Mesa Verde National Park – Camping, Tours, and Best Tips

Petr Novák

Mesa Verde is a national park in southeastern Colorado and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Arguably, no other park has a history as rich as this one, a testament to the ancient Anasazi Indians who inhabited the area from around 600 AD. The park’s main attractions consist of evidence of their lives, displayed through rock formations and paintings.

Mesa Verde National Park | © Ron Cogswell

Table of Contents
  1. Information About Mesa Verde National Park
  2. What to See and Do in Mesa Verde National Park
  3. When to Visit Mesa Verde National Park
  4. Mesa Verde National Park Entrance Fees
  5. Getting to Mesa Verde National Park
  6. Accommodations in Mesa Verde National Park
  7. Tips and Recommendations Before Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
  8. Photos of Mesa Verde National Park

Information About Mesa Verde National Park

Spanning an area of 81 mi2, Mesa Verde is one of the smaller national parks in the USA. It is located just outside an area known as the Four Corners, a unique point where the borders of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet. A short distance away are Grand Sand Dunes National Park and Canyonlands National Park, which attract approximately 548,477 visitors annually (2021 data).

Mesa Verde, one of the oldest national parks in the USA, was established on June 29, 1906, after two decades of effort. However, the history of Mesa Verde began hundreds of years before. The first inhabitants were the Anasazi, who lived here between 600 and 1300 AD. From 750 AD onward, the Anasazi began to build more sophisticated dwellings with solid walls, and over the next 300 years, they retreated further into the sandstone cliffs. This resulted in the creation of stunning cliff towns, which by the early 13th century, housed as many as 22,000 people.

The highest point in Mesa Verde National Park is Park Point Lookout, standing at 8,570 ft, while the lowest point is Soda Canyon, situated at 6,014 ft. The park’s name derives from Spanish, where “Mesa Verde” translates to “green table” – a reference to the park’s location on a plateau approximately 1,969 ft high.

The flora and fauna of Mesa Verde National Park have remained relatively unchanged over the last 4,000 years. The park hosts 74 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 16 different reptiles, 5 species of amphibians, and over 1,000 species of insects. The mammalian inhabitants you’re likely to encounter include small rodents, bats, squirrels, beavers, coyotes, and skunks. Plant life is dominated by various dwarf shrubs, while the trees consist mainly of pines, junipers, and oaks.

What to See and Do in Mesa Verde National Park

The park’s biggest attraction is its thousand-year-old cliff dwellings, akin to stone cities carved out of the rock. The most famous parts of the park include:

Cliff Palace

The tour commences at the Cliff Palace overlook, leading to the cliff dwelling bearing the same name, which is the most famous in all of Mesa Verde National Park. The dwelling formerly consisted of approximately 200 individual rooms including storerooms, corridors, and 23 ceremonial rooms. It is believed to be 700 years old.
The organized tour takes about an hour, leading you 98 ft underground.

Balcony House

A more adventurous tour, this route involves climbing ladders, crawling through low tunnels, and descending staircases carved in stone. It is not recommended for visitors with a fear of heights.

Spruce Tree House

The best-preserved dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park is located in Spruce Tree Canyon, near the archaeological museum. Dating back to between 1211 and 1278 AD, it was once home to 60-80 people who utilized its 130 rooms. You can also see one of the eight reconstructed rooms, known as kivas, which were used for religious rituals.

This tour covers a distance of about 0.62 mi.

Long House

The 90-minute tour of the Wetherill Mesa cliff dwelling involves descending two 14.76 ft ladders.

Step House

A free tour from the Chapin Mesa Museum to the Spruce Tree House dwellings.

Some of these tours are only available for a fee and are guided tours with a ranger escort. Others are free. Tickets for organized tours are purchased at the visitor center.

Name of Dwelling Guided Tour Unguided Tour
Cliff Palace Mid-May to early November Not available
Balcony House Late April to early October Not available
Spruce Tree House Free, early November to early March From early March to early November
Long House Price $8.00, from Memorial Day to Labor Day Not available
Step House Not available From Memorial Day to Labor Day

From mid-April to mid-October, park tours are available via bus, which offer easy viewing of the sights. Buses depart from Far View Terrace at 8:00 am and 1:00 pm.

The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, located approximately 19.88 mi outside the park gate, offers exhibits that provide a closer look at Native American life. Here, you can watch a 25-minute film about the history of Mesa Verde, or embark on a tour of the Spruce Tree House.

The park also features several hiking trails, including:

Prater Ridge Trail

This nearly 8.08 mi trail starts from the western boundary of Morefield Campground and leads to the top of Prater Ridge. The trail circles the ridge before returning to camp along the same route.

Knife Edge Trail

This 1.99 mi trail begins in the northwest corner of the campground and leads to the Montezuma Valley Overlook. It offers a beautiful view of the valley of the same name.

Petroglyph Point Trail

Nearly 2.49 mi long, this trail begins at the main Spruce Tree House Trail and is suitable for those interested in viewing petroglyphs – shapes carved into the rock.

You can also view the park from your car by driving the 6.21 mi long Mesa Top Loop Road. This route takes you to the Square Tower House (the tallest structure in the park) and the Sun Point overlooks. From these vantage points, seven cliff dwellings are easily accessible, as well as the Sun Temple. The ruins at the very top of the plateau offer a fine view of the Cliff Palace.

When to Visit Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is open all year round, but certain components such as the campground and cafe are typically open only from May to October. The visitor center and archaeological museum are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

The best times to visit are late May, early June, and most days in September when the weather is pleasant and the summer crowds can be avoided. If you plan to visit in the summer, weekdays are preferable to weekends.

During these months, daytime temperatures typically range from 68°F to 77°F and can approach the +86°F in the summer. It tends to be cooler in the evenings, and rain showers and thunderstorms are not uncommon in late July and August.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers in Mesa Verde National Park

Average temperatures in Mesa Verde National Park are taken from the locality of Cortez-Montezuma. Visitor numbers are based on averages from 2017 to 2021, with data sourced from the National Park Service.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 39°F 17.60°F 3.9 5 453 🟩
February 45°F 19.40°F 4.4 6 156 🟩
March 50°F 27°F 4.4 18 616 🟩
April 52°F 34°F 3.9 31 577 🟨🟨
May 72°F 45°F 3.6 61 535 🟧🟧🟧
June 82°F 52°F 2.0 106 910 🟥🟥🟥🟥
July 88°F 57°F 5.7 113 465 🟥🟥🟥🟥
August 84°F 55°F 6.7 88 002 🟥🟥🟥🟥
September 75°F 48°F 5.7 71 183 🟧🟧🟧
October 66°F 39°F 4.4 47 446 🟨🟨
November 52°F 28°F 4.2 13 953 🟩
December 43°F 21.20°F 3.9 8 786 🟩

Mesa Verde National Park Entrance Fees

The entrance fee to Mesa Verde National Park from the beginning of May to the end of October is $30 per car, including all occupants. For the rest of the year, the fee is $20.00.

You can avoid these fees by purchasing the America the Beautiful pass, which grants you free admission to every USA National Park for one year from the date of purchase. This pass costs $80.

However, the pass does not cover tours of specific canyons and cliffs or guided hikes.

Getting to Mesa Verde National Park

Accessing the park is almost impossible without owning or renting a car. The entrance is located 9.32 mi east of the city of Cortez. The access road is rather steep and narrow, and driving can often be challenging due to strong winds, thus a car in good condition is required.

Here are the routes and drive times from several nearby towns:

From / To Distance Driving Time Map
Albuquerque 245 mi 4 hours 5 minutes View Route
Denver 371 mi 6 hours 45 minutes View Route
Las Vegas 499 mi 8 hours View Route
Salt Lake City 358 mi 6 hours View Route

You must use the aforementioned car to travel within the park, as there is no public transportation available. Parking is available at the stunning visitor centre. Larger cars and caravans can park in the spacious parking lot by the entrance gate. The only gas station in the park is located at Morefield Campground, and there’s another one in the town of Cortez.

Accommodations in Mesa Verde National Park

🏨 Hotels

Hotels and motels can be booked in the nearby towns of Cortez and Mancos, with prices per room per night starting at $65.

⛺ Campsites

The Morefield campground is located right within the national park. It’s fully operational from late April to mid-October, with limited operations for 14 days before and after this period. The campground offers 267 tent pitches and is seldom fully booked. Amenities include a gas station, shop, café, laundry, showers, toilets, barbecues and virtually everything you need for a comfortable camping experience.

The cost is $38, tax included, for one pitch per night.

Tips and Recommendations Before Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Center

I recommend beginning your park tour with a visit to the information center, which is housed in a building that opened in December 2012. If you wish to see the popular Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Long House, a trip to the visitor center is essential as tickets are sold there.

The Visitor Center is open all year round except for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving – always from at least 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the summer, it stays open until 7:00 pm. At the center, you can explore exhibits highlighting the rich history of Mesa Verde and the Anasazi, buy souvenirs, and ask park rangers any questions you might have.

👍 Good to Know

You’ll need about half a day to explore the park. Be sure to bring plenty of water and food; both can be purchased at the park or at the Walmart in Cortez, the town you’ll likely pass through. Sturdy shoes and sunscreen are essential during the summer, as the sun can be quite intense.

Before visiting the park, download the free maps and brochures provided by the park service to your phone. These will prove useful during your trip, and you’ll learn many interesting facts from them.

Photos of Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park | © Ken Lund

Ute Mountains, Mesa Verde National Park | © Don Graham

Mesa Verde NP | © Anthony Quintano

Mesa Verde National Park | © Kool Cats Photography over 3 Million Views

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park | © daveynin

Mesa Verde National Park | © Ron Cogswell

Petroglyph Point, Mesa Verde National Park | © Frank Kovalchek

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

Contribute with Your Question or Personal Experience

Add a comment

Please read the article and preceding comments before posing any questions. I personally review all new comments and promptly remove any advertisements, spam, or offensive content.

Save on Car Rentals in the USA