July 2, 2019

Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, protects close to 5,000 known archeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo who lived here for over 700 years. First and foremost, it deserves a lot more than the few-hours we spent there. But sometimes it’s easy to over-commit when traveling far from home, and, well, we had to settle for the quickie version.

With this in mind, here’s our half-day guide to visiting Mesa Verde National Park for the first-time curiosity-seeker.

It’s important to note that there are several intriguing ranger-led tour options for visitors who want a closer look at the famous cliff dwellings within the park. Scoring a spot can be a challenge though if you’re on a schedule, and reservations must be made in-person. Even arriving right as the park opened at 9:00 AM on a Monday, albeit during the summer, the only available remaining tour times were much later in the afternoon. Unable to linger that long, we opted for the following self-guided experience which was recommended to us by a ranger. We also found it to be probably the better option. 

Consult the park map here for reference and planning.

  • After a stop at the Visitor’s Center and proceeding through the fee station, a winding road rises through the park with several pullouts and opportunities to overlook the landscape. On this abbreviated, efficiency trip, pass the Far View Lodge and continue all the way to the parking loop for the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Even with a few stops and walking, this should only take around a half hour to arrive to this destination. 

  • The museum itself could easily absorb an hour of time reading all the historical information accompanying the artifacts, but most probably won’t feel cheated devoting 15 minutes and moving onto to an overlook for the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling directly behind the museum. There are a few two-mile trail options from here as well.

  • At the fork in the road, take a right toward Mesa Top Loop, and you’ll pass views of the surrounding mesa with opportunities to stop at several pit houses and villages along the way. Wander from site to site amid the shade; the pit houses themselves are protected under steel pavilions. At Sun Temple stop, a short walk leads directly up to the Sun Temple—a curious structure theorized by some to have been used for ceremonial purposes—but you can’t go inside. From here, you can also view Cliff Palace.

  • Driving back out of the Mesa Top Loop, take the first right into the Cliff Palace Loop. Continue through the entire loop. There’s no need to stop if you don’t have a tour ticket (required). Instead, look for signs for the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. The 1.2-mile out and back path will lead to an overlook of the Balcony House.

  • After your short hike, drive out of the Cliff Palace loop toward the park exit. Along the way, there are two more recommended stops if you’re not already exhausted. The first is Cedar Tree Tower, followed by the Far View Sites.

Overall recommendations: Arrive early. Plan to drive and stop and drive and stop some more. Arrive with the understanding that without a scheduled tour you will be far apart from these cliff dwellings, viewing them across the distance of a canyon. Cell phone photography will be tough. Other than that, make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and come with an appreciation and respect for a way of life that’s long gone. Happy exploring!

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