Article Overview: Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
The things to do in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado span four seasons and 24 hours a day. However, this park is so much more than artifacts and amazing scenery. The first thing you see on the Mesa Verde National Park website are the words “A Sacred Place,” and you feel that with every bit of trip planning.
As a natural-born “city slicker,” I am drawn to International Dark Sky Parks as well as those that give me more than something pretty to look at while I’m visiting. Mesa Verde National Park is a soul-feeding experience day and night, with a spectacularly preserved series of cliff dwellings and Native American cultures that we might not otherwise get to experience.
All that said, there are some things to know about the things to do in Mesa Verde, including limited seasonal access, planning for tours, and closures due to natural hazards. I’m going to help you have as close to the transformational experience here as I did.
Table of Contents: Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
Table of contents: Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- Things to Know Before You Visit Mesa Verde National Park
- Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park
- Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- #15 Watch “Footprints of Our Ancestors”
- #14 Take the Scenic Route along Mesa Top Loop Drive
- #13 Capture the Night Sky During a Campfire Chat
- #12 Walk the Knife Edge for Sunset Views
- #11 Circle Soda Canyon Overlook
- #10 Visit Balcony House
- #9 Take a Backcountry Tour to Square Tower House
- #8 Read the Writing on the Wall
- #7 Camp in a Canyon
- #6 Ski Through Mesa Verde National Park
- #5 “Fall” In Love with Mesa Verde
- #4 Have a Meal at Mesa Verde National Park
- #3 Step Into a Step House
- #2 Take the Trail along Far View
- #1 See the Largest Cliff Dwelling in North America
- Summary of Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- Map of Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- Pin Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
Things to Know Before You Visit Mesa Verde National Park
$30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months, I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more, including 2,000 sites for free after a one-time $80 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one, which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, Earth 🙂
The Best Guide Book for Mesa Verde National Park is this one which we’ve marked up and highlighted quite a bit.
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps; this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park
Where to Stay: This is our favorite hotel in/around Mesa Verde.
Guided vs. Self-Guided Tours in Mesa Verde National Park
For the safety and sanctity of the park’s key features, the most popular things to do in Mesa Verde National Park will require tickets for a ranger-led tour.
If you want to walk inside a cliff-dwelling home, you’ll need to pay for a ranger-led tour, which is only available during certain times of the year. Self-guided tours and hiking trails will take you to some artifact areas or provide great vista views of cliff dwellings from a distance.
The park also offers podcasts to help with audio tours that you can take at your own pace, like the Mesa Top Loop Drive Audio Tour.
Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
#15 Watch “Footprints of Our Ancestors”
No matter where this falls on any list, it should be the first thing you do. To appreciate the land filled with things to do in Mesa Verde National Park, you have to understand it.
One reason why this is so important is because Native American knowledge, history, and traditions are largely oral lessons. There aren’t libraries filled with books from 700 years ago. That’s why many of the park rangers here are direct descendants of those who lived among the cliffs.
“The home has a spirit of its own. It isn’t just a structure. But it’s comprised of history and people and culture. The home or the house; that space is essential to family and the passing on of traditional knowledge. It’s a place where we learn about our role in this world.
I think this is one of the things that visitors to Mesa Verde… should understand is the value and the sacredness of the land.”– Brian Vallo, Indigenous Expert
You can also learn more about the culture and importance of this land by visiting the Chapin Mesa Museum, 20 miles from the park entrance, before you arrive at the park.
The Footprints of Our Ancestors movie is available to view online before your trip or at the visitor’s center.
#14 Take the Scenic Route along Mesa Top Loop Drive
I love hiking, but my rush to get to the “best” trails has taught me a good lesson about how much I miss. Just because a trail is the most popular doesn’t mean it will be the most enjoyable for me. That is why one of the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park is to take the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road drive to get a lay of the land.
This is also a great option on hot or rainy days since you can see so much from the safety of your car or on short trails. Several roadside pull-outs offer views of the following:
- Square Tower House Overlook
- Sun Point View
- Oak Tree House Overlook
- Fire Temple and New Fire House Overlooks
- Sun Temple (best panoramic view of Cliff Palace)
The ride is also a must-do since there is just one entrance to this park, and hiking to all corners isn’t feasible for the average hiker.
#13 Capture the Night Sky During a Campfire Chat
Among the nighttime things to do in Mesa Verde National Park is seeing the night sky. In 2021, Mesa Verde became the 100th International Dark Sky Park. As with most things at Mesa Verde National Park, there’s more to the night skies than just celestial sites.
The Indigenous people didn’t just build homes and sites to stay out of the unforgivable desert summer heat. They relied on the stars and sun/moon cycles for guidance. Those stories are still told around campfires and in the park.
MORE: Here are some podcasts that can help you learn about how the stars, sun, and moon influenced Indigenous cultures and how to make the most of a stargazing event at Mesa Verde National Park.
Check the park schedule for night programs at the Morefield Amphiteatre where these stories are told and legends are preserved.
#12 Walk the Knife Edge for Sunset Views
The trail spans two miles with ongoing sweeping views of Montezuma Valley below. That means 180° views (or more) of the western sky. The trail will be hot on summer days but often snow-covered in winter. It’s also the first road that brought visitors to the park, giving it a nice historical nudge.
It’s also close to the main entrance and short enough that you can come back quickly for help if needed.
#11 Circle Soda Canyon Overlook
I am fully transparent about the anxiety and overthinking that plague my life, but I also know I am not alone. It’s one reason I am called by nature to places that make me (and all my worries) feel smaller in the big picture of the universe.
The Soda Canyon Overlook is one of the things to do in Mesa Verde National Park that will melt away worries and help you see the beauty in a world otherwise consumed with worry.
The trail here is easy enough at just 1.2 miles, but it offers a reward as the only place to see Balcony House if you don’t take a ranger-led tour. The trail does close in winter.
#10 Visit Balcony House
One look at Balcony House from afar and you’ll want to get closer. It’s one of the things to do in Mesa Verde National Park that requires a ranger to get you there. Tours are available from late April through mid-October.
The Balcony House tour will teach you many things, starting with the fact that Balcony House isn’t a house. It’s an entire village.
It’s worth noting that this tour touched on just about everything I’m afraid of, except for spiders (though I’m sure there were there somewhere). You should know you’ll climb ladders, face steep heights, and be in confined spaces at times. For example, part of the tour requires guests to crawl through an 18-inch wide tunnel that’s 12 feet long.
#9 Take a Backcountry Tour to Square Tower House
Once you see Square Tower House from the scenic drive, you’ll likely want to get a closer look at the tallest structure in the park. This is a backcountry tour, so don’t let the one-mile length of the trial convince you this is easy.
The trail is rugged, with steep drops and switchbacks along the way with two ladder climbs. Scrambling is required, and some steep hills will put those calves to work. This is one of the things to do in Mesa Verde National Park that requires tickets but book early because these sell out quickly.
#8 Read the Writing on the Wall
Petroglyph Point Trail gives hikers an up-close look at petroglyphs carved in the stone. Think of the route you drive from your home to your favorite grocery store or community gathering spot. That’s what this trail was to the Indigenous people on this land, but with a narrow walkway and steep drop-offs.
You’ll squeeze through tight rock walls and come across shaded alcoves with steep stairs up and down the trail.
WARNING: For anyone hoping to add the Spruce Tree Hour Tour to this trail, you should know that safety concerns caused it to close in 2016 and will be closed until the rock can be stabilized. If it were open, this would be our #1 thing to do in Mesa Verde.
#7 Camp in a Canyon
Morefield Campground boasts nearly 270 campsites, yet you’ll feel as secluded as can be once you’re settled in, thanks to a well-planned layout. Tents, trailers, and RVs are welcome here.
This is also a hiker’s paradise as four trails weave around Morefield Canyon. Upon return, this campground is far from “roughing it” as showers, laundry, a grocery store, and an internet connection are all available. There’s even a morning pancake breakfast served.
Here’s the link to make your reservation in Morefield Canyon. The campgrounds rarely fill up, but early booking is always encouraged.
#6 Ski Through Mesa Verde National Park
The things to do in Mesa Verde National Park’s winters include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Whether you prefer a groomed trail that’s easy to coast along or want a more rugged trek through the backcountry, there is a space for everyone, and you’ll likely go for miles without seeing another person.
Snowshoe rentals are available at the visitor’s center. For the best view of cliff dwellings in winter, take the Cliff Palace Loop Trail. It’s pretty flat, but it goes for 6.5 miles.
MORE: Here’s a map of the winter trails available at Mesa Verda National Park.
#5 “Fall” In Love with Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park simply basks in the glow of the seasonal change during late September and October. Despite the rocky nature of the park, the name Mesa Verde means “Green Table” due to the flat mesa and green plants, bushes, and trees.
What turns green can also turn during autumn’s transition. I heard more than one person comment that they had no idea the park would have such stunning foliage.
It’s also a great time to avoid the large summer crowds while fitting into a tour before the season ends in late October. You also have more hiking options because you don’t have to worry about the extreme heat of summer days.
#4 Have a Meal at Mesa Verde National Park
Whether you want to carb up with a sunrise breakfast for a long hike ahead or dine in elegance with sweeping 100+ mile views, the Far View Lodge offers several things to do in Mesa Verde National Park that revolve around the food and culture of the land.
The Far View Terrance is open seasonally, with breakfast starting at 7:00 a.m. You’ll see the sun sweeping over the landscape while getting a custom-made omelet. At night, enjoy a pre- or post-dinner drink at the Far View Lounge with a creative menu of apps and entrees.
Metate is the restaurant ranked as one of the best in Colorado and brings seasonal elegance to the Mesa Verde National Park experience. Make dinner reservations or wait for a table by the windows for the best views.
The best part? All the dining options have no dress codes. Come as you are and eat as much as you’d like. If you’re like me, you might want an excuse to dress up for dinner, and that’s okay, too!
#3 Step Into a Step House
Step House is one of the favorite things to do in Mesa Verde National Park for those who want to explore a cliff dwelling without having to schedule a tour. There’s an added bonus that rangers will be along the path to answer questions.
The name “Step House” refers to the stepped configuration of the dwellings, which were constructed at different levels within the alcove. A fascinating fact about this dwelling is that archeologists have found evidence of two different Indigenous generations in this space.
Step House is in an area of the park known as Wetherill Mesa, which is known as the less crowded and quieter part of the park. I found this to be a great place for meditation and relaxation.
#2 Take the Trail along Far View
The popular cliff dwellings surmise the grandness of the legacy left behind, but it’s places like Far View where I felt I could really get more into the minutia of daily life 800 years back.
One of the most interesting things to do in Mesa Verde National Park is to learn about the kivas, which were ceremonial rooms that were among the first parts of any community or home to be built. They stand out as circular indentions into the earth.
This trail is also great for people who can’t handle the more strenuous cliff-dwelling hikes. My mind can usually overcome my left arthritic knee, but I found this trail to be a welcome relief as it was less than a mile long and included information panels along the way. I could go at my own pace.
#1 See the Largest Cliff Dwelling in North America
Cliff Palace stands out in many ways, but the sheer size is what really garners a lot of attention. One of the reasons why is that you start the tour from the overlook, where you can see into the building and get a grasp of the huge size.
One of the park rangers who hosts this tour says, “In my opinion, it’s the best archaeological site we have on the continent.”
The tour goes down some stairs carved into the mountain and then up ladders where you can see the holes in the rock that were used to climb 800 years ago. It is believed this location was the central gathering spot of the people, serving as government, church, and social gatherings.
Summary of Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- See the Largest Cliff Dwelling in North America
- Take the Trail along Far View
- Step Into Step House
- Have a Meal at Mesa Verde National Park
- “Fall” In Love with Mesa Verde
- Ski Through Mesa Verde National Park
- Camp in a Canyon
- Read the Writing on the Wall
- Take a Backcountry Tour to Square Tower House
- Visit Balcony House
- Circle Soda Canyon Overlook
- Walk the Knife Edge for Sunset Views
- Capture the Night Sky During a Campfire Chat
- Take the Scenic Route along Mesa Top Loop Drive
- Watch “Footprint of Our Ancestors”
Map of Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
Pin Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
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