I found Mesa Verde National Park, located in the remote southwestern corner of Colorado, to be utterly fascinating, uniquely beautiful, and extremely informative! It is perhaps the most confusing park in the entire National Park system to figure out how to navigate before you arrive and this confusion can continue throughout your visit. So here is the guide to Mesa Verde National Park.
Tour Company Option
There are tour companies not associated with Mesa Verde that will take care of the details, show you around, and inform you about the history of this amazing manmade wonder, but they won’t show you everything. In fact, I wouldn’t say they show you a whole lot. For what they are, these companies seem to do a fairly good job. They hire locals to really give you a sense of the culture that permeates the four corners area of the United States.
The Negative of a Tour Company
However, if you are like me and you like to visit a place and take it in at your own pace, rather than being shuttled along on a massive tour bus, then this really isn’t going to be your speed. Plus, many of the tours (locations) within the tour aren’t even done by the tour company but are really given by the Mesa Verde park rangers who cover the history. The tour company’s information can be redundant. This is especially true if you are the type of person who likes to read the signs posted at the sites. I found that the tour company just regurgitated the information found on these signs. So with that, I hope this guide helps you understand not only what to see during your visit, but really how to navigate the park’s one-of-a-kind system.
History of the Cliff Dwellings
First off, the “cliff dwellings” were constructed by the ancient Pueblo Indians (Local Native American Tribe). No one knows for certain why they chose to construct their homes in the cliffs. They didn’t carve their homes into the cliffs but rather took advantage of the natural erosion that created nooks in the landscape and built from there. Within the Mesa Verde’s park boundary there are many other examples of Pueblo ruins located on top of the mesas. Most of these are older than the cliff dwellings and the ones that are open to the public can be explored without a tour.
Navigating Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park is massive, but the majority of the cliff dwellings that can be toured are clustered together in two sections of the park known as the Chapin Mesa and the Wetherill Mesa. They are as far away from the entrance and the visitor center as you can get. It is about an hour’s drive to either from the entrance and they are a 45-minute drive apart. This is important for acquiring the “tickets” to see these sites because if you aren’t careful you can find yourself driving the hour-long drive from the gate to the back of the park where these ruins are located, only to have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back to the nearest place that you can actually saquire a ticket.
The National Parks Service has taken on the challenge of preserving these amazing sites, while still giving access to the public. This is why, with the exception of the “Step House,” you must acquire a ticket to go on a ranger-guided tour if you wish to actually walk through the cliff dwellings and not just see them from the overlooks above. The tickets are currently a very reasonable $7/person for each of the sites. I personally appreciate this approach as far too many places have been vandalized by the degenerates of our populace and places like this deserve to be well protected for future generations.
Getting the actual tickets for these tours was the most confusing, challenging, and downright frustrating part of our visit in 2017. Luckily, the parks service has upgraded the system and you can now reserve your tour through recreation.gov well in advance. The park also reserves a portion of the tickets for first-come, first-served day of visitors. The number of people the park allows on each tour and the number of tours they give each day is limited, although they do try to provide tours throughout the day by running them back to back at the most popular sites. These sites are also open seasonally, usually mid-May to mid-October, so don’t try to go in the middle of winter. Click here for the exact seasonal hours.
Where to Get the Tickets
After you reserve your ticket you will need to pick up the physical copy before arriving at the site. The tickets can be gathered up to a week in advance but no later than 2 hours prior to your tour time. Keep in mind that many of the tour sites are far removed from the locations you are able to pick up your tickets. The park will only issue tickets to people who are there in person to pick them up. In other words don’t leave anyone at the campsite, because everyone has to be present to get a ticket (This may change due to Covid). Again they do have limited numbers, so for this guide to Mesa Verde, I recommend reserving them months in advance.
Choosing a Time
You will need to know what time you want the tickets for and keep in mind the distance between the locations if you wish to do multiple tours on the same day. For instance, it is about a 45-minute drive from the Chapin Mesa where Balcony House and Cliff Palace are located to the Wetherill Mesa area with Long House.
Ticket Counter Hours
Also, keep in mind the operating hours of each of the “ticket pickup” locations. Plan to roll into the park at 9 PM and grab your tickets on your way to the campsite? Not going to happen. All of the ticket sales locations are shut down by 8:30 PM. Each location actually closes at different times. Click here for those seasonal hours.
For this guide to Mesa Verde, I highly recommend the Morefield Campground located in the middle of Mesa Verde National Park. This campground is best situated for exploring the park and you can get your tour tickets at the ranger station located adjacent to the campground. There are perhaps cheaper camping options outside of the park or hotels in Cortez, Colorado, but these options would add at least an extra hour of driving to your day. By the way, the Morefield Campground is massive. Seriously, I was told that the campground when full is the second largest “town” in the county. Even at this size, the campground fills up quickly, so it is best to plan ahead and have a reservation before you arrive.
The closest town to Mesa Verde National Park is Cortez, Colorado. The town has several grocery stores where you can get food and other supplies for exploring the park. If you are looking for a great restaurant while in town look no further than Gustavo’s Mexican Restaurant. This place is tasty so enjoy some great local fare on your way into or out of the park. While you are in the park it will be camp food.
When to Visit Mesa Verde
Unfortunately Mid-May to Mid-October is the only time you can tour everything. It is also a high desert and most of this time tends to be a bit hot. As a guide to Mesa Verde, I would recommend planning a visit May to early June or September thru Mid-October.
Guide to Mesa Verde’s Archeological Sites
According to the National Parks Service, there are over 4,700 archeological sites in the park. Below are the few that are open to the public for exploration on your own or with a required guide. There are many others that can be seen from the cliffs, but not explored (with or without a guide).
- Chapin Mesa Location:
- Balcony House: Ticket needed
- Cliff Palace: Ticket needed
- Spruce Tree House: Explore on your own, but temporarily closed due to rock slide concerns.
- Oak Tree: Ticket needed
- Wetherill Mesa Location:
- Long House: Ticket needed
- Step House: Explore on your own
Mesa Top Dwellings
Chapin Mesa Location:
- Sun Temple: Explore on your own
- Far View Sites Complex: Explore on your own
- Cedar Tree Tower: Explore on your own
Wetherill Mesa Location:
- Badger House Community: Explore on your own
- Carry lots of water.
- Keep your eyes open for wildlife! We saw snakes, birds of prey, deer, horses, and coyotes.
- Go hiking! This landscape is awesome so while the ruins are the highlight get out on a trail and do some hiking. I recommend the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Loop Trail.
- Have a blast, as this is one of the most unique places on the planet.