Where is Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwest Colorado near the state’s borders with Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. This region is frequently called the Four Corners of the American Southwest, given the intersection of all four states in a single location. However, the region is even more well-known for the Native American tribes that settled in the region and outstanding, sometimes unbelievable scenery. Mesa Verde National Park is a tribute to both.
Situated in Mazunte County, Colorado and roughly 50 minutes from the nearest city, Durango, or only 12 minutes from the closest town, Cortez, Mesa Verde US National Park is the unlikely combination of remote and “away from it all,” while still accessible. It is this balance that attracts a half million people each year, while preserving the 600 Puebloan dwellings, and 5,000 sites within the National Park for over 700 years.
How Big is Mesa Verde National Park
Within Mesa Verde National Park there are 5,000 different archaeological and historical sites spread across 52,485 square acres of land. Both the acreage and number of intact archeological structures makes Mesa Verde National Park the largest preserved site in the United States.
Mesa Verde is most famous for the 600 Puebloan cliff dwellings, but the geography of this National Park is also noteworthy. Mesa Verde National Park sits atop the Colorado Plateau. Throughout the park, the elevation changes from 7,000 feet to 8,500 feet.
This elevated expanse includes canyons, mountains, and huge rock formations. One grouping of these slickrock “tables” was named “mesaverde” back in 1875 by geologists, well before the establishment of the National Park on the same land. Despite this coincidence, the name of Mesa Verde National Park is actually derived from the Spanish explorers’ phrase “green table,” used to describe the aloft, flat, and forested parts of this territory.
Mesa Verde National Park Weather
The United States Southwest is often characterized by a temperate and warm climate, but the weather in Mesa Verde National Park is more similar to the Front Range and plateaus of Colorado, than to the deserts of Arizona or New Mexico.
Summer in Mesa Verde is hot, nearly feverish during July and August, while winter is a mix of mild, sunny days and harsher cold weather. There can be snowfall and storms as late as May and as early as October. The daily temperatures fluctuate from a low of 18°F or 19°F in January and February to 87°F in July.
Most visitors plan to spend most or all of their time in Mesa Verde National Park outdoors, so checking the daily weather forecast is crucial for a successful trip to the park. There are daily forecasts posted in two parts of the park, the Mesa Verde Visitor Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
When did Mesa Verde Become a National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is the seventh oldest National Park in the United States, and notable for the reason attributed to this land’s protection and preservation. Unlike National Parks established before it, Mesa Verde was specifically dedicated to the achievements of men, not nature. From the time Mesa Verde National Park was opened by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the purpose was preservation of the ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings located in the park.
The history of Mesa Verde is tied to 26 different Native American tribes and nations. The history of the land, as with much of the southwest United States, is inextricably tied and dependent on the stewardship of these tribes.
Nineteen different Pueblo nations lived, hunted, survived, and flourished for six centuries on the “green table” or “mesa verde” of southwestern Colorado. The incredible cliff dwellings the Puebloans built over 100 years or so, before immigrating to territory in New Mexico in the 1300’s, stood for over 600 years until the National Park designation. These structures, and the surrounding terrain, continue to amaze, inform, and wow visitors today.
Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
Like most U.S. National Parks, Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is a wonderland of outdoor activities and stunning scenery. No matter what season you choose to visit, there is more to explore and do in this 52,000-acre park than anyone could smash into a single visit. Our National Park Visitors Guide highlights below some of the exciting activities Mesa Verde National Park has to offer.
Some of the famous and notable cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde can only be visited on a guided tour. This reduces foot traffic and better controls for preservation of these unique sites. Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House are only open for visitors via a ranger-guided tour. Book ahead.
The visitor center and park entrances have plenty of maps available to facilitate your own self-guided tour of most cliff dwellings and the landscape of Mesa Verde National Park. Whether your trip is spur of the moment or you prefer to avoid the crowds, this can be a great option to still see the beauty and history of Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde has a network of hiking trails available for day-use, and hiking activity is specifically restricted to these designated trails. For preservation of the park’s ecosystem, it is important hikers stick to these trails and do not bring pets along for a hike.
During the winter months, the various trailheads and routes are repurposed for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There are far fewer visitors at this time of year, often leaving trails to just your group or partner, but visitors must bring or rent their own equipment outside the National Park.
The park boundaries are open 24/7 for visitors, which means this haven away from light pollution or big cities is the perfect place to go stargazing on a clear night.
Wildlife Viewing + Bird Watching
Mesa Verde National Park is the habitat for a number of different species and critters. It is designated as a Colorado Important Bird Area (IBA) area by the Audubon Society, with over 200 species of birds found within the park. Mesa Verde is also home to shrews, foxes, mountain lions, elk, beaver and many more mammals and reptiles.
When to go to Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is open daily all year long, but there are distinct programs and offerings for visitors depending on the season.
Most importantly for out-of-state and international visitors, the Pueblo dwellings, for which Mesa Verde National Park is well-known, are not open through the winter and early spring. Summer is therefore the ideal season for anyone that is most interested in the archeological significance within Mesa Verde National Park.
However, winter and early spring are still a great time to visit Mesa Verde for outdoor sports and activities. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and hiking are all available against a snowy, beautiful backdrop from November to March or April. And the crowds are certainly thinner during the “off-season” each year.
Must-Have Things to Bring to Mesa Verde National Park
Given the range and accessibility of outdoor activities at Mesa Verde National Park, it pays off to head a few travel tips and tricks when planning for a park visit. List of Parks advises carrying the right equipment also ensures your safety while in the park.
Summers in Mesa Verde are hot and dry. The steady sun and high elevation can quickly lead to dehydration, especially for out-of-state and international travelers, who may be accustomed to the climate. Recommendation is two liters of water for every person in your group.
No matter the season, sunscreen is an equally important item to pack for a day trip or overnight in Mesa Verde National Park. Even during the winter months, most days are clear and sunny, and can lead to bad sunburn without the right protection.
Guided Tour Reservation
Most of the tanager-led guided tours through Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings and backcountry reach capacity. Booking ahead is crucial during the summer high-season when these activities and attractions are open and available for visitors.
Gym Shoes or Hiking Boots
Even if you only intend to drive a loop through the park, it is important to have good footwear. There are seemingly endless opportunities to hike to an overlook, view wildlife, or explore the cliff dwellings - and you want to come prepared for the exploration.
The weather can change quickly in Mesa Verde National Park, so it is important to come prepared, even in the drier, summer months. An extra long-sleeve layer can fend off chilly mornings or block the sun. In fall, winter, and spring, waterproof and windproof clothing is crucial.
A place to store and carry your crucial items, such as water and sunscreen is essentially. You may spend hours or the entire day away from your vehicle and need to be prepared, even on the go.
Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park
Looking for peace and quiet within the park? The Far View Lodge has 150 king and double bedrooms that offer all the comforts of a Southwestern retreat, without any of the distractions. There are no TVs nor cell phone service, but there is serenity and creature comforts within the park boundaries. The lodge operates from May 1 through late October each year.
The other accommodation option within the park is the 267 campsites available at the Morefield Campground. Tent and RV sites are available, but only 15 sites have full-RV hookups, so it pays to make a reservation ahead of time. The campground also has showers, coin-operated laundry, a grocery store, and gift shop onsite.
Food Nearby Mesa Verde National Park
Within Mesa Verde National Park there are several dining options. Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe is open year-round for indoor or patio (dependent on weather) dining for a casual meal or grab-and-go lunches. From late May to late September, three other dining spots are open in the Far View Area of the National Park. The Metate Room Restaurant is the more upscale restaurant, with wild game and local produce being highlighted on the menu, while the Far View Terrace and Far View Lounge have casual dining and bar snacks.
The Colorado town of Cortez is often considered the unofficial entrance of Mesa Verde National Park, located a mere 12 minutes up the road from the park. The municipality only has a population of 8,500 people, but this is your best bet for food in the immediate area.
Cortez has many standard fast food and fast casual options, such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell. There are also plenty of alternatives. The main street in Cortez has a mainstay Thai, a sushi restaurant, and a beloved Mexican place called Gustavo’s. Once Upon a Sandwich gives visitors a to-go and casual option and Burger Boy Drive In can draw a crowd on weekends.
Airports Near Mesa Verde National Park
There are several regional and municipal airports within easy driving distance of Mesa Verde National Park, including Blanding Municipal Airport and Telluride Regional Airport. However, for most visitors these smaller airports are unknown or inaccessible, this leaves Durango/La Plata County Airport as the best option in Southwestern Colorado. The drive from Durango is roughly 52 minutes, or just under 50 miles, to the park entrance for Mesa Verde National Park.