There are many national parks in the United States, but none quite like Mesa Verde National Park. It does have amazing scenery, but the thing that makes this park unique versus the other parks is that it allows you to explore a civilization that lived here thousands of years ago.
What happened here?
Between 600-1300 AD, Puebloan Native Americans inhabited this land and made dwellings here. What is interesting is that instead of being on a flat plateau on the top of the land, the dwellings are carved into the shear cliffs of the mountains. There are about 600 cliff dwellings in the area. The full reason for why they built into the cliffs is unknown, but they left spectacular sights for us to wander across. It is amazing to think of the inhabitants waking up and stepping onto a cliff. On some of the sights, you can actually see the marking from when they scaled down the cliffs to the different levels. It’s thought that environmental and social instability forced the Native American’s away, leaving this area to be undisturbed until the 1770s when discovered again by missionaries.
What to know before you go to Mesa Verde National Park
- If you have an America the Beautiful pass, you can use this to get entry into the park. Depending on if you are going in the off season or peak season, it is between $15-$25. Check here for full prices.
- It is at least a 20 mile drive from the visitor center to the beginning of the loop and museum, plan ahead and have plenty of gas. There are no gas stations within the park.
- There are guided tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. If you want to go on a tour, you must purchase these tickets in person at the Visitor Center and they can be purchased up to 2 days in advance. During busy times, they may sell out.
- There are 3 different loops to drive. The main one is the Mesa top loop which will take you by all the main sights. If you are going on the Cliff Palace tour you will do the Cliff Palace Loop and if you are going on the Long House tour you will go on the Weatherhill Mesa loop.
- There are lots of different walking paths and hikes to go on in the area. You can do a self guided tour of the step house, it’s a 1 mile walk that is steep. This is good alternative if you cannot get on one of the tours.
- Be aware when if you are planning on doing hiking that this park is at a high altitude.
- Check the website before you go as some of the roads and paths are closed during certain seasons.
Where to Stay?
Durango and Cortez, Colorado are the closest towns to the National Park. Both have hotels and restaurants. Durango is a little bit bigger with downtown area. Cortez is smaller. We stayed in Cortez as it was closer to Monument Valley and other things on our itinerary.
If you want to stay in the Park, they do have Far View Lodge that you can stay at.
How much time do you need here?
If you are not planning on doing any of the walks, half a day is plenty. This is enough time to go to the museum and visitor center as well as all the stops on the Mesa Top Loop Road.
If you want to do some of the hikes or do a guided tour, better plan for at least a full day.
What to do at Mesa Verde National Park
There are actually 2 visitors centers. One is at the bottom of the hill before you start to go up. It offers a nice general overview. This is also where you buy tickets for the guided tours.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is at the top of the plateau. It has a video to explain everything as well as informative books. If you walk behind the museum, you will have a view of Spruce Tree House.
Mesa Top Loop road
On top of the Mesa is a 6 mile driving tour that takes you to all of the top sights. The road is paved with lots of pull off spots. This is the best way to go around to see all of the sights.
Best Photo Spots
There are many great spots to get some good photos here. Here are some of my favorite. The best lighting is mid-late afternoon. Unless you are doing a tour, you will be a distance from the sights. I recommend bringing a 70-200mm with 2x converter or 100-400mm if you have one.
The National Park actually put together a little guide on how to get the best photos.
Spruce Tree House
Square Tower House
What else to visit that is close by
You are only 1.5 hours from Four Corners Monument. There is not much to see, but it is cool to stand in four different states at once.
It’s a 3 hour drive to Monument Valley from this area. If you have not done it yet, Monument Valley is amazing.
The Million Dollar Highway
Your 2.5 hours away from the start of The Million Dollar Highway. This is an approximately 25 mile drive between Silverton, CO and Ouray, CO through the mountains. This drive is beautiful, but not for the faint of heart. You will be driving through the mountains with the cliff just to the side of you with no safety barrier.