Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the southwestern corner of the state of Colorado. The park is world-renowned for the incredibly well-preserved cliff dwellings it protects. Indeed, they are some of the most interesting archaeological sites in North America. Mesa Verde is also notable for its desert landscape of tall mesas and steep canyons.



"Anasazi" or "Ancestral Puebloans"?

For decades, the people that once lived in these dwellings have generally been referred to as the "Anasazi." However, in recent years there has been an effort to stop referring to them as "Anasazi", as it is believed the term translates to "ancient enemy" or "enemy ancestor." Instead, the term "Ancestral Puebloans" is favored, and is the term you will see on most park displays and information signs. This is a fairly recent change though, so there is still a fair amount of confusion regarding the two terms.

The name of the park is Spanish for "green table", referring to the vegetation found at the tops of the plateaus in this area. The Ancestral Puebloans chose Mesa Verde as their settlement 1,400 years ago, establishing small pithouses (large holes in the ground with a wooden roof overhead) on the mesa tops. Back then they were more nomadic, and hunted game with spears and were skilled basketmakers. Over time they began to farm the mesa tops, learned how to create pottery, and fashioned bows and arrows instead of spears.

As the population grew, the Ancestral Puebloans moved from pithouses to pole-and-adobe houses built above ground. The pithouses became kivas (ceremonial rooms) as the mesa top villages became larger and more complex. Stone masonry replaced the poles and mud of earlier houses, as villages rose two or three stories high, became more compact, and had many rooms. During this time, pottery replaced baskets as a more desired craft.

Around the year 1200, the Ancestral Puebloans began to move under overhangs found in the cliffs of the canyons. Here, they built cities with multi-storied structures that housed 100-400 people. However, the Ancestral Puebloans only used these incredible constructions for less than 100 years. By the year 1300, they had left the area for reasons unknown, traveling south into New Mexico and Arizona.


About 100 million years ago, Mesa Verde and the surrounding area were covered by a shallow sea, and sand deposits cemented into the sandstone layers that make up much of the park's geology. As the sea withdrew to the south, uplift in the area created the high plateau that is Mesa Verde. Over time, small streams have cut channels into the plateau, creating steep canyons which separate the individual mesas. Traveling south, the mesa extends like fingers into the desert.

From the park entrance in Montezuma Valley, the elevation climbs steeply to the rim of the flat mesa top. Elevations in the park range from about 6,100 feet (1,860 meters) to about 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) above sea level.

After a spring storm, melted snow drips from the cliff tops at Spruce Tree House and refreezes on the trees below. Spruce Tree House is the only cliff dwelling in the park open year round.

Flora and fauna

There is a lot of wildlife in the park. Mule deer are a common sight, as are wild turkeys since the park service reintroduced them. You might also see squirrels, skunks, or an occasional black bear around the campground. Other mammals seen in the park include coyote, gray fox, mountain lion, black bear, elk, marmot, porcupines, and wild horses. There is also a wide variety of birds in the park (Mesa Verde even has a bird checklist). In the canyons you could find warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, jays, hawks, chickadees, titmice, and other species. Hawks, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons can be seen on the rim of the mesa along the Montezuma Valley.

Mesa Verde is in the Upper Sonoran Life Zone, which is characterized by semi-arid climate, moderately high altitude, and pinyon-juniper forests. Big sagebrush, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine are quite common. Gambel oak is in abundance around the Morefield Campground.

Watch for poison ivy, particularly around Morefield Campground and in the canyons. Incidentally, if you've never seen poison ivy in the wild, the park's brochure for the Petroglyph Point trail—see below under "Do"—helpfully points out a place along the trail where it grows perennially, so that you can see what it's like. Look but don't touch!


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°F) 40 43 50 58 69 80 85 82 75 62 49 40
Nightly lows (°F) 20 23 29 34 43 51 57 56 49 38 28 20
Precipitation (in) 1.8 1.6 1.7 1.3 1.0 0.5 1.6 2.3 1.9 1.7 1.6 1.5

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Mesa Verde is a four-season park, with a dry high-desert climate. Summer can get hot, with temperatures sometimes reaching into the 90s, (so drink plenty of water), but the evenings are quite cool (summer lows average in the 50s). Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. Winters are rather mild (with average temperatures in 40s), but Mesa Verde is at a high elevation so snow can happen as early as October and as late as May.


The major attractions in the park can be seen in just a half day, while longer visits will allow time to explore some of the less busy ruins and to take time to visit rock writings.

Mesa Verde is something of a seasonal park. While it is open year round, to get the true experience it is best to visit when the park is fully open, from April through October. The only places open year-round are at the central part of Chapin Mesa: the museum, the Spruce Tree Terrace restaurant and Spruce Tree House. Keep in mind that the drive from the park entrance to the top of the mesa is quite long and steep and, even during the summer months, can be a bit of a treacherous drive as there aren't always guard rails. It may be too daunting during the winter for many visitors.

Direct access to the main archaeological sights is only available on Park Ranger-guided tours. Tickets must be purchased at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Otherwise, plan on viewing the sights from overlooks.

Get in

By car

Driving is just about the only way to get to Mesa Verde. The entrance to the park is 9 miles east of Cortez and 35 miles west of Durango on US Highway 160 (formerly US Highway 666). Keep in mind that the road into the park is steep, narrow, and winding, so make sure your car is in good shape, that ot has plenty of gas, and that its brakes are in property working order. A gas station in the park is located at the Morefield Campground, which is still several miles from the top.

By plane

Cortez has a small airport with daily flights to Denver on Great Lakes Airlines. Durango has a larger airport with daily flights to Denver on United Express, and to Dallas/Fort Worth and Phoenix on American Eagle. Rental car outlets are available at both airports.


A 7-day entry pass to the park costs $10 per private vehicle fall-spring, and $15 per vehicle during the summer months. Motorcyclists and individuals on non-commercial buses pay $5 per person fall-spring and $8 per person during the summer. An annual pass, just for Mesa Verde, is available for $30.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Mesa Verde National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

Ranger-led tours of the Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House areas cost $3 per person per tour.

In addition, the concession-management company Aramark, which also operates the restaurants and inn in the park, offers considerably pricier -- in the $40 per person range -- guided bus tours of the park that take visitors around to all the major sites while offering history and commentary.

Get around

There are four main areas of the park: Morefield Campground is just inside the park, 4 miles from the entrance. Another 11 miles in is Far View, where you can drive another 6 miles to Chapin Mesa or turn right and drive 12 miles to get to Wetherill Mesa.

For the most part you will need private transportation in order to move throughout the park. The only public transit available is on Wetherill Mesa, where a tram services the area that is otherwise inaccessible to automobiles. The roads are steep, narrow, and winding, so make sure your car is in good shape and has plenty of gas. You can get gasoline at the Morefield Campground store. Watch out for rocks that may have fallen on to the road and take it slow. Be courteous to other drivers and stick to your side of the road. Keep in mind that the Park Rangers enforce safe driving on this road and will not hesitate to hand out tickets for unsafe driving.

Trailers and towed vehicles are not permitted beyond Morefield Campground. If you're not camping, you can park these vehicles in the parking lot located near the entrance station. The road to Wetherill Mesa (open Memorial Day to Labor Day) has sharp curves and steep grades, so vehicles on this road are restricted to less than 8,000 pounds and 25-feet in length.


Spruce Tree House

Chapin Mesa sights

Sun Temple

Wetherill Mesa sights

Wetherill Mesa is only open seasonally. The Wetherill Mesa road opens at 9AM and closes to incoming traffic at 4:30PM every day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. At the end of the road is the   Wetherill Mesa Kiosk, 12 miles from Far View. You cannot drive beyond the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk; instead, there is a special tram service which takes you to a few sites on Wetherill Mesa. The tram departs from the kiosk every half-hour on the half hour from 10AM-5PM, making stops at the Long House trail (accessible only by guided tour), the Badger House Trail, and the   Kodak House Overlook and   Long House Overlook. The Kodak House is a series of structures built between crevices in the horseshoe shaped cliff-side. There are two levels of structures which reach an elevation of approximately 75 feet high.


Ranger guided tours

Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House are some of Mesa Verde's greatest and most outstanding cliff dwellings. Guided tours are the only way to get up-close with them. Tickets cost $4 per person, per tour, and must be purchased at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. The one exception is in the fall, after the Visitor Center has closed, when tours of Cliff Palace must be purchased at the Chapin Mesa Museum. Due to the popularity of the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours, visitors may be limited to only one of these two tours per day in summer (Long House can be visited on the same day, however). Try to arrive early for ranger-guided tours as they tend to fill up quickly, particularly in summer. By mid-morning you should be prepared for at least an hour long wait for a place in a tour group. Be forewarned that each tour does involve traversing uneven stairways and tall wooden ladders. While the overall distance you travel on the hiking tour isn’t very far, the nature of the trail, high altitude, and extreme temperatures all combine to make the hike a little grueling for the average couch potato.

Manos and metates -- mortar stones the Ancestral Puebloans used to grind maize into flour.

Guided bus tours

Aramark operates half-day bus tours of Mesa Verde spring through fall. National Park Service Rangers provide information on short trails, overlooks, and a tour of Cliff Palace. Tickets may be purchased for $38-48 (adults) at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Far View Lodge and Terrace, or the Morefield Campground Village. Half-day tours begin at the Far View Lodge at 8:00am and 1:30pm.

Hiking trails

Mesa Verde offers several designated hiking trails. Backcountry hiking or overnight backpacking is not allowed, so as to protect the natural and archeological sites in the park. All the trails (except Soda Canyon Overlook and Knife Edge) are strenuous and involve steep elevation changes. Some trails offer little shade, and it can get pretty hot in the summer, so be sure to take along lots of water.

Morefield Campground trails:

Preserved through the centuries, a rare pictograph and red paint decorate an Ancestral Puebloan dwelling.

Chapin Mesa trails:

Wetherill Mesa trails:


The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and the Chapin Mesa Museum have a bookstore, and gift shops are located in the Spruce Tree Terrance (near the museum) and the Far View Lodge. Buying postcards of the sites will save you the hassle of trying to get perfect shots of the sites with nobody else in them and allow you to focus on getting great photos of you having fun. There are also Native Americans in the parks that sell their arts and crafts. Take a look if Southwestern jewelry and art interest you.

For groceries, camping supplies, and gasoline, the camp store at the Morefield Campground is the only place in the park. They also have a laundromat.


A pine pole ladder sticks out of the top of a kiva, or place of meeting and worship. In the background, keyhole-shaped doors lead to multilevel dwellings.

Food is available at four locations in the park:


You can purchase soft drinks, juices, and drinking water at any of the restaurants and cafes around the park, including at Chapin Mesa, Far View, the Morefield Campground store, and the ranger station on Wetherill Mesa. There is an espresso bar at the Far View Terrace & Marketplace.

For alcohol, there's just about only one place in Mesa Verde where you can get it, and that's at The Metate Room restaurant in the Far View Lodge, which offers an extensive wine list.



Lodging is also available in the nearby towns of Cortez, Dolores, and Mancos and farther away in Durango.



Backcountry camping or overnight backpacking is not allowed in Mesa Verde to protect the scenic and archaeological sights in the park.

Stay safe

The quality of the Ancestral Puebloan's stonework varied greatly from building to building.

Visits to cliff dwellings can be strenuous; many require climbing uneven steps and ladders, involve large elevation changes, or are near steep cliffs. Almost all of the trails in Mesa Verde are difficult. It can get very hot in the summer, and even in the winter it can be quite warm, so drink lots of water and put on the sunscreen.

Be careful while driving, as the roads are filled with sharp curves and often fallen rocks. Make sure your car is in good shape, especially your brakes, and make sure there's plenty of gas in the tank, as there is only one gas station in this large park, and that's at Morefield Campground near the base of the mountaint. Many portions of the roads are up against cliffs, so keep an eye out for rocks that may have fallen onto the road.

To protect the fragile archaeological sights in the park, don't sit, stand, lean, or climb upon anything at the sights (that includes ancient walls, structures, ruins, etc.).

For current and constantly updated park information, you can tune your radio to 1610AM.

Go next

Routes through Mesa Verde National Park

Four Corners Cortez  W  E  Mancos Durango

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