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5 Tips for Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Sunset over the Mesa Verde cliffs

Want to make the most of your Mesa Verde experience? Denise, the Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours professional tour guide (and former Mesa Verde park ranger) shared her insider’s perspective on the park with us to help make the most of your vacation.

1. “Must-see” features of Mesa Verde

With 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, the park can take days to explore. If you need to limit your trip to one day, Denise recommends the following features as highlights:

Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
The Visitor Center should be your first stop, whether you are on a guided tour or going solo. Geared toward orienting visitors to the park, the Visitor Center features cultural and historical exhibits relating to the Ancestral Pueblo people. It also has a state-of-the-art research facility and houses over 3 million artifacts from the park. (And if you prefer in-door plumbing, this is a great place to use the restroom before venturing into the park.)

Cliff Dwellings
The cliff dwellings are among the most popular spots to visit in the park. Most of the dwellings require a guided ranger tour (along with a separate ticket – but if you book through Durango Rivertrippers, this ticket is included). Among Denise’s favorites are Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, and Step House. Bear in mind that all cliff dwelling tours are strenuous and may require hiking and climbing ladders. Most of the guided tours will take at least an hour to complete. Tours can range from adventurous, with tunnels and open rock face ladders, to less arduous but in-depth tours that span 2.5 hours. A cliff dwelling tour is an experience unlike any other and gives you a first-hand perspective into how the Ancestral Pueblo people lived.

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Spruce Tree Overlook
The museum has the distinction of being one of the oldest in the National Park Service and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. It was built using the same type of rock that was used in the cliff dwellings. Museum exhibits include prehistoric artifacts and a chronology of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Your tour guide can elaborate more on the history of the people and the area.

Spruce Tree Overlook – Spruce Tree is the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park and a popular photography subject. Due to safety concerns regarding falling rocks, the site is no longer available to visit. However, the Overlook near the museum provides spectacular views into the dwelling. Here again, is where a knowledgeable tour guide can point out the features and functions of the dwelling to you.

2. Avoiding crowds

Annually, the park has more than 600,000 visitors. The busiest months of the year are July and August. The busiest part of the day during summer is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. During peak season, Denise recommends that you start early in the morning to beat the crowds. If you’re not an early bird, late afternoon (after 2 p.m.) and early evening are less busy. Denise also recommends that you visit the park in the spring or fall when there are fewer visitors overall.

3. Best spots to take photos from overlooks

Denise knows the park inside and out. Her favorite spots are Park Point, with its view of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado; Sun Point, from which you can see several large cliff dwellings; Sun Temple, which looks straight into Cliff Palace from across the canyon; and the head of Spruce Canyon which looks into the Spruce Tree House dwelling.

4. Best drive to see the most cliff dwellings?

The Cliff Canyon area was the most populated of Chapin Mesa. Denise recommends starting from Sun Point and driving to Sun Temple on the Mesa Ruins Loop. If you’ve booked with Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours, we will do the driving for you so you can enjoy the views of dwellings such as Oak Tree House and New Fire Temple.

5. Where are the bathrooms?

Believe it or not, Denise reports that this is one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors. The park has both traditional plumbed bathrooms and outhouses. The Visitor Center, the Chapin Museum, and the Far View Terrace cafeteria all have indoor plumbing. Outhouses are located along the various scenic outlooks and parking lots.

Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours offers seasonal group tours and private tours to Mesa Verde. The group tour offers a full line up of attractions all while getting back mid-afternoon. The trip is all-inclusive including your transportation, lunch, park fees, tour guide, and guided ranger tour when in season. The private tour offers the same and is completely customizable for your small group. We tailor the itinerary to reflect your interests and needs. Reach out to book your Mesa Verde tour today!