National Parks Road Trip Day 1: Mesa Verde National Park

Last summer we went on a National Parks Road Trip with my sister and her family. With a caravan of 3 cars, over 2 weeks we visited TEN states, six national parks and drove a total of 4200 miles.

First stop, Mesa Verde National Park in Southwest Colorado

The first stop of our road trip was Mesa Verde National Park which is located in the southwest corner of Colorado.  Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table) is home to over 600 cliff dwellings where the ancestral Puebloans lived for 700 years from AD 600 to 1300. Inside the park are nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including the cliff dwellings.

We stopped at the Visitor’s Center right at the park entrance to grab maps, use restrooms and purchase tour tickets. By our arrival at 11a.m. all morning tours were already sold out and afternoon tours were very limited. We purchased tickets for the Cliff Palace tour at 4:30 p.m. Tip: The park rangers at the visitors center are very knowledgeable and really helped us plan our visit! Take a few minutes to meet with one, it will save you lots of time later in the park.

Taking in the view
Park map highlighting distance from entrance to cliff dwelling sights

Close up map of the Spruce Tree area, Mesa Loop and Cliff Palace route

As noted above the drive from the park entrance to the actual dwellings is about 45 minutes depending on how many times you stop at the various pull outs and overlooks. There is a large parking lot area at the Spruce Tree House with quick walking distance to bathrooms and the museum. We decided to grab a bite to eat at the Spruce Tree Terrace cafe before heading across the street to the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling. Due to falling rock conditions direct access to the Spruce Tree dwelling was restricted. We were able to hike down a very steep paved walkway that got us close to the dwelling.

Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling
Spruce Tree House closeup

If you are interested in hiking this is a great starting point for several great hikes. You can choose the Spruce Canyon Trail hike (about 2.4 miles) which my husband and 9 year-old did, or the Petroglyph Point Trail hike (2.4 miles) which my 17 year-old did. It was very hot when we were there in July.  Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water. Also, keep in mind that cell phone service is spotty to non-existent. If your group is separating to hike, make sure you agree on a meeting spot and time to meet back up.

Petroglyphs seen during Petroglyph Point Hike

While part of our traveling group went hiking, the rest of us headed out to explore the six mile Mesa Top Loop drive. There are about 12 stops on the loop with paved walkways to view overlooks, cliff dwellings and surface dwellings. It really was a spectacular drive! It took us a little over an hour to do the entire drive. Of course, it’s self paced and you can spend as much or as little time at each stop as you want.

Square Tower House Cliff Dwelling
You can spot the Cliff Palace cliff dwelling in the top center of this photo from Sun Point. From this vantage point you’re able to see various cliff dwellings

After spending an hour or so driving the Mesa Top Loop we headed back to the Spruce Tree House area to pick up our group of hikers and head back over to Cliff Palace for our afternoon tour. We arrived 30 minutes before our tour to refuel and rest.

100 degrees and high altitude can’t stop these hikers!

As our tour time neared so did the storm clouds. Lightning could be seen from a distance and we began to wonder if our tour would be canceled. Once the rain began to fall and lightning got closer we were directed towards a rain shelter to wait it out. After 30 minutes of the rain not letting up, the ranger finally called it and told us the tour would be cancelled. We were super bummed but glad we arrived early enough to get a good look and take photos. Did you know? cliff dwelling tickets are refundable in the case of weather, so hold on to those tickets and get your money back at the visitors center on the way out.

Cliff Palace

Rain, Rain, go away!

Even though it was still sprinkling we decided to finish out the Cliff Palace Loop drive to see if we could get a glimpse of the Balcony House cliff dwelling. Sadly, by the time we arrived there, the rain was still falling and the stairs leading to the Balcony House were closed. We decided to call it a day as it was close to 6:30 p.m. and head to our hotel.

Where did we stay?

The view from our balcony

We booked our rooms at The Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde National Park.  Rooms were small and clean, we had good Wi-Fi, but no TV, which wasn’t a big deal at all! All rooms had balconies with sprawling views and the kids enjoyed hanging out and watching the storms roll in. There are several dining options at the lodge in addition to a small shop to buy snacks and souvenirs. Lodging Tip:  This hotel is a great spot if you plan to wake up the next day and visit the park (as you’re already 20 minutes inside the park). If you are like us and planning to head out the next day, you’ll be better off staying in Cortez or Durango, depending on which way you are headed as this added an additional 30 minutes to our drive.

Father and son bonding – watching the rains come in from our hotel balcony
No TV means the kids hang out on the balcony all night

What you should know:

Fees: The cost to enter the park is $20 per vehicle during peak periods (May-October)

We highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful Annual Pass, especially if you’re planning on visiting more than one National Park. The cost is $80 and pays for itself after visiting 2-3 parks. You can purchase the pass at a park visitors center or before your trip online by clicking here (the annual parks pass is FREE to U.S. Military members!)

Plan your visit:

Your first stop should be at the Visitor’s Center right at the park entrance. This is where you can book your cliff dwelling tours for the day. It’s very affordable (and refundable if tour canceled for weather) at just $5 per person.  Please note that you can only book tours IN PERSON at the Mesa Verde Visitor’s Center or the Durango Welcome Center. Online bookings are not available.  Try to get here early, tours sell out quickly, or better yet, if you arrive the night before, stop in before 5p.m. to book your tour(s) for the next day. Tip: make sure to grab a park map for everyone in your party. This will be helpful if your group separates throughout the day.

Final Thoughts:

While we were disappointed our tour was cancelled due to rain and lightning, we still had a great day at the park. Ideally, we would have arrived the night before and chosen a morning tour before the heat of the day set in. The park is huge and we underestimated the amount of driving we would do from park entrance to the cliff dwellings. Even though we only had half a day, we felt satisfied we saw the highlights that were on our list. Make sure to pack a cooler of water/gatorades, snacks, hats, sunscreen, bug spray etc. in the car. There is a cafe and shop near Spruce Tree House, but it is on the pricey side. Mesa Verde is fascinating and full of history. You have to see it for yourself! We are so glad we did.

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