Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park, CO

  • Published 2022/11/17

The beautiful Mesa Verde National Park is a Montezuma County, Colorado, heritage site.

It is the largest archaeological site in the United States.

The park also preserves Ancestral Puebloan cultural heritage and offers visitors a look into the areas once touched by the Puebloan civilization.

Its name Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish, coming from the green, flat top heavily forested with pinon and juniper trees.

It fits perfectly in the beautiful mountainous area, and its best-known structures encapsulate the feeling of one big table filled with natural marvels for us to enjoy.

In 1987, the United Nations recognized it as a World Heritage Site.

Since then, Mesa Verde has become a place of discovery and activity, which everyone should visit at least once.

Here are the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park.

Book a Tour of the Cliff Dwellings

Daytime view of the Cliff Dwellings

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Reaching the Cliff Dwellings involves a strenuous hike along the canyon, but it is one of the most popular things at Mesa Verde.

Firstly, book a reservation for a guided tour in advance.

This is the only way you’ll be able to tour the beautiful and historically-rich areas.

Although you can view these areas from afar, it’s a different experience being there up close.

Start your trip at one of the three sites: the Cliff Palace, the Balcony House, or the Long House.

Each offers a fantastic look into the daily lives of the Ancestral Puebloans that resided here thousands of years ago.

Long house at the Cliff Dwellings

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At the Cliff Palace, you’ll walk and climb towards the cliffside ruins that span the insides of the cliff.

At the Long House, you’ll experience the trails leading up to the ruins of the sandstone brick dwellings.

Finally, at the Balcony House, you’ll hike, climb and crawl through tunnels by the cliffside.

Aerial view of the Cliff Dwellings

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See Colorful Petroglyphs at the Petroglyph Point Hike

Petroglyphs along the Petroglyph Point Hike

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If you want to look at the only known Petroglyphs in Mesa Verde, go through the Petroglyph Point Hike.

It’s a beautiful 2.4-mile hike starting from the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Although relatively small compared to the other petroglyphs found in the region, the petroglyphs found covering the panels are still mesmerizing.

Anasazi Indian-carved petroglyphs at Petroglyph Point Hike

James St. John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also, the canyon trail to the Petroglyphs already gives magnificent scenery for hikers.

Expect a demanding yet rewarding hike if you wish to see it for yourself.

Anasazi Indian-carved petroglyphs at Petroglyph Point Hike

James St. John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Join an Evening Program at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater

If your trip takes longer than anticipated, join the evening programs at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater.

During the summer season nights, Mesa Verde hosts free presentations that focus on the history of Mesa Verde and the changes in Mesa Verde since 1907.

This ranger-led program goes further into the history of Mesa Verde and lasts about 45-60 minutes.

In 1907, archaeologist Jesse Fewkes instituted this tradition in the park.

Visit the majestic Morefield Campground Amphitheater and learn under the light of the beautiful stars, the projector up front, and the beautiful mountains in the background.

Start Your Visit at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center

Exterior of the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center

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Before you go off on your own and make your discoveries at Mesa Verde, visit the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center.

Stop by, grab a map, and see the overview of the park so you can plan accordingly.

So many simple yet detailed exhibits here are perfect for gathering information about what’s to come.

Building sign of the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center

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With beautiful art and fine displays, this place is more than just an educational facility.

There are also other useful items for your hike other than maps that are available for sale.

They also sometimes host special events; check out their website if you can catch one on your trip.

Exhibit at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center

Will Thomas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Observe the Wildlife

A wild deer at Mesa Verde

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Mesa Verde is a massive 52,000-acre area, home to many ecosystems and thriving wildlife.

You’re bound to see the desert animals and fauna while on a hike or driving.

The park has four main plant-type and communities, from shrub-steppe-type desert brushes to Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine trees.

The park also supports various migratory and native animals, from birds, reptiles, and mammals to fishes and invertebrates.

A horse at Mesa Verde

Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock.com

Keep your eyes peeled for rare animal and fauna species, such as peregrine falcons and Mexican spotted owls.

Some plants are only exclusively found in Mesa Verde National Park.

Vultures on a tree at Mesa Verde

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Revisit the Past at Far View Point

A dwelling at Far View Point

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Before the Ancient Puebloans started creating dwellings and living by the cliffs, they all once lived in the village on Far View Point.

At some point, residents continued to stay even after homes were already built on the cliffs.

You’ll get here after a moderately easy trail, where you’ll see surface dwellings that give you a look into the daily lives of the Ancient Puebloans.

Pipe shrine house at Far View Point

Will Thomas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Scattered around are sites with plaques filled with literature and information you can read.

There are also reservoirs, temples, large dwellings you can peer into, and more.

This 75-mile loop will be worth it as you’ll get a sense of the scale of how big the ancient community was, and how advanced their technology and techniques were.

Megalithic house at Far View Point

Don Graham from Redlands, CA, USA – God bless it! CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

See the Ancient Farms at the Farming Terrace Trail

Discover how Ancestral Puebloans somehow discovered how to farm on the dry desert-like mesa along the Farming Terrace Trail.

Follow this 0.5-mile arduous trail going down and up and down again, following the numerous farm terraces and check dams used to ensure that their crops grew.

The moisture and soil gathered behind check dams during summer thunderstorms, helped keep the soil prosperous, and increased crop survival, thus, producing more yields.

The trail is not all that popular so expect a nice solitary hike.

The Farming Terrace Trail is a great loop to hike, so you can admire how the Ancient Puebloans fed their families.

Can you imagine yourself doing something like this?

Visit the Enigmatic Sun Temple

Tunnel in the Sun Temple

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Among the beautiful views of Mesa Verde, the Sun Temple might be the most mysterious structure in Ancestral Puebloan architecture.

It stands on the top of the Mesa, at the center of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings is thought to be an ancient observatory.

You can go here from the Mesa Top Loop, and you’ll see the ruins of the Sun Temple, whose name comes from the sun-like design on the boulder on the corner of the ruins.

Grounds of the Sun Temple

Cheri Alguire / Shutterstock.com

Experts have also found that the Sun Temple used the same basic geometry found in ancient Greek to Egyptian architecture, which was impressive because the Ancient Puebloans didn’t have a number or writing system.

You can look around and imagine what purpose the temple might have had for the Ancient Puebloans.

Likewise, it’s not that difficult of a hike.

Structure of the Sun Temple

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Go Bird Watching

A vulture flying over Mesa Verde National Park

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If bird watching is more up your alley, you’re in luck.

The Mesa Verde National Park is home to bird species of several very distinct habitats.

Don’t forget to purchase the brochure “Checklist of the Birds” at the Morefield Campground Store to help you get started and locate where and when the bird species will appear.

Unfortunately, the trails in the park don’t go deep into the wilderness due to conservation laws.

However, there are still ripe opportunities to see many bird species at the park.

A blue jay at Mesa Verde National Park

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At the Spruce Canyon or Petroglyph Point trails, you can find warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, flycatchers, jays, titmice, chickadees, and other species.

You might get lucky at the Knife Edge Trail and see a golden eagle or peregrine falcon.

At Park Point, you’ll be able to see eagles, grouse, towhees, hawks, and more.

There are more areas for specialized birds.

Although this spot isn’t as impressive as other areas, it is still a fun and worthwhile experience and a little side quest while you discover Mesa Verde.

Wild turkey at Mesa Verde National Park

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Discover Mesa Verde at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Sandal exhibit in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want more information on the Mesa Verde National Park, visit the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, just 20 miles from the park entrance.

This small museum had existed since 1925, replacing the old log cabin that housed precious cultural artifacts in 1917.

It is also used the same sandstone that the ancient Ancestral Puebloans built their cliff dwellings with.

The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum features a look into the history of Mesa Verde through films and exhibits in an air-conditioned environment.

There’s also a bookstore, a gift shop, and a snack bar here for you to explore.

Enjoy Dinner with a View at the Metate Room

Nothing like wrapping up your trip with a delicious meal with a stunning view.

Fortunately, there is such a place in Mesa Verde, at the Metate Room.

Grab a hearty dinner at Metate Room, an upscale restaurant serving quality dishes in a casual setting with a view of the beautiful Mesa Verde plateau.

Located at 1 Navaro Road Far View Lodge, the Metate Room offers a contemporary menu inspired by the Native American flavors, and an interior with stunning Native American artworks and interiors.

You can’t go wrong with their ribeye steaks, trout, and salmon.

Although the food is good, the appeal is mainly the view.

Try having a drink on the balcony upstairs and watch the sunset with a loved one.

Climb to the Top at the Park Point

Scenic view from Park Point

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You can’t leave the Mesa Verde National Park without going to Park Point.

The views are too spectacular to miss.

The Park Point is the highest in Mesa Verde, standing at 8,572 feet.

However, it’s still just a nice, calm, and breezy place for a nice picnic or to take in the fantastic view of the snowy mountains, lush green forests, and wildlife.

Overlook at Park Point

William Silver / Shutterstock.com

You’ll see the San Juan Mountains in the north, the Deserts of New Mexico to the south, the Ute Mountains to the west, and the La Plata Mountains in the east.

In 1939, they built a fire lookout on Park Point, which was renovated in 2009 to help monitor and combat wildfires that could endanger the park.

There’s also information about the past fires that burned in the park.

Elevation signage at Park Point

William Silver / Shutterstock.com

See a Cultural Dance or Demonstration at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater

You can further appreciate the Ancient Puebloan heritage when you experience and see their culture up close.

The Mesa Verde National Park is one of the few places privileged to host unique cultural events.

All free performances are held at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater in the evening.

You’ll have the rare opportunity to watch traditional Hopi dances and other sacred performances and rituals by members of many existing Pueblos and tribes.

Join these programs to see genuine Pueblo culture and history come to life.

Go Stargazing

Stargazing at Mesa Verde

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The Ancestral Puebloans were avid observers of the skies, leaving evidence pointing to their knowledge of the stars.

Mesa Verde is one of the places you can go to see the beautiful night skies, away from towering skyscrapers, noisy vehicles, bustling crowds, and bright lights.

Here you’ll experience a lovely night sky similar to what the Ancestral Puebloans observed millions of years ago.

Although it is recommended you go to the Morefield Campground or Far View Lodge for stargazing, you can also go to the numerous overlooks for a more private stargazing experience.

Rest your eyes, stay away from bright light, and allow your eyes to adjust to the bright and starry night skies.

Don’t Miss the Winter Activities

Winter scene at Mesa Verde

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The Mesa Verde National Park isn’t just enjoyable during the summer.

You can also enjoy it during the cold winter.

Enjoy winter activities, such as snowshoeing, walking on winter trails, and cross-country skiing here at Mesa Verde.

It can become a relaxing, solitary experience as few people come during the cold season.

For all trails, you must go to the Morefield Campground Store to access their paths and, more importantly, learn where and where not to go.

Skiiers should go to the groomed trails perfect for classic skiing around the Morefield Campground Trail and the Meadow Bliss Trail.

There are many trail options for snowshoers: the challenging prater ridge trails, the easy knife edge trails, and other tough point lookout trails.

If you want to hike without snowshoes, you can still visit the petroglyphs at the petroglyph Trail, as the Chapin Mesa Rim Trail.

Final Thoughts

There truly is a reason the Mesa Verde National Park is a world heritage site.

It’s not only filled with amazing scenes of nature, impressive natural structures, unique flora and fauna, but it also contains the rich, thousand-year history of the Ancient Puebloans that once lived there.

This list of the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park should help you plan your next big vacation!

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