Insider’s Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

Ken Lund
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It’s believed that Mesa Verde (or “green table”) was seasonally inhabited by Paleo-Indians as early as 7500 BCE, likely because of its position 8,500 feet above sea level. The mesa was an ideal place for the Native Americans, providing an abundance of food and shelter (despite the barren-looking landscape, they were able to grow corn, beans and squash). While tribes and cultures inhabited the area off and on, the last known inhabitants were the Ancestral Pueblo people, from A.D. 600 to 1300. The first white men found the area in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and on June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national park designated to "preserve the works of man”.

Lucky for us, and thanks to the hard work of those who put in the time to repair and some of the major sites, many of the ancient sites have been preserved, giving visitors a glimpse into what life may have been like for the Ancestral Pueblo people.

The main attraction at Mesa Verde National Park is the cliff dwelling area, some of which visitors can actually get up close to and go inside! There are also some hiking trails and the park is also popular for bird watching and stargazing.

The Cliff Palace.
The Cliff Palace. Ron Cogswell

Classic Adventures

By far, the most popular activity at the park is to visit the cliff dwellings. Three of the dwellings require a pre-ticketed, ranger-guided tour: the Cliff Palace, the Balcony House, and Long House. The Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. The total walking distance is only about .25-mile, but there are five 8-10 ft. ladders to climb up to the dwelling. The Balcony House is for more adventurous visitors. This one involves climbing a 32 ft. ladder, crawling through a 12 ft. long tunnel, and then climbing two 10 ft. ladders up a rock face. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but well worth it! Long House is the most in-depth tour, with more than 150 rooms on three levels, and involves a 2.25-mile hike and just two 15-foot ladders. Visitors have the unique opportunity to get up close to these dwellings and walk away with a different perspective of what life was like for the Ancestral Puebloans. Note that the tours are only offered during certain times of year. If there is no tour offered, visitors aren’t able to see these particular dwellings.

The one dwelling that does not require a ranger-guided tour is the Step House on Wetherill Mesa, which means visitors can go at their own pace (though there is a ranger on-site to answer any questions). Besides seeing the rooms and general layout of the buildings, visitors can climb down into an ancient kiva, which is a Hopi word for “ceremonial room”.

Petroglyphs along the Petroglyph Point Trail.
Petroglyphs along the Petroglyph Point Trail. Abbie Mood

Another popular activity at Mesa Verde National Park is looking for petroglyphs. The Petroglyph Point loop is not easy, but it is the only trail in the park where visitors can see petroglyphs up close. The whole trail is 2.4 miles round trip with the petroglyph panel about 1.4 miles in and has some wonderful views of the Spruce and Navajo Canyons below the mesa. Visitors can also see petroglyphs at the Far View Sites Complex as well.

Because the dwellings are so large and so visible, many people visit the park just to drive around and see them, especially if they visit in the off-season when many of the dwellings are closed.

Secrets of the Park

According to the park rangers, the best place to view wildlife is the Prater Ridge Trail. The farther out from the road, the more likely visitors are to see big mammals, such as coyote or deer. The entire trail is 7.8 miles, looping through the woodland area and traveling along the top of the ridge.

A lesser-known trail on the Wetherill Mesa is the one-mile Nordenskiold Site No. 16. Though the trail is short, the round trip leads to an overlook of a cliff dwelling with about 50 rooms with both stone and sand-carved features.

For visitors looking for a longer hike than the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Trail, take the Spruce Canyon Trail, which will add about 3.5 miles to the trip.

Hiking along the Petroglyph Point Trail.
Hiking along the Petroglyph Point Trail. Abbie Mood

The Badger House Community Trail (2.25 miles) goes through four mesa top sites and is a great way to see the park when other sites are closed.

Because there are no major cities in the Four Corners region, there is very little artificial light pollution. The Montezuma or Mancos Overlooks are the best places in the park to stargaze and are accessible from the Main Park Road. The Morefield Campground is another great spot, but is only open from mid-May to mid-October.

Depending on the time of year, it may be worth spending at least a weekend at Mesa Verde to be sure to get tickets for the tours and have time to hike some of the trails. Besides the main cliff dwellings, make time to go out to the Far View Sites. From A.D. 900-1300, Far View was one of the most densely populated sections of the mesa, with nearly 50 villages identified in the area. There are several buildings here, as well as petroglyphs.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit


  • At any time, a cliff dwelling could be closed due to loose rocks, weather, or repairs, so make sure you check the website before you go!

  • For the most part, all parts of the park are accessible from May-September. Some, like Wetherill Mesa Road, depend on weather conditions, while the dwellings have their own tour schedule. Check the website before you go.

  • If you go in the summer, schedule your tour or plan to hike early – it gets up to 90 degrees or more by midday.

  • The main park road is open 24 hours, but most of the activities are limited to daytime hours (unless you are stargazing, of course).

  • If you want to see more Ancestral Puebloan structures, there are a few others in the Four Corners region – Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients, and the Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

  • The best time to get photos is mid-to-late afternoon, and color is better than black and white.

  • Drive slowly through the park - there are wild horses around.

Pipe Shrine House at the Far View Sites Complex.
Pipe Shrine House at the Far View Sites Complex. Caitlyn Willows

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