Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

A Day in Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is an amazing travel destination located in the southwestern corner of Colorado. This park features many well-preserved cliff dwelling ruins that were inhabited by the Pueblo people from 550AD to 1300AD. You will be stunned as you take in the breathtaking views, hike the park’s trails, and take guided tours, all while imagining living life while ascending and descending from the mesas to the villages to the valleys.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

Growing up in Colorado, I visited Mesa Verde a handful of times and even took a week-long camping trip with my 7th grade class! Jeremy also visited with his family when he was in middle school. Now that we live in the Boston area, Mesa Verde feels much further away, but we still wanted our teenage boys to experience this amazing National Park. Over the summer, we decided to take a fast-paced road trip through the American Southwest on our way home from a Hawaiian vacation.

The Logistics

Getting To Mesa Verde

Located along highway 160 between Mancos and Cortez, Mesa Verde National Park is quite far from major airports. A longer road trip starting at a large, but further away airport can make a lot of sense. Depending on which attractions you want to visit while on your road trip, flying into various cities in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico are all possibilities. Even Las Vegas could be a good starting destination!

If you are looking for closer airports to Mesa Verde, try Cortez, Colorado; Durango, Colorado; and Farmington, New Mexico.

For this particular road trip, our family flew in and out of Phoenix and took a very speedy 4 day, 5 night roadtrip to:

Here is a map showing our Southwest road trip route:

Of course, there are many road trip variations throughout the Southwest. When you make your particular road trip map, start with 2-3 major destinations, then see what is nearby. For example, if you knew you wanted to see Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park, you should then look at what is between these locations. You will quickly see that both Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley make easy additions. Then when you look at flight options, you might consider flying into Las Vegas and out of Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Now you just need to decide how much time to spend at each destination and whether there are more stops to add to your itinerary!


For Mesa Verde, there’s both the park entrance fee ($30 for 7 days; or the $80 annual national parks pass, which we have), as well as a separate fee for the ranger-guided tours. The fee details are listed on their site. Note that the ranger-led tours are the main way to see the highlights of the park.


Be sure that if you have small children, elderly, or disabled people in your party that you consider the safety challenges that you may encounter. Most of the best activities in this National Park require you to ascend and descend very steep cliffs, climb ladders, and walk on natural stone steps.

Ranger-Led Cliff Dwelling Tours

If you travel all the way to Mesa Verde National Park, you will want to be sure to register for a ranger-guided cliff dwelling tour.

Tickets open 14 days before the tour and they tend to go fast, so don’t dawdle.

Make sure you print your receipt! Phone reception in the park is spotty and we saw two women almost get turned away from the tour when they couldn’t get their receipts loaded on their phones. Fortunately, they were early and after enough wandering, they were able to pick up a cell phone signal and get screenshots of their receipts.

At the time of our visit, we had a choice of touring the Cliff Palace, the Balcony House, and the Long House. Even though we logged into the ticket website within two hours of tickets becoming available, the Balcony House was already sold out. Fortunately, we were still able to reserve the Cliff Palace in the morning (my favorite) and the Long House in the afternoon (still pretty cool). Leave sufficient time between them for the drive between sites.

Depending on the time of year and current conditions, you may have different options than we had. Various locations periodically close for repairs – no one wants rocks falling on their heads!

Other Activities in Mesa Verde

There are two main areas inside Mesa Verde park that you will want to consider visiting: the Chapin Mesa and the Wetherill Mesa. There are also some hiking trails near the Morefield Campground and other locations around the park.

View of the valley at Mesa Verde National Park
The Chapin Mesa

The Chapin Mesa is home to the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House, both of which require tour reservations.

While in the area, you should also consider doing a couple of these self-guided activities:

The Wetherill Mesa

The Wetherill Mesa is home to the Long house, which requires a tour reservation.

While in the area, you should also consider doing a couple of these self-guided activities:

  • Visit the Step House (1 mile trail that will loop through the only cliff dwelling that is currently permitted to visit without a tour reservation)
  • Walk the Badger House Trail (2.25 mile trail that will take you through the Badger Community – we skipped it due to time constraints)
  • Explore some of the Wetherill Mesa hiking trails.


Inside Mesa Verde National Park, your lodging choices are limited to the Far View Lodge and the Morefield Campground.

Outside the park, Mancos and Cortez are the two closest towns that have lodging. Slightly further afield, you could consider spending the night in Durango as well.

Alternatively, if you leave by late afternoon, you could try to reposition yourself closer to your next destination.

On the way into Mesa Verde National Park, we spent the night in Cortez. On the way out, we were planning to visit the Navajo Nation Museum the next day, so we drove all the way to Gallup, New Mexico, with a detour to see the Four Corners Monument.

Our Experience


We had a 9:30am tour scheduled at Cliff Palace, so we arrived a little early to make sure we didn’t miss our slot.

Driving in the park, we collected a map and headed toward the Wetherill Mesa. Our first stop was at a viewing point for the Spruce Tree House. It was closed due to falling rocks, so we didn’t bother hiking the steep-looking half mile trail. We trying stopping at Chapin Mesa Archeology Museum and Mesa Top Loop Road, but found both were closed, which wasn’t a great start to the park!

The Cliff Palace Tour

We arrived at the Cliff Palace parking area and found the meeting for the Cliff Palace Tour.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

What an amazing cliff dwelling! This tour was the highlight of our day, so try hard to reserve tickets to this beautiful archeological finding.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

While the path down to the dwellings is quite steep and there are four ladders to climb, it is only a 1/4 mile round-trip. The boys were pleased with the descent, then when we arrive, they were excited to be able to climb up and down various ladders.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

Our tour guide was quite talented and we thoroughly enjoyed learning the purpose and history of the various buildings as well as learning about the reasons why people chose to live in the cliffs rather than on the mesa or in the valley.

The Far View Sites

Ready to go get some lunch, we decided to stop by the Far View Sites on the way. Unlike the cliff dwellings, these homes were built on top of the mesa. They were inhabited before the Pueblo people started descending into the cliffs, but even after the cliff dwellings came into existence, the Far View Sites continued to be home to many people who may not have wanted the risks or hassles of the cliff dwellings.

Far View Sites at Mesa Verde National Park

At only 3/4 of a mile, this makes an easy hike over fairly flat ground.


Continuing to the Far View Terrace Cafe, we enjoyed a lunch with amazing views! James was particularly pleased that they had a Navajo taco on offer, although I offer no guarantees on the authenticity. There are also a few other dining options inside the park.

The Step House

Having a little extra time before our next tour started, we decided to walk to the Step House, about a 1 mile loop trail. If for some reason you are unable to secure tour tickets to one of the other cliff dwellings, this is a site that you should not miss. It is currently the only self-guided cliff dwelling experience in Mesa Verde National Park.

Climbing a Ladder at the Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

We found it to be interesting, but if we were running short on time, both the Cliff Palace and the Step House tours would have been better options.

The Long House Tour

The time for our second tour arrived and we took the hike to the Long House tour meeting point. Note that if you go on this tour, the hike will be 2.25 miles round-trip, including plenty of elevation gain and two 15 foot ladders.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

The Long House cliff dwellings were similar to the Cliff Palace, so if you only end up being able to get one tour, both are reasonable choices. That said, I think I had a slight preference for Cliff Palace.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

The main disappointment was when we discovered that one of our tour guides was mildly annoying with not-funny jokes, but fortunately, each tour guide was responsible for a particular area and the other tour guides were much better.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

Even so, the Long House tour was still a lot of fun!

Badger House Trail

At this point, we could have extended our hike by taking the Badger House Trail to see the Badger Community dwellings, but the boys were done with archeology and were ready to call it a day.


Happy, but tired, we began the longish drive out of the park. It was still mid-afternoon, so we had plenty of time to make the 1.5 hour drive to the Four Corners Monument before closing!

If you ever take a road trip through the Southwest USA, consider making a stop at Mesa Verde National Park!

Keep reading our travel blog for more National Park ideas!

Here are some more posts from this American Southwest trip:

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