A few miles after Cortez is Mesa Top Ruins Road. It’s aptly named, ascending on curves and the occasional switchback until reaching the rim.
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park preserves hundreds of cliff dwellings and nearly 5,000 archaeological sites.
For seven hundred years, the area was the home of the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples and the park celebrates their heritage. Its unique history made it the first of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA. It covers more than eighty square miles. Its most famous sites are Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House.
Mesa Verde is one of the only National Parks dedicated to preserving something built by humans; all but Mesa Verde and Gateway Arch National Parks focus on protecting the natural environment.
Related: National Parks Checklist and tips for visiting
This park is unique because the culture that inhabited this area did so for seven hundred years, from around 550 to the late 1270s.
What’s also noteworthy is that those cliff dwellings weren’t even built until the late 1190s. They were occupied for less than a hundred years before the people who built them headed south to what is now Arizona and New Mexico.
Why did they build their homes in caves on the side of a mountain? Why did they leave? No one knows.
Your first stop should be the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. It’s located at the park entrance and you can learn some basic information before driving that winding road.
Once you’re in the park, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road, and be sure to download the audio tour first. There are pull-offs with short paved trails providing views of twelve sites.
For longer hikes, the Petroglyph Point Trail is a strenuous 2.4 miles roundtrip. Spruce Canyon Trail is also 2.4 miles, and both are accessed from the Spruce Tree House Overlook.
If you’re looking for a less adventurous walk, the Knife Edge Trail picks up at Morefield Campground is an easy two miles.
While the highlight of Mesa Verde is the architectural sites, the park is also naturally stunning, several small canyons cutting through the sandstone and shale.
Spruce Tree House, which is a short hike from Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and normally open, was closed due to falling rocks, but you can see it from an overlook behind the museum.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
Tips for visiting Mesa Verde National Park:
- Once you enter the park, it’s a 45-minute drive on a narrow, winding road before you can see your first cliff dwelling.
- Self-guided tours are available for some of the cliff dwellings, but many require tour tickets.
- Tours begin in May, making summer and fall the best times to visit to see the most you can of the park.
- There is no backcountry hiking in Mesa Verde National Park; you must stay on designated trails.
Mesa Verde National Park Fees:
Park Entrance Fee for Private Vehicles
- January 2 – April 30; November 1 – December 31: $20
- May 1 – October 31: $30
Park Entrance Fee for Motorcycles
January 2 – April 30; November 1 – December 31: $15
May 1 – October 31: $25
Park Entrance Fee for Each Bicyclist and Individual on Non-Commercial Buses
January 2 – April 30; November 1 – December 31: $10 per person
May 1 – October 31: $15 per person
The fee is good for entrance to Mesa Verde National Park for up to 7 days.
As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the America the Beautiful Series Passes.
Where is Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southern Colorado, about eleven miles from Cortez.
Where to stay near Mesa Verde National Park?
Find hotels near Mesa Verde here: