MESA VERDE IN THREE ACTS: A Guide to the Distinct Areas of Mesa Verde National Park
We are not National Parks experts. We may try to make it look like we are (when we spew off a bunch of stats about the NPS, and we pretend to be good at planning our trips), but we didn’t start this journey much further ahead than any average traveler.
So we had no idea what Mesa Verde would have in store for us. Because we hadn’t really heard of Mesa Verde before.
Well, if you are like us, you are about to be blown away. Because what we experienced and learned about at Mesa Verde was pretty incredible. Cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, huge canyon views, one-on-one ranger tours. We didn’t see it coming.
Don’t underestimate the amount of driving you’ll have to do at Mesa Verde. The park is split into three (four if you count the entrance) very distinct areas: Morefield Campground, Chapin Mesa, and Wetherill Mesa.
(Fun fact that will make you seem smart if you visit: Mesa Verde is not actually composed of mesas, but cuestas, because the tops slope at about 7 degrees.)
Okay, so the three distinct areas? FAR APART. We camped two nights at Morefield Campground, and it took us about 40 minutes to drive to Chapin Mesa and about 50 to Wetherill Mesa. Keep that in mind, but don’t let it deter you from visiting both areas of the park. All three areas, Morefield Campground included, have some very diverse and amazing things to offer.
Because we had one full day and two half days at the park, and because the park is huge, we naturally split our by area.
Read about these activities below!
ACT I: MOREFIELD CAMPGROUND AREA
As tempting as it was to drive straight to the famous cliff dwellings we had just learned about at the beautiful entrance Visitor Center, our first afternoon and evening was spent within the Morefield Campground area, only four miles from the main park entrance.
We first checked in and set up our campsite for two nights. It was an amazing feeling after packing in/packing out of backcountry sites for four nights.
Wanting to hit all three of the hiking trails in the area, we drove to the Prater Ridge Trail (7.8 miles total, but split into two loops) parking lot to start. The first mile or so of the trail takes you up to the ridge, and the 2.5 mile south loop that we completed takes you along the edges of the ridge, with sweeping views almost the entire way. Perfect for: someone wanting a longer hike with varying views.
Next, we drove a teensy bit to the Knife Edge Trail parking lot. This trail is a good one if you’re looking for something a bit shorter, easier, and more informational! We grabbed a trail guide (50 cents only if you take it home) and read about the plants we passed on the 1-mile one-way hike. It seemed crazy this trail used to be the main road to the mesas, but it was abandoned because being on the side of a cliff made it hard to maintain. Perfect for: someone wanting a flat, gentle trail with fun facts and views to boot.
Finally, we wrapped up our evening with a butt-burner of a climb in 2.2-mile Point Lookout Trail. We learned later that this is the highest point in Mesa Verde, so that was cool. It’s basically 1.1-miles up and 1.1-miles back down, in a series of steep switchbacks. The amazing panoramic views at the end really make it worth the climb, especially at sunrise/sunset. Perfect for: someone wanting a quick workout that also offers incredible views.
Tired and with our Garmin Vivo2 registering over nine miles, we ended the night using a bit of the free Wifi at the campground store before crashing in our tent.
ACT II: CHAPIN MESA
Day two at the park was much more Mesa Verde-y than day one. Once we were told that Chapin Mesa, the most popular and built-up section of the park, is about a 40-minute drive from the campground, we opted to go all out and spend an entire day (like, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.) exploring the ancient Puebloan sites there. We made the most of it, that’s for sure. Our entire day’s schedule is below, but here are the highlights:
- Must-do for everyone: Swing around the Mesa Top Loop to see glimpses of the Puebloan architecture develop era-by-era. Bike or drive the 6-mile loop, which features 10 stops.
- Must-do for adventurers: Hike the 2.8-mile Petroglyph Point loop trail. This is a moderately strenuous trail that climbs and drops, hugging the rocky canyon wall and leading to an impressive petroglyph wall before ascending to the mesa top and back around to the Museum. Of the hundred or so visitors we crossed paths with, only a few hiked this trail. Grab a guide booklet to get the full scoop on the flora of the mesa area.
- Must-do for thrifty people: If you want to save money on the formal tours, grab a self-guiding booklet for Spruce Tree House and descend into the kiva. If you’ve already soaked up the history at the museum and through the Mesa Top Loop, you’ll be able to quickly identify the kiva features, towers, balcony remnants, and advanced masonry techniques used here.
And now, our day at Chapin Mesa:
- 8:00-9:30 – Bike the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop – This was great to do early because although the Loop is meant for cars, but we saw only one other car the entire loop. We’d also suggest seeing and reading about these older sites before touring the cliff dwellings, because it set an excellent chronological tone for visiting the cliff tours. The sites you’ll see on the Mesa Top Loop date back to about 550 AD, 600 years before the building of the cliff dwellings began. It was fascinating to see the timeline of pithouse-to-alcove-community develop before our eyes. Definitely worth driving (or as we preferred, biking!) through and reading the information provided.
- 10:00-11:00 – Tour Balcony House ($4 ticket from visitor center required) – Balcony House is one of three primary sites that you can only visit via a ticketed guided tour, and it is unique in that the tour requires climbing a 30-foot ladder, squeezing through tunnels, and crawling through the preserved dwellings. It’s interesting to see remnants of actual balconies attached to the ancient structures, but this would probably be a good one to tour after you have a sense of and appreciation for the typical masonry that occurred. The balconies of Balcony House probably seem a lot more impressive after viewing other complexes first.
- 11:30-12:15 – Soda Canyon Overlook Trail – This quick 1.1-mile out-and-back trail (close to Balcony House) provides easy sweeping views of Soda Canyon, named for the white carbon deposits that developed on the canyon walls.
- 12:15-1:00 – Drive back to the Museum for a picnic lunch – Established picnic areas.
- 1:00-3:00 – Chapin Mesa Museum – Dive into the culture and history of the Ancestral Puebloan people (and take a break from the hottest time of day) at the well-stocked museum. Although a bit dated in its aesthetic appeal, the museum packs a ton of information into just a few rooms. Start with the 25-minute introduction video. See Puebloan technology and innovation develop before your eyes within the dioramas crafted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, which provide detailed models of local life during five very distinct eras.
- 3:00-4:30 – Hike 2.8-mile Petroglyph Point Trail – Located right near the museum, this moderately strenuous hike hugs the canyon wall, traverses rocky ledges, and finally leads to a wall of petroglyphs before looping to the top of the mesa and back around. Definitely not the most popular activity at the park, as we encountered only a few groups along the way. (We like it that way) We’d also recommend grabbing the trail guide, as it provides descriptions of plants, scenes, and the petroglyphs along the way. If you have extra time, link this to the 2.4-mile Spruce Canyon loop trail. (Can’t vouch for this one but it looked pretty sweet!)
- 4:30-5:30 – Self-guided Spruce Tree House tour – Again, grab the guide for this cliff dwelling tour. Here is the one place in the park where you can actually climb down inside a kiva, a commonly found cylindrical room used for ceremonial and social purposes.
- 5:30-6:30 – Drive back to Cliff Palace area & picnic dinner – We had booked a special $12 Twilight Tour of Cliff Palace, the largest and probably most popular of the alcove houses, so we headed that way to cook a quick dinner before the tour began at 6:45. There is a restaurant on Chapin Mesa, but we saved a lot by simply packing a lunch and dinner for this day.
- 6:45-8:15 – Cliff Palace Twilight Tour – This was a “Living History” type of tour, with a ranger posing as a character important to the park’s history and development. We were told there are about seven different characters that rotate for the tour (which is available 5 days a week). We got to hear from Aileen Nusbaum, wife of the park’s former superintendent Jesse Nusbaum, who explained her role in preserving and expanding the park in the 1920s.
- 8:15 – Crash – We rushed to make it back to the campground store for ice and 50-cent fudge pops before it closed at 9 p.m., then hit the (free) showers adjacent to the store. When we finally returned to our campsite, we crashed instantly, feeling like we had successfully mastered all Chapin Mesa had to offer.
ACT III: WETHERILL MESA
Although it seemed like we had just arrived, our time at Mesa Verde was quickly coming to a close. We had planned to spend most of Day 3 at the park, then drive the 2.5 hours to Chinle, AZ, outside our next stop. Our activities at Wetherill Mesa were less up to us, as we had booked a 5-hour, $18 “Bike & Hike” tour that would take us through most of the area and through Long House, the mesa’s prized cliff dwelling tour.
Turns out, we were lucky enough to turn this into a completely private tour, when the only other couple in our group bailed because of the rain. We braved it out though, and followed our extremely wonderful and knowledgeable ranger guide (Kimberly) along with another tag-along ranger (Katie) to overlooks and through backcountry trails only accessible via guided tour. This seemed like a common theme throughout Mesa Verde, but it makes sense. Mesa Verde was the first park established for cultural preservation, and it is clear that the park’s main priority is to keep the history as intact as possible.
Long House was our favorite complex we toured, not only for the privacy element, but for its accessibility. Visitors are able to walk through the site much more freely, and seeing the building remains from all angles added to the experience tremendously. Even the general tours that are available last twice as long as those on Chapin Mesa.
After questioning our ranger’s ear off and getting a much more in-depth look at the sites along Wetherill Mesa, we said good bye and walked the short distance to Step House, which is the self-guided tour site at Wetherill Mesa. Its main feature is evidence of two eras of life in the same alcove: one section including pithouses (500-700 AD), and the adjacent section built up in typical cliff dwelling fashion (1200 AD). Again, grab the guide booklet and read the enclosed information if you want the inside scoop on what went on throughout the ancient complex. Definitely worth the extra time spent reading and soaking up all possible information.
We were shocked to hear that of Mesa Verde’s 500,000 annual visitors, only 10 percent trek over to Wetherill Mesa. We figured it was a drastic drop-off in population because of its fewer facilities, but this was our favorite part of the park by far. The rangers seemed more engaged with the guests (of course due to the lower volume of visitors) and we were told that the tours are a bit more relaxed and less rushed.
Do yourself a favor and escape the crowds at Wetherill Mesa. It’s worth the drive. Bring your bikes and complete the entire 5-mile paved loop or walk and take a few of the gravel shortcuts. If you area even more adventurous and you have the time, book that Bike & Hike tour on Wednesday or Saturday. With a limit of 15 people, this will give you crazy in-depth insight to what this area was really like 800 years ago.
When we drove out of Mesa Verde, a few things were clear: we had learned a ton about the Ancestral Puebloans, and we squeezed pretty much everything we could have out of the cultural gem of a National Park. But, as you’ll be able to tell, that’s kind of the way we like it.
Peace & Happy Adventuring!