When we first started our 7-month road trip around the Western United States to tour the National Parks of the West, we had no idea that one of the most historical and unique UNESCO World Heritage sites sat just hours outside of our backdoor. We set out to visit Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in the Southwest corner of the state, Mesa Verde National Park sits on the high Colorado Plateau that expands across the four corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The National Park lies at an elevation of 6,000 to 8,500ft atop a high mesa that rises up from the canyon formed by the Mancos River.
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Why Mesa Verde Is Important
Mesa Verde (which translates to ‘Green Table’ in Spanish) was established as a National Park on June 29, 1906. Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde as a National Park to preserve both the cultural heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people (also known as the Anasazi) and the natural resources of this area.
Not only is Mesa Verde a National Park in the United States of America, but in 1978, Mesa Verde National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was chosen for its “exceptional Archeological relevance” in regards to the Pueblo Native Americans who lived in the region from about 550 A.D. to 1300 A.D.
Over 600 cliff dwellings, or sheltered alcoves built within the canyon walls, accounted for the stone communities that included pueblos (or homes), masonry towers, and farming structures, these are some of the most well-preserved dwellings in North America.
How To Get To Mesa Verde National Park
Given its location, in the more remote corner of Colorado, a car is definitely the preferred method of transportation. I’ve heard of buses or small groups leaving from Grand Junction, CO, or Shiprock, NM.
If possible, I highly recommend renting a car or driving your own from Durango, CO – which is the closest (BIG) town to the park. If you do drive from Durango, be prepared for the drive. We recommend getting an early start on your trip.
To get to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center – which sits just off Hwy 160 – from Durango takes about 40 minutes. While that doesn’t sound like a bad drive, you need to add on the extra hour it’ll take you to get from the Visitor Center to the Cliff dwellings.
Since there is only one park entrance, and the cliff dwellings sit 20 miles away at the opposite (and most southern) end of the park, you have no choice but to drive a long and windy road to get to your destination. But it’s definitely worth it!
So if you aren’t camping inside the national park at Morefield Campground or lodging at Far View Lodge, then you want to keep in mind that you will be driving for at least 2 hours just to get in and out of the park.
Plan Your Visit: What To Do At Mesa Verde
Visitors can drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road which winds around and past some significant archaeological sites including Petroglyph Point Trail, which hold several incredible rock carvings that date back several hundreds of years.
We recommend stopping at Sun Point Overlook to catch distant views of numerous cliff dwellings and an amazing panoramic canyon view. This was one of our favorite views of the National Park since it packed a lot of the sites into one surreal viewpoint. From here, it’s easy to imagine the native cliff dwellers in their element as they bustled with life.
While the National Park is open year-round, access to the Cliff Dwellings are only open from May to October. It’s important to note that the Cliff dwellings require a ranger-led tour that needs to be booked (slightly) ahead of schedule.
Tours of the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
There are three ranger-led tours that require a ticket – the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. These tickets are available for purchase two days in advance and in-person only!
We got very lucky and arrived at the park in mid-morning and only just got two tickets for a 1:30 pm tour. Although this cut right into the middle of our only day at Mesa Verde, we got really lucky with our tour choice.
If you only have one day at Mesa Verde, then I highly recommend going on the Balcony House tour. Not only do you start the tour off by climbing up a 32ft ladder, but you also get an up-close look at life in the cliff dwellings. This tour led you through a community filled with buildings that you could enter or poke your head into the windows for a close-up view.
If you are thinking about doing the Balcony House tour, I do encourage you to evaluate your fitness and your bravery levels before signing up. In order to enter the elevated dwelling, visitors need to have the physical and mental ability to climb up a 32-foot ladder. If you can undertake this obstacle without issue, then you should have no problem with the hike in and out of the dwelling.
This tour even lets you scramble through defense tunnels as you exit the dwelling. This is optional since it is a smaller tunnel, but we did give it a try. If you are claustrophobic, exiting via the path with the rest of the group is an available (and better) option.
Please keep in mind that throughout this tour, there is no available seating, and you are not allowed nor encouraged to lean, sit, or even touch any of the dwelling facades or surfaces. Given the age of these buildings, it’s completely understandable.
While the tour wasn’t long, I would recommend bringing water with you, as you may be standing in the sun for periods of time, depending on the time and date of your tour. We don’t recommend taking a big backpack as you will be standing in tight quarters and have the ladder and additional hiking on this tour.
Overall, the Balcony House was incredible and we recommend it to anyone exploring Mesa Verde. Note that we arrived in the middle of June which is prime time for visitors, so if you head that way during the beginning or end of their summer season, you might have better luck catching a tour time that works for you.
Other great sites to see
If you aren’t able to get a spot on a ranger-led tour, don’t fret. The Cliff Palace and Balcony House aren’t the only incredible things to see in Mesa Verde National Park.
You can still get some great views of the Cliff Palace and Balcony House from the overlook at Sun Temple along the Mesa Top Loop or from the parking lot closest to the Cliff Palace (and where that tour begins).
If you visit the park on a crowded day and the tours are full, then we highly recommend stopping and visiting:
- Far View Sites
- Spruce Tree House
- Step House
- Sun Temple
- Square Tower House
The Cost of a Visit to Mesa Verde
Similar to other US National Parks, the entrance fee breakdown is like this:
$30 entrance fee per private car from May 1 – October 31
$20 entrance fee per private car for the rest of the year
For motorcycles its $25/$15 and for cyclists its $15/$10
However, if you plan on visiting more than three National Parks within a year, I highly recommend getting an America the Beautiful Pass for an annual fee of $80. This National Park pass pays for itself in just 2.5 -3 visits to most National Parks across the United States.
Don’t forget to include the cost of fuel that it takes you to drive the 2 hours around the park plus your drive to and from your accommodation.
Weather at Mesa Verde
Given its high altitude, Mesa Verde has a fairly moderate temperature range compared to other desert areas of the Colorado Plateau. Winter snows can sometimes shut-down the park, but it re-opens in the spring bringing continuously sunny weather.
The summers can be extremely hot since Mesa Verde National Park sits at over 7,000ft elevation. Be prepared for dry heat which makes the temperature seem hotter than it actually is. Just remember to always bring water with you on your hikes!
Other things to do in the area
Durango is an awesome town only 40 minutes away from the park entrance of Mesa Verde heading East. The historic downtown is filled with local breweries, a railroad museum, and plenty of outdoor recreation including hot springs, skiing, and rafting all nearby. It’s a great stopover on your way to or from Mesa Verde if Colorado is your main destination.
Another option is to take Hwy 160 West and head towards Monument Valley, which is a little over two hours away. Along the way, you can make a stop at Four Corners Monument and stand at the center of where four states merge (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona). This would be a great add on if Mesa Verde was part of a road trip vacation.
Ashley is one half of the two bloggers behind Impact Winder, an unconventional lifestyle blog that highlights slow travel, financial independence, and environmental impact. She has been traveling the world with her husband since 2015, with the purpose of impacting and encouraging others to push beyond the boundaries of ‘normal’.
When she’s not immersing herself in the local culture of her current ‘home country’, she is copywriting for soulful small businesses, making herself comfortable at the nearest third-wave coffee house, or researching their next destination. You can follow her adventures on Instagram.
More Colorado Travel Resources
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Colorado
The Lonely Planet Colorado guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Colorado because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Colorado make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful (but occasionally slippery) outdoors.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.