Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwestern Colorado, is unique for its incredible history. Explore ruins built by ancient peoples who abandoned their homes 200 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in the “new world.” Here’s our favorite things to do when touring this awe-inspiring national park.
1. Tour a Cliff Dwelling
No trip to Mesa Verde is complete without attending a ranger-led tour of an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling. This is the only way to get to these beautiful and remote sites. There are two ways to take a tour:
- 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.
2. Stop by the Museum
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum provides a fascinating look into the history of Mesa Verde. With dioramas, artifacts, a movie and air conditioning, this is a must-see stop to learn more about the Ancestral Puebloans who called southwestern Colorado home.
3. See Petroglyphs
The 2.4-mile roundtrip Petroglyph Point Trail is the only place in the park to see petroglyphs. The trail starts near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Start early to avoid the summer heat!
4. See Cliff Dwellings from the Rim
Go on a drive through time on Mesa Top Loop Road. Stop at 12 archaeological sites including surface sites and overlooks of Cliff Palace and Square Top House. Allow yourself plenty of time to drive the 6-mile loop, as you’ll be stopping often to check out the views!
5. Attend a Campfire Program
These free, ranger-led programs go in-depth on the history of Mesa Verde and have been taking place since 1907. These programs occur every night during the summer at the Morefield Amphitheater near the campground, but check the schedule at the museum for the most up-to-date start-times.
6. Watch for Wildlife
Go for a drive around dawn or dusk for your best chance at seeing Mesa Verde’s desert wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for coyotes, foxes, jackrabbits, turkey vultures or bears. You may even see wild horses. They are considered illegal trespassers and cause quite a few problems for the park including damaging archaeological sites and park ruins and driving off native species from the scarce water sources. Remember to never approach or feed wildlife!
7. Go Back Even Farther in Time
Mesa Verde isn’t just cliff dwellings. Visit the Far View Sites to see where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before they moved down into the cliffs. The .75-mile loop will give you a sense of community as you pass by Far View House, four other villages and a dry reservoir.
8. See Ancient Farming Terraces
The Ancestral Puebloans farmed the mesa top for crops such as corn. See evidence of their farming terraces on the .5-mile Farming Terrace Trail. You’ll see prehistoric check dams which created the terraces. Can you imagine farming on the arid mesa?
9. Have Dinner in the Park
Open only for dinner, with reservations strongly recommended, the Metate Room (www.visitmesaverde.com/lodging-camping/dining/metate-room-restaurant/) received the “Award of Culinary Excellence” for sustainable cuisine from the Culinary Federation of Colorado Chefs Association. Dine on locally inspired dishes such as steelhead trout, smoked chicken with a blue corn waffle and ancient grain “risotto.’ You’ll be torn between keeping your eyes on the delicious food and the wall of windows offering a beautiful view of the park.
10. See the View From a Fire Lookout
Built in 1939 to provide early wildfire detection, the Park Point Fire Lookout was renovated in 2009. Walk to the station’s nearby overlook and imagine keeping watch for wildfires, such as the ones during the summer of 2000 that burned many areas in the park. Park Point is also the highest point in Mesa Verde.
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.