I found Mesa Verde National Park, located in the remote southwestern corner of Colorado, to be utterly fascinating, uniquely beautiful and completely FRUSTRATING! It is perhaps the most confusing park in the entire National Park system to figure out how to navigate before you arrive and this confusion can continue throughout your visit.
There are tour companies not associated with Mesa Verde that will take care of the details, show you around, and inform you about the history of this amazing manmade wonder, but they won’t show you everything. In fact, I wouldn’t say they show you a whole lot. For what they are, these companies seem to do a fairly good job though. They hire locals to really give you a sense of the culture that permeates throughout this place.
However, if you are like me and you like to visit a place and take it in at your own pace, rather than being shuttled along on a massive tour bus, than this really isn’t going to be your speed. Plus, many of the tours (locations) within the tour aren’t even done by the tour company, but are really given by the Mesa Verde park rangers who cover the history of this place so the tour companies information can be redundant. This is especially true if you are the type of person who likes to read the signs posted at the sites. I found that the tour company just regurgitated the information found on these signs. So with that I hope this guide helps you understand not only what to see during your visit, but really how to navigate the park’s one-of-a-kind (frustrating) system.
Getting to the Cliff Dwellings
First off, the “cliff dwellings” were constructed by the ancient Pueblo Indians (Native Americans). No one knows for certain why they chose to construct their homes in the cliffs. They didn’t carve their homes into the cliffs, but rather took advantage of the natural erosion that created nooks in the landscape and built from there. Within the Mesa Verde’s park boundary there are many other examples of Pueblo ruins located on top of the mesas. Most of these are older than the cliff dwellings and the ones that are open to the public can be explored without a guide.
This park is massive, but the majority of the cliff dwellings that can be toured are clustered together in two sections of the park known as the Chapin Mesa and the Wetherill Mesa. They are as far away from the entrance and the visitor center as you can get. It is about an hour’s drive to either from the entrance and they are a 45 minute drive apart. This is important for acquiring the “tickets” to see these sites because if you aren’t careful you can find yourself driving the hour-long drive from the gate to the back of the park where these ruins are located, only to have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back to the nearest place that actually sells the tickets.
The National Parks Service has taken on the challenge of preserving these amazing sites, while still giving access to the public. This is why, with the exception of the “Step House,” you must acquire a ticket to go on a ranger guided tour if you wish to actually walk through the cliff dwellings and not just see them from the overlooks above. The tickets are a very reasonable $5/person for each of the sites. I personally appreciate this approach as far too many places have been vandalized by the degenerates of our populace and places like this deserve to be well protected for future generations.
However, I found getting the actual tickets for these tours to be the most confusing, challenging and downright frustrating part of our visit. Of course the number of people the park allows on each tour and the amount of tours they give each day is limited, although they do try to provide tours throughout the day by running them back to back at the most popular sites. Oh, and by the way, these sites are also open seasonally, usually mid-May to mid-October, so don’t try to go in the middle of winter. You can find the exact seasonal hours on the park’s website here: https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hours.htm.
So you are probably asking, “Where can I get my tour tickets for these amazing sites!?!? Is there a cool app?” Nope… “An easy to use website?” No… “A slick kiosk system?” NO! What you have to do is go in person to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (an hour’s drive from the dwellings), Morefield Ranger Station (a 45 minute drive from the dwellings, adjacent to the Morefield Campgrounds), or the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez, Colorado (about an hour and 15 minute drive from the dwellings). They will only sell you the tickets for the two following days or if they have any left the day of. They will also only sell you one ticket for each person who is actually on site to pick up the tickets. In other words don’t leave anyone at the campsite, because everyone has to be present to get a ticket. Again they do have limited numbers, so I recommend purchasing them at least the day before you intend to go if not two days prior.
You will need to know what time you want the tickets for and keep in mind the distance between the locations if you wish to do multiple tours on the same day. For instance, it is about a 45 minute drive from the Chapin Mesa where Balcony House and Cliff Palace are located to the Wetherill Mesa area with Long House.
Also keep in mind the operating hours of each of the “ticket sales” locations. Plan to roll in to the park at 9pm and pick up tickets on your way to the campsite? Not going to happen. All of the ticket sales locations are shut down by 8:30pm. Each location actually closes at different times. Go to this page to see those seasonal hours: https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/tour_tickets.htm.
But wait! There are a few exceptions, what they call the “special experiences,” and they seem to change annually. For these tours you actually do have to apply well in advanced to get a ticket. In 2017, these include sunrise tours, star tours, and a bike tour of some of the areas on the normal ticketed system, as well as additional tours of the lesser known Oak Tree House, Mug House, and Yucca House. These tours are given on very specific dates so plan ahead. You can check out the details for those tours here: https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/backcountry_hikes.htm.
I highly recommend the Morefield Campground located in the middle of Mesa Verde National Park. This campground is best situated for exploring the park and you can get your tickets at the ranger station located adjacent to the campground (during open hours of course). There are perhaps cheaper camping options outside of the park or hotels in Cortez, Colorado, but these options would add at least an extra hour of driving to your day. By the way, the Morefield Campground is massive. Seriously, I was told that the campground when full is the second largest “town” in the county. Even at this size the campground fills up quickly, so it is best to plan ahead and have a reservation before you arrive. You can get that reservation here: http://www.visitmesaverde.com/lodging-camping/morefield-campground/.
When to Go
Unfortunately Mid-May to Mid-October are the only times you can tour everything. It is also a high desert and most of this time tends to be a bit hot. I would recommend May, early June, September, or early October.
Mesa Verde Archeological Sites
According to the national park service, there are over 4,700 archeological sites in the park. Below are the few that are open to the public for exploration on your own or with a required guide. There are many others that can be seen from the cliffs, but not explored (with or without a guide).
- Chapin Mesa Location:
- Balcony House: Ticket needed
- Cliff Palace: Ticket needed
- Spruce Tree House: Explore on your own, but temporarily closed due to rock slide concerns.
- Wetherill Mesa Location:
- Long House: Ticket needed
- Step House: Explore on your own
Mesa Top Dwellings:
Chapin Mesa Location:
- Sun Temple: Explore on your own
- Far View Sites Complex: Explore on your own
- Cedar Tree Tower: Explore on your own
- Wetherill Mesa Location:
- Badger House Community: Explore on your own
- Camping/Accommodation: Get reservations months in advance.
- Speciality Tours: Get reservations months in advance.
- Normal Tours: Get tickets one to two days prior at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Morefield Ranger Station, or Colorado Welcome Center (in Cortez).
Carry lots of water.
- Keep your eyes open for wildlife! We saw snakes, birds of prey, deer, horses, and coyotes.
- Go hiking! (This landscape is awesome so while the ruins are the highlight get out on a trail and do some hiking. I recommend the 2.4 mile Petroglyph Point Loop Trail.)
- Have a blast, as this is one of the most unique places on the planet.