the roads are steep and windy and the speed limit is low.
Drive Through the Past
After finishing your Balcony House tour, drive Mesa Top Loop Road. You’ll pass 12 archaeological sites on this six-mile loop, including surface sites and the best views of Cliff Palace in the park. Give yourself plenty of time, as you’ll be stopping often to get out and admire the views.
Cool Off in the Museum
After spending the morning exploring Mesa Verde, you’re bound to be ready to cool off! Head to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to learn more about the Ancestral Puebloans that called Mesa Verde home in the 1200s. The museum is home to impressive dioramas, artifacts, a gift shop and an informative movie.
Dinner with a View
Make an advance reservation for dinner at the Metate Room (www.visitmesaverde.com). This southwestern-inspired restaurant located inside the park won the “Award of Culinary Excellence” for sustainable cuisine from the Culinary Federation of Colorado Chefs Association in 2010. A wall of windows offering beautiful park views, you might get distracted from eating if the food wasn’t so delicious. Think steelhead trout, chicken and blue corn waffles and ancient grain “risotto.”
Learn Around the Fire
Attend a nightly free campfire program led by a ranger. These programs have been teaching visitors about the history of the park since 1907 at the Morefield Amphitheater. Check the most up-to-date schedule at the museum.
Take a Hike
Hike the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Trail and see the only petroglyphs in the park. Start early to avoid the heat and keep an eye out for wildlife such as coyotes, black bears, turkey vultures, jackrabbits and wild horses, which are actually an invasive species!
Tour the Far View Sites
On this .75-mile loop, you’ll realize that Mesa Verde is much more than just cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans lived in villages on the top of the mesa before moving down into the cliffs. The loop will take you past the Far View House, four other villages and a dry reservoir.
View the Park from a Fire Lookout
Evidence of fire is obvious as you drive through the park. Stop by the Park Point Fire Lookout to get a feel for what watching this special park for fires must’ve been like. Originally built in 1939 and remodeled in 2009, the fire tower also is the highest point in the park.
Drive-In in Cortez
As you leave the park, stop in Cortez at the Burger Boy Drive In (www.burgerboydrivein.com) and go back in time again, though a little closer to present day this time! Park your car and give your order to your carhop and then sit back, enjoy your air-conditioning and scroll through your pictures of Mesa Verde as you wait for an old-fashioned brown bag meal of a burger, fries and a milkshake.
Don’t want your road trip to be over yet?
Download an official Mesa Verde National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park and beyond? Buy the Durango Cortez Trail Map at REI.com. Or get the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Four Corners. The map for this unique area where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet includes the Mesa Verde region, the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.