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Road Trip to Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients

A few years ago I was flipping through 5280 and I noticed a small picture of people climbing down ladders into a mysterious sand-colored ancient dwelling. From that moment onward, it was a dream of mine to go to Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of Colorado in the Four Corners area.

Because it’s nearly a seven-hour drive to get to the Park from downtown Denver, it was always too far to make it a weekend escape.

Last fall we decided to take a road trip vacation, giving us enough time off to really get to see the area.

We broke up our trip by driving from Denver > Salida (2hr 40 min) > Mesa Verde National Park (4 hours)

Mesa Verde National Park

COVID-19 UPDATE: Even though the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center is currently closed, it is still worth stopping by. Virtual Ranger Station is set up outside the Visitor Center from 9 am to 4 pm daily and there are free-standing displays that give you ideas on what to do while at the park that we used (pre-COVID-19 to plan our trip. Additionally, the store is still open and restrooms are available.

Mesa Verde is a bit different than most National Parks in the sense that there is a great emphasis on the anthropological aspects of the people who once lived and migrated to the region in addition to the natural beauty of the place.

We didn’t really have a plan so we stopped at the visitors center to get some maps and reservations for the Cliff Dwelling tours. Even if you arrive when the visitors center is closed, there are a series of guides to the park outside with recommended itineraries. I took pictures of them to reference later – helpful!

Things to Do at Mesa Verde National Park

CURRENTLY SUSPENDED: Cliff Dwelling Tours

COVID-19 UPDATE: It’s heartbreaking that the ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours are currently suspended. I will be honest — the tours were the highlight of our trip and I feel that doing at least one tour is essential to getting the full Mesa Verde experience. It is the only opportunity guests have to be physically close to the best-preserved structures and it’s truly an awe-inspiring experience. Additionally, the entire Wetherill Mesa area is closed to visitors. Please be sure to come back to Mesa Verde once tours start up again and Wetherill Mesa Road is open, you will not regret it!

Upon arrival at the park, our first stop was a bee-line to the Visitors Center to try to secure our spots on one or more of the ranger-led cliff dwelling tours.

When we visited in early October the available tours were limited to Cliff Palace and Long House. (Another popular tour, Balcony House, was closed for the season.) Since we arrived in the early afternoon on a Friday during the off-season, we were able to book day-of tickets for Cliff Palace and we snagged the first tour for Long House the following day without any problem. Even in the off-season, the tours do sell out, so be sure to secure your spots as early as possible.

All tours are suspended deep into the off-season, generally starting in mid-October and lasting until April, so if you want to get up close to the dwellings, make sure the tours are available during your visit. Tours cost $7 and a limited number of slots can be reserved online ahead of time.

Please note: A private company licensed to run the hotel, restaurants, and concessions in the park also sell a number of packaged tours in the park. They will cover transportation within the park and a guide to normally self-guided points of interest, but the cliff-dwelling tours can only be done by the park rangers so you will be joining the very same $7 NPS ranger-led tours mentioned above. For a cost-conscious traveler, just buy the cliff-dwelling tour tickets directly from the NPS!

Cliff Palace Tour

This is a great introduction to the Cliff Dwellings! Lasting about an hour, this tour does require a moderate degree of physical ability. You will need to walk down a steep staircase (with railing) in order to get down to the cliff dwelling and then through a short narrow passage and up a couple of ladders on the way out. People of many ages and abilities were on this tour when we went.

Our guide, Ranger Zach, was awesome – giving us a lot of interesting context for who built these structures and what archeologists and sociologists imagine their daily lives must have been like. This is a classic Mesa Verde tour!

Long House Tour

A bit further off, in the Wetherill Mesa, the Long House Tour requires a short walk to the cliff, where you walk down a moderately steep staircase to the site.

CURRENTLY CLOSED: Badger House Community

After the Long House tour, we didn’t go straight back to our car and walked around the Badger House Community. No shade so make sure you have a hat! For those who brought bikes to the park, this is a great place to use them. You can ride the paths between the various sites and many even have a bike racks available.

All cliff dwellings are closed and tours are canceled until further notice

Check the NPS website for the latest information on openings and closures.

Far View Communities

Park Point Overlook

Spectacular views at the top. Great place for sunrise or sunset!

Food at Mesa Verde National Park

Within the Mesa Verde National Park, there are a number of food options. Please note, the restaurants and concessions facilities are all run by Aramark, an international, for-profit company that is licensed to run these facilities in the park.

Far View Terrace

We ate here for breakfast, cafeteria-style buffet.

Restaurants at Far View Lodge

Metate Room

Full restaurant. We ate here twice. The food was delicious. Get a reservation for before sunset and request a table by one of the huge windows that line the dining room.

CURRENTLY CLOSED: Far View Lounge

A casual pub with indoor and outdoor seating. We stopped here to grab a snack before heading over to Park Point Overlook for sunset. The Hummus Tehina appetizer was huge and tasty. Happy Hour is pretty popular, so get their early to snag a good table and to avoid slower service.

CURRENTLY CLOSED: Spruce Tree Terrace

The Spruce Tree Terrace is a little cafeteria that is suitable for lunch. We ended up getting a free meal b/c someone had ordered but had to leave so they gave us their buzzer! Nothing test better than a free food! Archeological Museum

Where to Stay at Mesa Verde

Far View Lodge

We did consider tent camping at Morefield Campground were worried about the weather, about it being too cold, so we booked a room at the only hotel within the park, Far View Lodge. Room was incredibly cold the first night, beds super bouncy. Motel vibe – walls are thin and you can hear your neighbors if they are stomping around.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Things to Do at Canyons of the Ancients

CURRENTLY CLOSED: Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum

Unfortunately, the physical Canyons Of The Ancients Visitor Center & Museum is currently closed to the public. It’s a great little museum with tons of fascinating information about the Ancestral Puebloans as well as how the archeological teams unearthed and examined many of the items in the exhibits. We spent a couple of hours here reading nearly every exhibit.

However, you can still contact the office to get questions answered by calling 970-882-5600. Also, the BLM trails and open space areas of the monument are still available for visitors to enjoy.

Escalante Trail

One such trail just happens to be right behind the Visitor Center & Museum and is well worth doing. After we had visited the museum we got in our car and I was looking at my phone for the next interesting to do in the area and noticed on Google Maps a point of interest named the Escalante Pueblo.

On the map, it looked like it was right where we were, so I got out of the car and I noticed a sign to the left of the museum with a little trail. The Escalante Trail was paved and only half-mile long, so we decided to do it. We were so glad we did! On the way up are little markers with information about the foliage and fauna and once you get to the top, you not only do you get to see the Escalante Pueblo, there are spectacular panoramic views of the McPhee Reservoir.

Lowry Pueblo

Super cool because you actually get to walk into the great kiva structure (get a preview with this virtual tour). There is no visitors center and your kinda in the middle of nowhere so make sure you cache those maps and have plenty of gas, food, and water.

Hovenweep National Monument

Just on the other side of the board in Utah, Hovenweep National Monument is an hour away from the visitors center.

Try the Square Tower Group Trail which is 2 miles.

Food Near Canyons of the Ancients

Cortez, CO

Loungin’ Lizard

Loungin’ Lizard is a cafe diner on the main strip in town.

We were so impressed with this place we did both breakfast and dinner here. Menu changes daily with specials.

Open Thurs – Mon. Closed on Tues and Wed.

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