View from the Long House In Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park (Ultimate Guide for 2023)

👉 Jump to: Visit Mesa Verde National Park | Things to Do | Where to Stay | History | Tips | FAQ

I’m a well-traveled Colorado local who can answer all your questions about visiting Mesa Verde National Park! 

This ultimate guide overviews transportation, costs, and can’t-miss sights at Mesa Verde National Park. I also share info about the park’s history, places to stay, and other tips to help you feel confident and prepared for one of Colorado’s best national parks!

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How to Visit Mesa Verde National Park

Getting to Mesa Verde National Park

Overlooking view of the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace is one of the most famous structures in the park

Below, I’ve listed every step to get to this southwestern Colorado national park. You will want a car to get around Mesa Verde National Park once you’re there. There are no park shuttles, and sites are spread over a wide distance. 

✈️ Fly Cortez Municipal Airport is the nearest airport to Mesa Verde National Park. A small, local airline provides service to and from Denver and Phoenix. The Durango-La Plata County Airport is about an hour’s drive from the park but has many more options for flights. You’ll need a car to get from either airport to the national park. 

🚗 Drive – You can rent a car at either the Cortez or Durango airports to drive to the park. You can also rent a car at Denver International Airport or in downtown Denver if planning a Colorado road trip! It will take you about 6 ½ hours to get to the park. 

The Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico is about 4 hours and 15 minutes from the park and you can rent a car at that airport as well.

🚌 Bus – There is a bus terminal in Durango, but you will need to rent a car in town and drive the remaining 35 miles to Mesa Verde.

Important Visiting Info for Mesa Verde National Park

The Mesa Verde Visitor Center building from the outside
Start at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center for history and info to help understand your visit (photo: Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock)

🎟️ Entrance – You will need to buy a private vehicle pass to enter Mesa Verde National Park. A 7-day vehicle pass is $30 from May 1 – Oct. 22. It’s $20 from Jan. 2 – April 30 and Oct. 23 – Dec. 31. 

An annual pass for just Mesa Verde National Park is $55. Consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass for $79.99 if you plan to visit several national parks in a year. This grants access to all US national parks

There are also several free days in 2023, including January 16, April 22, August 4, September 23, and November 11. 4th graders can get a free, year-long pass their families can use as well. 

🕐 Park Hours – Mesa Verde National Park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

🚻 Facility Hours – The Visitor and Research Center is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center summer hours are 8:30 am to 6:00 pm every day from May 28 – Aug. 12. Winter hours are 8:30 am to 4:00 pm every day from Aug. 13 – Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 – May 27.

The Mesa Verde Museum is open May 28 – Aug. 12 from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm every day. Winter hours are 8:30 am – 4:00 pm from Aug. 13 – Dec. 31 and May 11 – May 27. 

🅿️ Parking – There is ample free parking throughout the park. There are large lots at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Far View Terrace Cafe, and Camp Store. 

There are also many parking lots near overlooks and points of interest. You’ll find places to pull over along scenic drives so you can stop to look at sites. Parking can get crowded in busy months — the earlier you start, the better luck you’ll have finding a spot. 

🏞️ WebsiteNational Park Service – Mesa Verde National Park

📍 Google MapsMesa Verde National Park, 35853 Mesa Verde Park, Mancos, CO 81330

🏠 Visitor Center – There is a Visitor and Research Center and museum near the park entrance. You’ll want to stop here early in your trip. The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center will help you to plan where you want to go. It will also give you lots of background so you can understand what you’re seeing as you explore the park. 

☎️ Phone – (970) 529-4465

🧑‍🤝‍🧑 Tours  – Try a half-day tour from Durango to learn about the history of the park without having to worry about driving and parking! Your guide will also arrange any cliff-dwelling tours that are allowed by the park. You need to make a reservation if you want to arrange your own cliff-dwelling tour. 

Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park

Sightseeing Drives in Mesa Verde

View during a drive near Mesa Verde National Park
Drive to various archaeological sites and natural landscapes

Driving is the most effective way to see the park! Several loop roads take you by cliff dwellings and other points of interest throughout Mesa Verde. 

  • 🚗 Mesa Top Loop Road: A 6-mile drive with lots of stops. You can walk short, paved trails to see archaeological sites including pithouses and cliff dwellings. You’ll also view Cliff Palace from several vantage points. You can download an audio tour to follow as you drive. Open 8 am – sunset.
  • 🛣️ Cliff Palace Loop: Drive this loop which is also 6 miles long. It features stops to see Cliff Palace, House of Many Windows, Hemenway House, and Balcony House. 
  • 🚙 Long House Loop: Head to Wetherill Mesa on this 12-mile winding road. You’ll follow a fire trail and stops along the way share info on geology and forest fires. You can purchase tickets for a 2-hour tour of Long House at the Mesa Verde visitor center. Vehicles must be 25 feet or less. 

Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde

Hiking is a great way to spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park! You’ll find trails to scenic overlooks and ancient petroglyphs. You can even hike to a series of dams built by Ancestral Pueblo farmers to help them thrive in the area. 

  • 🏞️ Knife Edge Trail: An easy 2-mile trail with almost no elevation gain. This trail follows part of the historic park road that was constructed in 1914. It’s a popular spot to watch the sunset. 
  • 🐻 Prater Ridge Trail: This is a strenuous trail that covers 7.8 miles and 675 feet of elevation gain. That elevation gain results in beautiful views of the Montezuma Valley. 
  • 🥾 Petroglyph Point Trail: A strenuous 2.4-mile trail that’s best hiked counter-clockwise. It’s not far or steep, but there are drop offs. You’ll also need to squeeze between boulders and hike stone stairs to get to the petroglyph panel. You’ll then need to scramble up rocks before completing the loop back. 
  • 🧑‍🌾 Farming Terrace Trail: This is an easy, half-mile hike that heads past some check dams built by the Ancestral Pueblo people. 
  • 🏠 Step House: This moderate hike is only a mile. Start at the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk and head into Long Canyon and through Step House. The trail is only open when a National Park Service ranger is present. Be sure to check before making the long drive out to Wetherill Mesa.

Cliff Dwelling Tours

View of the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling in Colorado
You can see Spruce Tree House and many cliff dwellings up close with a ranger

You can get down into several of the cliff dwellings on National Park Service ranger-led tours in the park. You need to make a reservation ahead of time, and tickets range from $8 – $25. You can also book a tour through Viator, and they’ll handle all of the logistics for you! 

Cliff dwelling tours are available only during the summer months.

  • 🥾 Cliff Palace: Get a tour of the largest cliff dwelling in North America! Cliff Palace was built between 1190 and 1280 CE and housed more than 100 people. 
  • 🏠 Balcony House: Climb several ladders up the face of a cliff, crawl through a tunnel on hands and knees, and see passages people used almost 1,000 years ago. Balcony House is one of the most challenging tours in the park! 
  • 🥾 Square Tower House: Explore the tallest standing structure in the park. Square Tower House has an intact kiva roof with original plaster and paint. This is a strenuous tour with ladders, steep drop offs, and climbs over boulders.

Camping in Mesa Verde

The author's son preparing a breakfast at Morefield Campground
My boy making me a tasty breakfast at Morefield Campground

Morefield Campground is one of the best places to camp in Colorado!

There’s a camp store nearby, along with places to buy firewood and gas. There are also complementary showers and a coin-operated laundromat. You can even stop in at the restaurant for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast — unless you have a personal chef like me! 

Electric hookups are available. The campground is open from May – Oct, although spring and fall have limited amenities. 

Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park

There are several nearby options if you’d rather sleep in an actual bed than camp. Find a variety of places to stay in Durango and Cortez, both easily accessible from the park. 


Blue sky over the Alkali Canyon near Cortez, Colorado
Alkali Canyon near Cortez is beautiful in the fall

Cortez is a southwestern Colorado town just about a 15-minute drive from Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a small town, but there are options for hotels, restaurants, and ice cream after a day at the park!

Here are the best places to stay in Cortez for visiting Mesa Verde:

  • 🏨 Hampton Inn Mesa Verde/Cortez: The Hampton Inn has an indoor pool and fitness center. Your stay also includes a free continental breakfast in the morning. 
  • 📺 Retro Inn: The Retro Inn is a fun, themed motel with classic 1950s-styled rooms. Its continental breakfast includes yogurt and pastries, as well as tamales and burritos.
  • 🌟 Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez: The Holiday Inn has an indoor pool and fitness center. You also get a continental American breakfast in the morning. The hotel is close to the Cortez Municipal Airport. 


Clear blue sky over the Strater Hotel building in Colorado
The Strater Hotel is a historic building in downtown Durango (photo: WorldPictures / Shutterstock)

Durango is a much bigger town than Cortez — in fact, it’s the biggest town in southwestern Colorado. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Mesa Verde National Park. You might want to stay extra days to explore the many things to do in Durango after you’re done at Mesa Verde. 

Here are the best places to stay in Durango for visiting Mesa Verde:

  • 🏨 The Strater Hotel: The Strater Hotel is within walking distance of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the best train rides in Colorado. You’ll also be close to other downtown Durango attractions. There is a hotel bar and restaurant. There’s also a hot tub and evening entertainment. 
  • 😴 Sleep Inn: The Sleep Inn is a reliably clean hotel with standard but roomy accommodations. There is a fitness center at the hotel, and a continental breakfast is included. 
  • 🍎 Apple Orchard Inn: This B&B has a beautiful garden and barbecue guests can use. You’ll get a great view of the surrounding mountains. Enjoy a full English/Irish breakfast each morning, with vegetarian and vegan options available.

History of Mesa Verde National Park

View of a pithouse along the Mesa Top Loop Road in Colorado
A pithouse along the Mesa Top Loop Road

First Inhabitants

550 AD – The first people settled in Mesa Verde, constructing pit houses. They are known as the Basketmakers. This begins a transition from a nomadic life to a more settled way of life with farming and permanent dwellings. 

Pueblo People

Mid-700s – People begin grouping their dwellings together, building houses one against the other in rows. They become known as the Pueblo people, which means “village dwellers.”

The Classic Period

1100-1300 AD – The population of Pueblo people may have been in the thousands. They lived mostly in compact villages with many rooms. In about 1200 AD, people began to move back into the cliff alcoves and construct the cliff dwellings we can see today. 

The Migration

1300 AD – Mesa Verde is deserted after the Ancestral Pueblo people migrate. Theories for the migration include drought or social and political problems, but no one knows for certain. The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in their famous cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. 

Dwellings Discovered

1870s-1880s – Several cliff dwellings are discovered by people exploring Colorado. 

1888 – The Weatherill brothers discover the Cliff Palace while tracking livestock in the area. 

1889 – Virginia McClurg begins the fight to designate the area as a national park. 


1906 – President Roosevelt signs legislation creating Mesa Verde National Park to “preserve the works of man.”

1908 – Work begins to stabilize buildings and preserve archaeological sites. Preservation work continues to the present day.

1978 – Mesa Verde National Park is designated a World Heritage Site — one of eight, originally — by the United Nations.

Tips for Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

The Square Tower House cliff dwelling in Colorado
Square Tower House, the tallest archaeological site in the park

You’ll Want a Car

You’ll want a car to get to Mesa Verde National Park, and to explore while you’re there. Places of interest in the park are very spread out, and no park shuttles are available. You can rent a car in Cortez or Durango if you’re not driving your own. 

Don’t Pass Up The Visitor Center

Start your visit at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center just past the park entrance to get a great overview of the park. You’ll learn about the history of the cliff dwellings and the Ancestral Pueblo people. Stopping here first will help you to understand what you’re seeing throughout the park. 

Go Early

Get an early start in the morning to avoid both heat and crowds, especially in summer. You might also consider visiting after Labor Day or before Memorial Day if your schedule is flexible. In my opinion, the shoulder seasons are the best time to visit Colorado and its attractions like Mesa Verde. 

Book a Cliff Dwelling Tour

The best way to experience these unique dwellings is on a tour! You can see the dwellings on scenic drives and hikes to outlooks, but it’s worth booking an up-close ranger-led tour via Viator or the park service.

Pack Water and Snacks

Driving through the park and stopping at sites will likely take longer than you think. There are lots of stops and the time adds up as each one involves a little walking. Bring water and food along so you don’t have to rush or abandon your drive to find everyone some lunch. 

FAQs About Mesa Verde National Park

How long does it take to drive through Mesa Verde National Park?

It takes at least 2 hours to drive through Mesa Verde National Park. The road leading into the park is slow and winding, and you may encounter traffic or road work. Plan on much more time if you want to stop at sights and read informational signs. This could make the journey 4-5 hours. 

Can you visit the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde?

You can visit the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. You will need to book a ranger-led tour via Viator or the national park service. Visitors can’t walk through cliff dwellings on their own. 

What is special about Mesa Verde National Park?

The cliff dwellings are what is special about Mesa Verde National Park. The park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of these fascinating dwellings. You can see the cliff homes by hiking, driving to many overlooks, or taking a cliff dwelling tour.


Hopefully, this guide has answered all your questions about visiting Mesa Verde National Park! It’s truly one of the most unique things to do in Colorado.  

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