President Theodore Roosevelt designated Mesa Verde as a national park to preserve the cliff dwellings, the park’s primary focus. And, let us tell you, these cliff dwellings are worth a visit!
When you plan your visit, it’s helpful to know some popular attractions there. Today we’re giving you a jam-packed one-day itinerary. Keep in mind, you can (and probably should) stretch your visit to a few days.
Either way, this Mesa Verde road trip guide will set you on the right path.
Let’s dive in.
Morning in Mesa Verde National Park
Although it may seem cliche to say, starting your day right is truly important for a good vacation! You’ll be exploring all day long, so get a good breakfast and start touring right away! Here’s what we recommend.
Fuel up with Breakfast at Spruce Tree Terrace Café
Address: 1 Wetherill Mesa Rd, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
The food here is a mixture of fresh American classics and Southwest dishes. They update the menu seasonally, so check online for their current options before you go.
Visitors rave about their Navajo tacos (who says you can’t have tacos for breakfast?!). Still, if you’re looking for something more traditional for breakfast, they have delicious grab-n-go coffee, muffins, fruit, and yogurt parfaits.
Reasons to love it: Although you’re technically starting with breakfast, it will feel like your adventures have already begun! Spruce Tree Terrace Café is a unique dining location with patio seating that overlooks the gorgeous park.
Tour the Cliff Dwellings (with a Guide)
Before it gets too hot in the day, take a cliff dwelling tour. Mesa Verde National Park is famous for its cliff dwelling ancient ruins. Historians believe Native Americans built these rock villages as homes and gathering places sometime in the 1200s.
The largest cliff dwelling in North America is Cliff Palace, which features more than 150 rooms and 23 kivas (a room ancient Puebloans likely used for rituals, gatherings, and political meetings). You’ll learn on the tour that historians believe 25 families may have lived there simultaneously. You’ll also learn about the Cliff Palace’s purpose and much more history when you book a tour.
The second-largest cliff dwelling in North America is called Long House. It also has 150 rooms and 21 kivas that once housed up to 150 people. There’s a large room in this dwelling that looks similar to modern ceremonial plazas modern Pueblo villages still use today. You’ll learn about the history there and enjoy the beauty of an ancient civilization.
How Much Do Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tours Cost?
Each cave-dwelling tour is 30 or 60 minutes and costs $8 per person. There will be some hiking and ladder-climbing within the site. Thanks to COVID-19, tour guides have converted traditional tours to ranger-assisted tours.
You can wander through each dwelling for an allotted time and meet stationed rangers along the way who will explain the history and answer questions as you walk.
Cave dwelling tours are closed during winter and early spring, so the best time to visit is between April and October.
Afternoon in Mesa Verde National Park
After wandering through the incredible cliff dwellings, you’ll want more! You’ve probably worked up an appetite, so start with lunch. Then move on to even more sites and excursions to fill your day. Here’s what we recommend.
Pack your Lunch and Eat it on the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail
What to pack: Hiking is the best way to experience Mesa Verde National Park, so pack a lunch and hit the road! If you have time, drive into nearby Cortez to pick up sandwich supplies for the trail.
Bring water, trail mix, and other snacks and drinks that are easy to pack. You could also grab takeout at Spruce Tree Terrace Café while you’re there for breakfast.
About the Trail: This 1.2-mile excursion is an out-and-back trail giving you first-hand views of the gorgeous Soda Canyon. It’s an easy walk, so that most hikers can handle the distance. It’s pretty crowded, so bear that in mind if you don’t like crowds.
Tour the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
One of the oldest in the National Park Service, this museum was built using Cliff House Sandstone, the same type of rock the Pueblo People used to construct their dwellings.
There are many exhibits, including dioramas depicting ancient Pueblo life and prehistoric artifacts.
Visitors seem to enjoy the 25-minute historical presentation on the area that plays every half hour. There’s a bookstore, gift shop, snack bar, post office, and facilities on-site, and it’s free to enter.
Self-Guided Tour of Step House
The Step House is an integral part of Pueblan history, as it shows irrevocable proof that basket-making and masonry were important professions back to 600 CE. You can take a self-guided tour of this dwelling by taking a one-mile hike. The hike is very steep, so plan accordingly.
There are dwellings, petroglyphs, and ancient baskets and masonry for you to view. There are also breathtaking views along the route. Plan to spend about 45 minutes here.
Step House is near the Wetherill Mesa information kiosk, so if you finish your tour early and want to find more hiking trails and views, consider heading there next.
Evening in Mesa Verde National Park
You’re probably exhausted at this point and looking for excellent food and relaxing activity to wind down the night. We’ve got just the thing.
Dinner at The Farm Bistro in Cortez
Address: 34 W Main St, Cortez, CO 81321
This busy café has a local farm-to-table menu. They offer comfort food in style in a friendly and warm atmosphere. Their fresh menu has varied options, including Tombo tuna with grilled pineapple, Morrocan style lamb meatballs, fresh ribeye, black bean burgers, and so much more.
Other reasons to love it: The atmosphere is homey, and the food is incredibly fresh. The food is upscale, but it feels like you’re in a homestyle restaurant. Plus, Cortez is less than 15 minutes from the park entrance, so it’s a small distance to go for excellent food and atmosphere.
Check out more sights along the way, and pick up supplies while you’re in town.
Stargaze at Park Point Fire Lookout
Park Point Fire Lookout offers incredible views of the Montezuma and Mancos valleys. According to park rangers, this is one of the best spots in the park for stargazing.
You can view the night sky from a higher elevation without artificial light interference. It’s the highest point in the park, so you’ll be as close to the heavens as you can get.
Not to mention, this fire lookout has historical significance as one of 8,000 fire lookouts in the United States. This lookout got a facelift about 10 years ago, and it still serves as a vital watchtower for valley fires during the high-risk season.
Where to Stay in Mesa Verde?
If you’ve done everything on our list, you’re probably more than ready to retire for the night! You just need an excellent campground to call “home” for a couple of nights.
Morefield Campground is our top recommendation.
Address: Mile Marker 4 U.S. 160, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
About the Park: While there are many places to stay, Morefield Campground, is the only one inside Mesa Verde. It’s open from April 1 until October 15. It costs $36 for two people dry camping and $50 for two people with full hookups. There are additional charges for extra people. There are many nearby hikes, a campground store, and a pet kennel.
Why You’ll Love Staying Here: Along with decent accommodations right inside the park, the rangers hold a nightly campfire program at the amphitheater. These campfire talks have been a Mesa Verde National Park staple since 1907.
Pro Tip: There are three (secret) free campsites near Mesa Verde. Here’s the GPS & info.
A Day in Mesa Verde National Park
What a day! You won’t soon forget your trip through Mesa Verde National Park. The scenery, hikes, history, star gazing, campground, and food are noteworthy.
Let us know if there’s anything else you’d recommend for a fantastic day in the park.
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