As part of our mission to visit all of the national parks, we had to stop at Mesa Verde National Park while in Southwest Colorado! In this guide, we’re sharing tips for taking a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park.

About Mesa Verde National Park

If you are interested in historic cliff dwellings and amazing views, this is the nationaal park for you! The Ancestral Pueblo people built these cliff dwellings over 700 years ago.

Mesa Verde is a sacred and spiritual place with an important history. Please be mindful of this and be respectful of the park as well as fellow visitors while you are here.

Getting There

The road to get into Mesa Verde National Park is paved and quite easy. When you pull into the park, you will see the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center on the left hand side. This is before the gate, so you can access the center without paying the park fee.

It is a beautiful building! There are restrooms (including family restrooms) right outside of the visitor center. Inside, there is information about the park as well as a gift shop. There is also an information desk where you can get your questions answered before your journey.

When we visited Mesa Verde, the Visitor Center’s hours were 8:30am-4pm, but the bathrooms were unlocked when we arrived at 8am. There are plenty of parking spots in the lot.

Know before you go
Book tickets ahead of time

Something important to know about Mesa Verde is that if you want to see the cliff dwellings up close, you are required to book a ranger-guided tour through the rec.gov website. 

Book your tour tickets ahead of time! We saw many disappointed people in the Visitor Center who did not know you needed to book ahead of time to see the cliff dwellings. Tickets for the tours are available at 8am 14 days prior to your desired tour date. These tickets go FAST, so make sure you plan to be on the website a little before 8am to get your desired tour date and time.

We did not do this and wish we would have. But thankfully, sometimes tickets become available if you periodically check the rec.gov website or app. This is how Kate got a ticket for the Balcony House tour a few days before we visited!

Give yourself enough driving time

From the Visitor Center, it can take 45 minutes to an hour to get to the cliff dwelling tour spot. Make sure you have enough gas in your vehicle, and give yourself plenty of travel time to get to the tour on time. Your tour group will leave without you if you are late, and you will not be refunded.

cliff dwelling tours

As of June 2023, there are three different tours to choose from when you visit the park. You must show your ticket to be able to go on the tour, so we recommend either printing it or screenshot it/download it onto your phone ahead of time (we had no cell service up there).

Option 1: Balcony house

Duration: 60 minutes
Distance: 0.25 miles
Effort: Difficult (Kate would personally rate this as fairly easy, but the ladders and crawl spaces could be tricky for some people)
Cost: $8 per ticket
Dates: This tour is only available May 28 – October 21st, 2023.

This is the tour Kate did, and it is the only tour we can speak to from first-hand experience. This tour is advertised as the most “adventurous” tour because it involves climbing a 32’ ladder (not recommended for those afraid of heights), crawling through a tight 12’ tunnel, climbing an additional 12’ ladder, and hiking on an uneven open cliff face with chains to hold onto on both sides. We could see this tour being difficult for anyone who is afraid of heights, small spaces, has poor balance, or has other medical issues which would make this tour difficult.

However, if you’re up for the adventure, the tour was interesting and worth both the time and the cost! You get to see the cliff dwellings up-close and hear more about the history from the ranger leading the tour. You can also ask the ranger questions and take pictures (no tripods allowed). The tour is advertised as an hour, but Kate’s tour took 1.5 hours, so keep this in mind if you’re booking back-to-back tours.

Option 2: Cliff palace

Duration: 30 minutes
Distance: 0.25 miles
Effort: Moderate
Cost: $8 per ticket
Dates: This tour is only available May 28 – October 21st, 2023.

Although there were no tickets available for this tour, this is the one we would highly recommend booking a ticket for if you have the option! It is the one we would have wanted to do if we could only do 1 tour and had the choice. Here, you get to see the classic cliff dwellings that you picture when you think of Mesa Verde National Park.

There is less of an “adventure” aspect to this tour, but you still descend uneven stone steps and climb 4 ladders with an elevation change of 100 feet.

Option 3: Square tower house

Duration: 90 minutes
Distance: 1 mile
Effort: Difficult
Cost: $25 per ticket
Dates: This tour is only available June 1 – October 21st, 2023.

If you have the time and the extra money for this tour, it looks like it is worth it. This tour features the tallest standing structure in the park and is one of the most impressive cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde. This tour is not as “popular” or as visited as the others since tours are limited to 10 people. Plus, it is longer and costs more than the other tours. However, it seems like it would be a unique (and somewhat rare) opportunity if there are tickets available for your desired date.

What else to do in the park

For our day in the park, we also stopped at some of the scenic pull-offs to take photos on the road up. We highly recommend allotting yourself enough time to be able to enjoy these!

On our way back down, we stopped at the gift shop and cafe at Mesa Verde. Instead of purchasing the (overpriced) food, we recommend packing lunches and enjoying a picnic! We also bought some postcards here since the gift shop at the Visitor Center was closed when we went there that morning.

Are dogs allowed in mesa verde?

According to the Mesa Verde National Park website, pets are allowed on…

  • Paved roads, parking lots, and campground roads
  • On some paved trails, including Park Point and the Mesa Top Loop sites.
  • On some paved trails in the park headquarters area, including the back porch of the Chief Ranger’s Office, where Spruce Tree House can be seen. Dogs are not allowed at the lower Spruce Tree House overlook.
  • On most Wetherill Mesa trails, except the Step House Trail, including the Long House Loop, Badger House Community, and Nordenskiöld Site #16 Trail. (NOTE: This area is closed for all of 2023. Also, the road to get here is apparently pretty steep/sketchy, so we would not have wanted to do it anyway.)

Please do NOT leave your dog in the hot vehicle while you do a cliff dwelling tour at Mesa Verde! When we visited the park on 6/18, it got above 80 degrees in the afternoon. Tom stayed in the vehicle with Willow while Kate did the tour!

Packing List for Mesa Verde
  • Sturdy shoes (open-toe shoes not recommended for tours)
  • Water bottle
  • Snacks (to eat before/after tours; food not allowed on tours)
  • Sunscreen (we recommend Kinfield; use code Katekeepswild15)
  • Camera or phone for taking photos (no tripods or drones allowed)
  • National parks pass
  • Tickets for tours (printed or screenshots due to lack of service)
  • Picnic lunch
Our experience at mesa verde

We only spent a day at Mesa Verde National Park and felt like we got a good glimpse into it! While we (or more specifically, Kate) would like to do the other tours as well some day, it is possible to do all 3 tours in a day (if you’re more on top of it and purchase tickets ahead of time). If you have the time, you could also take more time to enjoy the park and book tours across 2-3 days. If you visit the park in a different year (and aren’t afraid of a steep, windy road), it sounds like there is a lot to explore in the Wetherill Mesa area, which could also add another day’s worth of hiking to your trip.

While it is totally possible to get a good sense of Mesa Verde National Park in a day (which is what we did and recommend), think about what you would like to do and see (and consider tour ticket availability), and plan your trip with what works best for you!

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