There is so much to see and do in Mesa Verde National Park, that it’s hard to limit it all to one trip. From guided tours of cliff dwellings, to canyon hikes there is something for everyone. At the visitor center and entrance station, follow a winding mountainous road up though the park past a number of pullouts and overlooks. These pullouts are great places to stop and break up the drive. When you get to the Far View area you’ll have a choice whether to head down to Chapin Mesa or Wetherill Mesa. If you only have one day in the park it’s best to visit Chapin Mesa since most of best-preserved archeological sites are there.
Mesa Verde National Park is unique to other parks, because not only was it established to celebrate its natural beauty, but also to protect the historical cliff and mesa top dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan people. No matter how you choose to spend your day in the park, Mesa Verde will not disappoint.
A guided tour is the only way to see the cliff dwellings up close, but the tour is definitely worth it. You’ll get so much more from interacting with the ranger than you would otherwise. On each tour you learn about how the Ancestral Puebloans used the cliff dwellings and mesa top in their daily lives. Each tour is unique in that you’ll learn something different about the culture depending on your tour guide.
Tickets for the tours can be purchased at the visitor center just inside the park boundary. Tickets do sell out fast, so if you know it’s going to be busy, best to get there early. Tickets can be purchased up to two days in advance. Keep in mind when planning your trip that steep stair cases and in some instances, ladders allow you to access the cliff dwellings.
If you are not able to make it to a tour, the self-guided tour of Step House is another great option to see the cliff dwellings. Located on Wetherill Mesa, the self-guided tour allows you to take your time in the cliff dwelling and move at your own pace. Wetherill Mesa is the slower paced option of the two mesas. Although the tour is not guided, there is a ranger station at the site to answer any questions.
The Step House is unique from the other sites because there is evidence of two separate building eras 600-years apart in the same alcove. The earlier Modified Basketmaker site occupied the alcove first, followed by the Classic Pueblo site which is what the majority of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are.
A great way to get out of the sun, or if you happen to be visiting on a rainy day is the Chapin Mesa archeological museum. The museum has numerous artifacts from different eras of Ancestral Pueblo life on display from the parks collection. As you walk through the museum, dioramas and artifacts chronologically depict what life was life on Mesa Verde. A short film on the history of Mesa Verde is shown every half hour.
The Chapin Mesa archeological museum is also a great place to eat and grab water. There’s a variety of food vendors, restrooms and bookstore.
In addition to all the archeological sites you can see in Mesa Verde National Park, there is also great hiking in the canyons off the mesa top. Starting at the Chapin Mesa archeological museum are the petroglyph point and spruce canyon trail heads. The petroglyph point trail is a 2.4-mile-long loop and takes you past a large petroglyph panel. The spruce canyon trail takes you down past the Spruce Tree House and then up spruce canyon. The 2.4-mile-long loop gives visitors an understanding of what life is like at the bottom of the canyon.
On the Wetherill Mesa, visitors can hike or bike on the Long House Loop paved trail. The loop is 6 miles long, but can be cut down by walking though the Badger House Community sites.