When exploring Mesa Verde with kids you’ll find lots of easy family-friendly activities. You can view cliff dwellings from overlooks, and take ranger-led tours through others. We visited Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado on our road trip cross-country.
Mesa Verde National Park is a series of mesas and canyons where the Ancestral Pueblo people lived for over 700 years. This park preserves the cultural heritage of 26 tribes that once lived in this area, tracing their path from pit houses to pueblos, to cliff dwellings.
In this post we’ll cover things to do in Mesa Verde, which cliff dwelling tours to consider, cultural programs you don’t want to miss, where to stay in and near Mesa Verde, and also where to eat in the park. We’ll also touch on when the best time is to visit the park, how to get there, and what to bring with you.
Please be aware that Mesa Verde National Park is a sacred place to many people, so when you visit, please be respectful, and leave no trace!
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What is Mesa Verde Known For?
Mesa Verde National Park is known for its preserved Ancestral Pueblo archeological sites including cliff-dwellings. The park includes over 4,500 archeological sites, about 600 of which are cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a Dark Sky Park.
It is fascinating to see how people lived on the steep slopes of the mesa. Rangers can point out hand holds the Ancestral Pueblo used to climb from one level of the dwellings to the next along the cliff face.
The cliff dwellings were inhabited for less than 100 years. By the year 1300, the area had become deserted, likely because of drought. Archeologists used to call the people who lived here Anasazi, a Navajo word that means “ancient foreigners”. The terminology has since been changed to Ancestral Pueblo to reflect their relation to the modern Pueblo tribes.
Mesa Verde National Park was named a World Heritage site in 1978. Your family will learn about different styles of building- from pit houses to pueblos to cliff dwellings. The kids will become familiar with terms like kiva and sipapu.
How Much Does Mesa Verde National Park Cost?
The Mesa Verde National Park entrance fee is $30- that is good for your full car and lasts for seven days (as of 2023). If you will be combining this visit with other National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass– this annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
4th graders also get a free annual park pass for their families.
Look for Junior Ranger packets in the Visitor Center. The kids complete the packets, and return them to be sworn in as Junior Rangers complete with a wooden badge! You may also want to get a family National Park Passport Book to stamp at each park you visit.
Things to Do in Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park was one of our favorite parks as a family. With an elevation of just over 8000 feet at the Far View Area, even in mid-summer temperatures are warm but comfortable, with highs in the mid-80s.
Mesa Verde National Park is not a huge park, you can see most kid-friendly parts of the park in two days. If you want to take longer hikes or more difficult cliff-dwelling tours, you may need more time. We spent a day and a half exploring the park, we stayed in the lodge for two nights.
Here is an itinerary for exploring the three sections of the park, what you’ll see, and how to navigate Mesa Verde to get the most out of your visit.
Entering the Park: Driving in and Overlooks
Once you enter the park, you’ll be on a winding, climbing road until you hit the Far View Area. This drive takes about 30 minutes without stops. About 1/3 of the way in you’ll pass the Morefield Campground, then drive through a tunnel. Take your time enjoying the overlooks along this road, they have wonderful vistas of the valley below!
After a late start out of Santa Fe, we drove into the park close to dusk. We stopped at Park Point Overlook for a picnic dinner and to watch the sunset. The sunset in the west was stunning. At the same time, in the eastern sky, a thunderstorm raged in the distance, so we watched lighting strikes against a pink sky.
There are two lookout points here, with a Fire Lookout in the middle. Rangers watch the skies here to locate any fires that result from the lightning.
Explore Mesa Verde: Chapin Mesa and Mesa Top Loop
Start your exploration by exploring Chapin Mesa which contains the Mesa Top Loop, Cliff House, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House.
If you get tickets to tour one of these cliff dwellings, you may spend the whole day here. Otherwise, head to Wetherill Mesa to do a self-guided tour of Step House.
Mesa Top Loop with Kids
We suggest starting your time in Mesa Verde with the Mesa Top Loop. Head south from the Far View Area to explore this six-mile, one-way loop with 11 stops.
Some of these stops are overlooks, others are pit houses which are essentially excavations under a rooftop to preserve them.
This loop gives you a good overview of the history of living in this area- first pit houses on the top of the mesa, to early pueblos (more rectangular and above ground), and then cliff dwellings. More than 600 years separate some of these structures, and in some places, you can see where one was built over the remains of an older style.
Some of the stops on this loop will need some explaining for kids to understand, and a bit of patience on their part, but build up an understanding of what they will see later.
The signage along these stops is decent and will help explain what you are looking at. Look for a booklet called “Mesa Top Loop” outside the loop stops, for a dollar donation it includes a lot of additional information.
One of the most exciting stops along this loop is the view of Square Tower House. When we visited we could see a tour group down below. Look back along the mesa wall to track their trail- it’s a steep one!
Square Tower House includes the tallest standing structure in the park, a four-story tower. The site is 90% original and includes painted murals and rock art.
I am a big believer in doing the most exciting parts of the park last, rather than hitting the highlights first and then being disappointed by the less dramatic parts. After seeing the archeological sites on the Mesa Loop, they’ll be thrilled to get up close to cliff dwellings.
Cliff Palace and Balcony House
After the Mesa Top Loop, you can head north to the turn-off for Cliff Palace and Balcony House. This would be a great time to take a ranger-led tour of either cliff dwelling if you can get tickets.
Spruce Tree House
Just north of the Cliff Palace Loop turn-off is Spruce Tree Terrace and the Archeological Museum. The museum is closed for 2023. Spruce Tree House is closed for the foreseeable future after a rockfall caused safety concerns. You can see Spruce Tree House from behind the museum.
The Spruce Canyon Trail leaves from here. We did the first part of this trail to see how close it got to the cliff dwelling, but the best views are from the flat rocks just below the museum.
If you are looking to add a hike, the Petroglyph Point Trail is a 2.4-mile loop, though much of it is in full sun, so bring lots of water. It descends into the canyon, with steep climbs coming back out.
You can take a break here and have a picnic lunch, get lunch at the Spruce Tree Terrace, or head to the Far View Terrace for a sandwich or iced coffee. In order to access the Wetherill Mesa part of the park, you’ll need to drive back through the Far View Area anyway.
The Wetherill Mesa Area
The Wetherill Mesa is accessed along a road west of the Far View Area. This road is only open May through September, and only to vehicles under 25 feet in length. This is the least visited part of the park, make sure not to miss it!
The road is about 12 miles long, you’ll cross the top of the mesa, with fields of flowers and grasses, before coming to the western edge with canyon views. Drive to the end of the road where you’ll find the parking area for Step House, as well as a ranger information area.
From the parking area, you’ll see the trail to Step House, the only cliff dwelling you can enter on a self-guided tour. You’ll enter through a gate, and proceed to hike switchbacks down along the mesa edge until you reach Step House.
Rangers will be on-site to answer questions- there is a reconstructed pit house, and a short ladder you can climb into Step House. If you look at the upper wall, you’ll see black soot from fires long ago, and even a handprint!
The hike down and back is a one-mile one-way loop, with some stairs, but it felt fairly safe, with handrails on the steeper parts. This was a highlight for our kids, they loved climbing the ladder (over and over), and the reconstructed pit house was great after seeing all the ruins along the Mesa Top Loop.
Long House Trail
The Long House Trail is a 6-mile loop that includes a viewpoint over the Long House, as well as a lookout over Kodak House. It leaves from the information center at Wetherill Mesa.
Cliff Dwelling Tours: Family-Friendly Options at Mesa Verde
You’ll need to book tickets in advance for a cliff-dwelling tour. Check the descriptions to see if each Mesa Verde tour is appropriate for your family, as some involve tall ladders and difficult hikes. Other ranger-led hikes are available, but they require longer hikes, steep descents, and scrambling over rocks.
Tickets for cliff dwelling tours open 14 days in advance of each tour, and 8 am MST. These tickets often sell out in minutes, so set an alarm!
So which Mesa Verde tours are best? Check the Mesa Verde tour descriptions below to see which fits your family’s ages and abilities.
Cliff Palace Tour
Cliff Palace Tour is the most popular tour in Mesa Verde National Park. This is the largest dwelling in the park with more than 150 rooms. The one-hour tour includes climbing 5 approximately ten-foot ladders, and a 1/4 mile hike. We would love to return to the park when this tour is running again! So far there is no timeline for the end of the road construction.
Balcony House Tour
Balcony House is a mid-sized cliff dwelling, with about 40 rooms. This tour is more appropriate for older children- it includes climbing a 32-foot ladder, and scrambling through a 12-foot-long tunnel. This tour is a highlight for families with older kids as it feels adventurous.
Long House Tour
Long House is on the Wetherill Mesa, so plan time to get to the trailhead for your tour. The second-largest cliff dwelling in the park, there is an active spring on site.
The tour lasts two hours and includes climbing 2 15-foot ladders and just over 2 miles of hiking round trip. This tour has become very hard to get with the closure of both Cliff Palace and Balcony House.
Cultural Programs at Mesa Verde with Kids
Mesa Verde National Park held the first evening campfire talks in the national park system back in 1907 and is proud to continue that tradition. During the summer season, they host programs, generally on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at the amphitheater in Morefield Campground.
The weekend we visited they featured the Red Sky Drum Group on Thursday night and the Oak Canyon Dancers on Saturday night. These programs are free and open to the public.
Red Sky Drum Group
We attended the Red Sky Drum Group performance. It was a wonderful program. The members of the group are Ute and alternated between dancing and drums, and telling stories from their tradition. The kids loved the colorful costumes and the stories.
The program lasted about an hour, then the performers took questions. At the end, the kids had a chance to examine their costumes and meet them in person if they wished. You can read more about the group and see videos of some of their performances on their Facebook page.
Lodging Options in Mesa Verde National Park
There is only one lodge in Mesa Verde National Park- the Far View Lodge. The main lodge building has registration, a small gift shop, and the main dining lodge. The lodging rooms are in separate motel-style buildings up the hill from the main lodge. The lodge is open from late April to mid-October. You can reserve rooms online.
Each of the rooms has large windows and a balcony looking out over the park. The rooms are very comfortable, and although we have heard that wild horses can sometimes be seen grazing nearby, we didn’t see them in this part of the park.
Make sure to inquire about cultural programs when you check into the lodge. These programs often happen Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, though they are not always widely advertised.
If you prefer camping, you can stay at the Morefield Campground, closer to the park entrance, which also accepts RVs up to 46 feet. The amphitheater in the campground is where many of the cultural programs take place.
Lodging Near Mesa Verde
For lodging outside the park, look at the town of Cortez, CO. You’ll have a 45-60 minute drive into the park each day, but these options are more affordable than staying inside the park.
The Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez gets great reviews for its comfortable rooms, great breakfast, and indoor pool and hot tub.
Book Now: Holiday Inn Mesa Verde
Where to Eat in Mesa Verde with Kids
There are five options for eating within the park, however, in 2021 many are serving limited menus with limited hours.
Metate Dining Room
The Metate Dining Room in the Far View Lodge is the main park dining room and the only one open for dinner when we visited. We made a reservation for a 5:00 pm dinner in order to finish in time to drive to the amphitheater for an evening program starting at 7 pm. The food was ok, but the service was extremely slow, we struggled to finish our meal by 6:30. There is no outdoor seating.
Far View Terrace Cafe
The Far View Terrace Cafe is open for breakfast (7-10 am) and lunch (11- am- 2 pm). They do have outdoor seating. We ate breakfast in our room and had a picnic lunch, so we didn’t try this cafe.
Far View Lounge
The lounge in the Far View Lodge offers snacks and appetizers as well as drinks.
Spruce Tree Terrace
The Spruce Tree Terrace was closed for repairs when we visited, but it looks like it has since reopened from 11-2 pm with a limited menu.
When is the Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde National Park?
The best time to visit Mesa Verde is during May and September when the park is in full operation, but you don’t have the summer crowds. Outside of these months, you’ll find parts of the park closed.
Mesa Verde’s peak season is during the summer months of June, July, and August. This is when you’ll find evening programs at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater, and also when you will find peak crowds. However, compared to many other national parks, we didn’t find Mesa Verde uncomfortably crowded during the summer.
You’ll want to visit “in-season” (May to September 30) to stay in the park. The Wetherill Mesa Road is only open May through September, depending on the weather.
In the summer months the evening programs are on the weekends, so plan to spend a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night in the park to take advantage of these programs.
Getting to Mesa Verde National Park with Kids
Mesa Verde is in southwestern Colorado, 45 minutes west of Durango, and abuts the Ute Mountain Reservation. You will need a car to get to the park and to explore once you are inside the park.
Renting a Car for Mesa Verde
If you are flying into Colorado or New Mexico to get to Mesa Verde, you will need a rental car. Some people also prefer a rental car over their own vehicle for more space, and better gas mileage.
There are some roads in the park that are not open to larger vehicles like RVs, but they are all paved and you will not need a four-wheel drive.
We get our rental cars through Discover Cars- they offer a range of clear options, with no surprise fees.
Book a Rental Car: Discover Cars
Driving to Mesa Verde
We drove in from Santa Fe, NM, a drive time of 4 1/2 hours to the park entrance. Coming from Santa Fe, there were no stops of any size for the last hour before the park entrance, so plan your meals accordingly. There is only one park entrance, located ten miles from Cortez, CO.
If you are including Santa Fe in your itinerary, make sure to include a visit to Meow Wolf Santa Fe!
Denver to Mesa Verde: Denver is a 7-hour drive from Mesa Verde. Consider breaking up the drive with stops in Alamosa if it is one of the best times to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. Sand Sledding at Great Sand Dunes is so much fun for the whole family. Canon City and Durango also make interesting stops along the way. Check the Denver
Santa Fe to Mesa Verde: Mesa Verde is about 4 1/2 hours from Santa Fe to the park entrance. Santa Fe is an easy airport to fly into to reach Mesa Verde.
Albuquerque to Mesa Verde: From Albuquerque, it is just over a 4-hour drive to Mesa Verde. There are often good flight options into Alburquerque. It is also only an hour from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, where there are a lot of fun things to do.
Grand Canyon to Mesa Verde: The Grand Canyon is 4 1/2 hours from the entrance to Mesa Verde, so you can easily move between these parks in one day. Consider a stop at the Four Corners Monument on your way. (Though the Grand Canyon was one of our least favorite national parks as a family).
Mesa Verde to Four Corners Monument: The Four Corners Monument is a one-hour drive from the Mesa Verde park entrance. From there you can continue to the Grand Canyon, head up to Moab, Utah, or down to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Mesa Verde to Monument Valley: Monument Valley is 2 hours and 45 minutes from Mesa Verde. Here you’ll need to take guided tours to explore this Navajo land.
Mesa Verde to Arches National Park: To visit Arches National Park and Canyonlands you’ll need to base yourself in Moab, Utah. Moab has great places to stay near Arches, and is a 2-hour and 15-minute drive from the Mesa Verde park entrance.
If you are planning a road trip, check out Road Trip Essentials which includes everything from safety checks to car trash bags and backseat organizers.
Flying to Mesa Verde
The nearest airport is Durango, CO, although you may find cheaper flights into Santa Fe, NM, or Albuquerque, NM. You will need a car to explore the park, so plan to rent a car from the airport
How Much Do I Need to Plan Ahead for Mesa Verde?
We advise booking a room at the Far View Lodge in advance. It is the only lodge in the park and can book up a year in advance, so the sooner you can reserve rooms in these parks, the better. If you would like to have dinner in the dining room in the lodge, you should make reservations ahead of time as well.
There are no reservations required to enter the park. If you are interested in a cliff-dwelling tour, you will need to book it in advance. Tickets for tours go on sale 14 days in advance, and in 2021, sold out in mere minutes. Many of the cliff-dwelling tours include climbing tall ladders and crawling through tight spaces, so read the details closely before booking.
Download maps and apps ahead of time. Do not count on wifi or cell service in the park.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips– you don’t want to miss out on the cliff tours!
What to Bring to Mesa Verde National Park
There are several things you’ll need to bring to Mesa Verde National Park to make your stay fun and enjoyable!
Clothing for Changeable Weather
Bring jackets and rain gear. In the summer, lightning storms can spring up quickly, often in the evenings. We visited in July and had several nights where we watched lightning storms in the distance, and one evening when it sprinkled on us.
We love these Colombia rain jackets for our kids- they are inexpensive, breathable, and hold up well.
A Full Tank of Gas
You’ll be driving long distances, and don’t want to run out of gas. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from the park entrance, to the Far View Lodge, which is approximately in the center of the park.
Don’t leave home without SafetyWing travel insurance! They’ll cover any accidents or mishaps along the way from lost luggage to trip interruption.
Get a Quote: SafetyWing Travel Insurance
FAQ: Mesa Verde with Kids
Yes! Mesa Verde is one our family’s favorite national parks. The combination of beautiful scenery, archeology, and wildlife is wonderful. Add in the adventure of climbing ladders and ducking through tunnels while exploring a cliff dwelling, and you’ve got a family vacation to remember.
You can see most of Mesa Verde National Park in one full day. We recommend two nights in the park, allowing you one full day to explore. If you plan for many cliff dwelling tours or multiple hikes, you may prefer to have an extra day.
Yes, there is a lot you can see at Mesa Verde without a tour. There are two main driving roads that loop through the park with viewpoints. From some of these, you can look down at cliff dwellings. There is Step House cliff dwelling is the only one that you can visit on your own without a guided tour.
Cortez, Colorado is the closest town to Mesa Verde National Park. There is only one entrance to Mesa Verde, which is about 10 miles from Cortez.
Cliff Dwellings were only inhabited in Mesa Verde for about 100 years. Drought and over hunting are thought to be the reason that the area was abandoned.
There You Have It: Mesa Verde National Park with Kids
Mesa Verde is a great family-friendly national park. A Mesa Verde vacation is a great combination of amazing views, archeological sites, short hikes, and exploring cliff dwellings. It is easy to explore in a day or two and gives kids a great introduction to some Ancestral Pueblo practices and culture. We loved visiting Mesa Verde with kids and think you will to!
Or consider heading two hours northwest to Moab, Utah where you’ll find great hiking in Arches National Park, as well as Canyonlands National Park.