AARP’s Guide to Mesa Verde National Park
A thrilling collection of ancient canyon-carved cliff dwellings welcomes visitors in Colorado
Most of the country’s 63 national parks are beloved for their wild and rugged beauty, but Mesa Verde National Park (MVNP) is a cultural treasure unlike any other. Located in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado, it preserves the heritage and hand-built architectural accomplishments of the Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient civilization that produced awe-inspiring handiwork between 550 and 1300 A.D. Home to 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 canyon-carved cliff dwellings, the 52,485-acre park, strewn with verdant clusters of pinyon, juniper and Gambel oak trees, safeguards the United States’ largest archaeological preserve.
Park location: The Four Corners region in southwestern Colorado
Highest peak: Park Point’s Fire Lookout Tower, at 8,572 feet above sea level
Lowest valley: Soda Canyon, about 6,000 feet above sea level
Miles of trails: 20-plus miles over 12 trails
Main attraction: Cliff Palace
Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee May until Oct. 23 ($20 with the annual Seniors Pass), valid for seven consecutive days; $20 per vehicle from Oct. 23 through April
Best way to see it: Ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings
When to go: May through September, when the park’s most significant sites are open. September has the best weather.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the park in 1906, and in 1978, MVNP was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with Yellowstone National Park, the first such accreditations given in the United States. The region’s first Spanish explorers gave the area its name — Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table” — inspired by its vast and lush mountainous shrublands. Geologists will tell you that MVNP is technically a “cuesta” (not a “mesa”), due to its sun-tilted topography, which the Ancestral Puebloans used to grow corn, their primary food.
For reasons unknown, by the late 1200s, following seven centuries of building and harvesting, the Ancestral Puebloans had all but deserted the cliffs, canyons and villages of modern-day MVNP. While there were surely plenty of explorers in the area in the years after, it wasn’t put on the map until a snowy December day in 1888, when local ranchers Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace — the largest cliff dwelling in the park and the main attraction. Fast-forward to 2022, and this sacred Indigenous site, where 100-mile views into Arizona, Utah and New Mexico can be had on clear days, attracts close to 600,000 visitors annually.
An interpretive sign in the park offers this plea to visitors from T.J. Atsye, a park ranger and direct descendant of the people who once lived here: “To Pueblo people, this is still a living place. We make pilgrimages back to Mesa Verde to visit the ancestors and gather strength and resilience from them. I ask you to please visit with respect. If you’re genuine, and true, and respectful, the ancestors will welcome you.”
Easy to navigate, MVNP is divided into two distinct sections: Chapin Mesa, which features two short, drivable roads and where parkgoers spend most of their time, and Wetherill Mesa, highlighted by a paved 5-mile walking loop. You won’t need more than a day to experience the park, but to explore its best sites — Cliff Palace, for example — you need to purchase tickets for ranger tours in advance of your arrival.
Plan Your Trip
The nearest international airport is 248 miles southeast in Albuquerque, though it offers no nonstop connections to the area near the park. Flying into Denver International Airport is a better option, with at least one daily nonstop flight to the gateway city of Cortez (10 miles west of the park) and multiple flights to Durango-La Plata County Airport (49 miles east of it), just outside Durango.
Most visitors, however, drive to MVNP as part of an extended road trip that includes stops in Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and other attractions in scenic southwestern Colorado, including national monuments and the San Juan Skyway, a scenic, 236-mile mountain loop through Telluride and other charming former mining towns.
MVNP’s entrance is on the park’s northern edge, directly off U.S. Highway 160, with the lone visitor center nearby. To maximize your day, give yourself 30 minutes at the center to take in its interactive exhibits, small museum, bookstore and gift shop before venturing into the park.
From the entrance, it’s about an hour’s drive on MVNP’s slow and serpentine main thoroughfare to the cliff dwellings at Chapin and Wetherill mesas, in the park’s far southern quadrant. Be sure to stop at the Park Point overlook, MVNP’s highest point (8,572 feet), for scenic views of the San Juan Mountains’ 14,000-foot peaks. You might even spot a golden eagle riding the warm air currents above the Mancos Valley.
The thoroughfare forks at mile marker 15 (near Far View Lodge), with offshoots leading to each of the two mesas. From Far View Lodge, it’s a 5-mile drive to Chapin Mesa’s two loop roads and 12 miles to Wetherill’s loop trail. The road to Wetherill Mesa, the park’s less-visited side, closes at the end of October and reopens in May. Chapin Mesa is open year-round; its cliff dwellings can’t be toured in the winter, but many of the dwellings in both mesas can still be seen from the park’s overlooks.
The season is crucial when planning your trip to MVNP. “April and May are nice, and the temperatures are comfortable, but you can get snow,” says Holly Tatnall, an interpretative guide for park concessionaire Aramark Tours. “September is going to give you the best, most consistent weather in the unpredictable Rockies.”
Summertime temps range from the mid- to upper 80s, so bring plenty of water (you’ll be driving at between 7,000 and 8,400 feet) and stay hydrated. With cool mornings and 65- to 75-degree temperatures, early fall delivers prime camping conditions. Frigid mountain air sweeps through MVNP in winter, shutting down the park tours. When the most popular sites reopen for tours in April, temperatures are still chilly (with highs in the low 50s), before jumping into the 70s in May.
There’s limited to no cell phone service inside the park.
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Where to Stay and Eat
The closest hotel is the moderately priced Far View Lodge, in the heart of the park, 15 miles from the entrance and perched atop a mesa, 8,250 feet above sea level. Its 150 rooms sport private balconies perfect for sunset and wildlife viewing (elk, coyotes, mule deer). Reserve wheelchair-accessible rooms when you book. Metate, the hotel’s signature restaurant (it serves only dinner), offers contemporary American plates, including pan-seared rainbow trout.
Far View Terrace, just a short walk from the hotel, serves coffee and snacks at the Mesa Mocha Espresso Bar, as well as cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch (think omelets and sandwiches). Both the hotel and terrace are open from April to late October. In Chapin Mesa, the Spruce Tree Terrace Café serves basic concession food and stays open through December, then reopens in spring.
Four miles beyond the park entrance, in a picturesque canyon of native Gambel oaks, you can sleep under some of the darkest skies you’ll experience in a national park at the 267-site Morefield Campground (open April through October). Amenities include picnic tables, firepits and 15 electrical hookups for RVs. There’s also a full-service village with a gift shop, grocery store, showers and all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Knife Edge Café. Outside the park, in nearby Cortez, the affordable Retro Inn, open year-round, offers brightly colored, accessible rooms and complimentary breakfast.
Things to Do
See the biggest cliff dwellings. These ancient marvels are the park’s main draw. You can explore a handful of them, but only on ranger-led tours (the one exception: the self-guided Step House tour in Wetherill Mesa), most running from mid-April to late October. Tickets cost $8 to $25 per dwelling and can be purchased up to 14 days in advance. While the tours are not wheelchair-friendly or suited for those with physical limitations, anyone can view the dwellings from good vantage points.
The park’s absolute must-see is Cliff Palace in Chapin Mesa, near the start of the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. This rock, mortar and timber-constructed village, built in the 13th century, is jaw-dropping, with its 150 rooms, 23 circular kivas used for ceremonial gatherings, intricate ventilation system, and remarkable “dry stack” masonry. “Their walls are within 2 degrees of square, but we didn’t find any builder’s squares,” says park ranger David Nighteagle. “It’s a testimony to how well they [Ancestral Puebloans] could lay stone.” At its peak, the alcove settlement, which Nighteagle likens to “walking in downtown Manhattan and seeing all of these big buildings,” could have housed upwards of 150 people. Touring it involves climbing uneven steps and ladders, but those with physical limitations can get a good view of the site, and a terrific postcard shot, from Sun Temple on Mesa Top Loop Road.
Just shy of 2 miles farther down Cliff Palace Road is Balcony House, with 38 well-preserved rooms as well as kivas and plazas. Another 13th-century masterpiece, it’s considered the park’s most adventurous tour due to its tight passageways, 32-foot entrance ladder, jagged stone steps, and 60-foot ascent up an open cliff face. It’s for thrill seekers and the physically fit, but the easy Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (1.2 miles round trip) affords an alternate view.
Square Tower House, on Mesa Top Loop Road in Chapin Mesa, the park’s tallest dwelling, stands 26 feet high. Inhabited during the mid-1200s, the three-story structure features intact wooden beams and an original clay kiva roof. If the strenuous mile-long hike to tour the house deters you, get a bird’s-eye view of the dwelling from the overlook here, which provides one of the best vistas in all of MVNP.
Due to rockfall, Spruce Tree House in Chapin Mesa, the park’s best-preserved dwelling, has been closed since 2015. But snag a stellar aerial view of the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling from the wheelchair-friendly porch at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum (currently closed for renovations), located less than a mile before the start of the two loop roads. Tucked beneath a sandstone archway, the dwelling was constructed between 1211 and 1278 A.D. When ranchers discovered it in 1888, they climbed down a large Douglas spruce tree (now called a Douglas fir) to enter it, thus the name.
In Wetherill Mesa, tour Long House, the park’s second-largest dwelling, highlighted by a dance plaza and multiple seep springs that provided the Ancestral Puebloans with water. From the beginning of the paved, 5-mile Long House Loop Trail near the mesa parking lot, walk 1.5 miles to the Long House trailhead. From there, it’s an arduous 2.25-mile hike (round trip) to the dwelling.
For a more leisurely stroll (just a 1-mile loop), the mesa’s wheelchair- and bike-friendly loop trail passes through an eerie-looking burned forest that leads to the Nordenskiöld Site No. 16 trailhead. To view the two-level, 50-room village, excavated by a Swedish geologist in 1891, walk the flat, half-mile gravel path to an overlook.
Near the parking lot is MVNP’s only cliff dwelling that doesn’t require a tour ticket, the easy-to-walk-around Step House, carved inside a 300-foot alcove. When excavated, the dwelling housed stunning handcrafted baskets in its six pit houses (insulated semisubterranean homes), evidence that Ancestral Puebloans occupied it six centuries before the park’s most famous dwellings were constructed, circa the 13th century. Access it via a moderate, half-mile offshoot (1-mile round trip) at the beginning of the loop trail.
Drive the Mesa Top Loop. This 6-mile, 11-stop scenic road, which runs parallel to the Cliff Palace Loop in Chapin Mesa, traces the Ancestral Puebloans’ seven-century footprint in and around the park with rousing overlooks and stops at various archaeological sites. At the loop’s end, you’ll see Sun Temple (1275 A.D.), a large D-shaped complex that experts believe served as an observatory for astronomical events, such as the winter solstice, that guided the Puebloans’ planting and harvesting activities.
Go hiking. MVNP has a few noteworthy short hiking trails, though the rough, challenging terrain means they aren’t suitable for the mobility-impaired. In Chapin Mesa, the half-mile Farming Terrace Trail near Cedar Tree Tower provides a window into the Ancestral Puebloans’ unique agricultural system, with its check dams and terraces. From the Spruce Tree House Overlook in Chapin Mesa, the steep Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles) loops through a fragrant pinyon-juniper forest, where hikers slip between mammoth boulders en route to a 35-foot-wide rock-art panel with more than 30 figures (human and animal), spirals and handprints.
Closer to the park’s entrance, three trailheads, ranging from easy to difficult, start at the Morefield Campground: Knife Edge (2 miles), an ideal trek for savoring Colorado’s pastel sunsets; Point Lookout (2.2 miles), replete with views of the snowcapped San Juan and La Plata ranges; and Prater Ridge (7.8 miles), a challenging, two-loop combo that splits Prater and Morefield canyons above Montezuma Valley, where an estimated 35,000 people lived in the 1200s.
The Old West town of Durango, 36 miles east of MVNP on U.S. Highway 160, lures the bulk of parkgoers with its charming shops and art galleries, eclectic restaurants and microbreweries, outdoor recreation options, and rich railroad history. Indeed, a train ride aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a must. From downtown Durango, the 1880s steam engine winds through the spellbinding San Juan Mountains, skirting the edge of cliffs and crossing lofty bridges over the clear and ever-flowing Animas River, chugging its way to the historic mining town of Silverton. It’s a thrilling nine-hour, round-trip adventure (May-October), with two hours spent exploring Silverton. Even the vision-impaired enjoy the ride, hearing the steam whistle as the vintage locomotive pulls the train up steep grades. For alpine aromas and the best views, book a gondola seat.
Splurge on a stay at the 15-room Rochester Hotel (with multiple wheelchair-accessible rooms). Built in 1892, the former boarding house-turned-boutique hotel recently reopened downtown following a modern makeover. Just two blocks away, the 88-room Strater Hotel is moderately priced and feels like you’re sleeping in a museum, with period wallpaper and American Victorian walnut antiques awash in a building dating to 1887.
Start your morning with a breakfast burrito at Durango Coffee Company on downtown’s Main Street. Around the corner, for lunch, munch on mouthwatering al pastor tacos or a chicken torta at the Cuevas Tacos food truck. Come dinnertime, sink your teeth into a juicy grass-fed burger topped with Belford cheese at the James Ranch Grill, 10 miles north of downtown on U.S. Highway 550. Cream Bean Berry’s delicate artisan ice cream on Main Street will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. Across the street, sip a cold one at Carver Brewing Company, one of Colorado’s first brewpubs.
Blink twice and you might miss the closest town to MVNP — Mancos, a sleepy dot on the map 8 miles east of the park on U.S. 160. Accommodations are sparse here, but the moderately priced Western-themed lodge rooms at the Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast make for a homey overnight. Before heading into the park, fuel up for the day at the Absolute Bakery & Café on the Mesa Verde Stack, an egg-and-hash browns combo slathered with homemade green chile. At lunchtime, Chef Ben’s Cubano Sandwich is a must-try.
Ten miles west of the park on U.S. 160 is Cortez, a terrific launch point for driving the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway, with its multiple national landmarks. The town’s lodging options are mostly hotels — the Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez has a pool and wheelchair-accessible rooms. For home-cooked comfort foods, order the country fried chicken or elk shepherd’s pie at the Loungin’ Lizard cantina.
T.J. Olwig is a Missouri-based travel writer who has penned stories for BBC Travel, Virtuoso, Travel + Leisure, Islands and Men’s Journal.