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5 Amazing Things to Know About Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde National Park

exploring and camping at Mesa Verde

High above the valley floor, Mesa Verde offers an amazing opportunity to explore the ancient dwellings of the Pueblo people. Camping at Mesa Verde is the perfect way to see this unique National Park and spend the night under the stars.

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde is semi-arid with a range of ecosystems and over 6,000 ancient dwellings.

We visited Mesa Verde in mid-August of 2021 and were blown away by the scenery and the sheer number of dwellings in the area. We spent the night at Morefield Campground and will share everything you need to know for exploring and camping at Mesa Verde!

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5 Things to Know About Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde

There is a lot to know before your visit to Mesa Verde. Check out this quick list below and scroll down for more details on what you need to know before you visit and camp at Mesa Verde.

  1. Take a Tour and Book it in Advance
  2. List of Things to Do at Mesa Verde
  3. Camping at Morefield Campground
  4. Be Prepared for the Driving and Remoteness
  5. Respect the History and Sacredness of this place

What to Know about Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde was established to protect the 6,000 cliff dwelling in the area. The Pueblo people lived in what is now Mesa Verde between 550 and 1300 AD The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in this area between 550 and 1300 AD. The majority of the cliff dwellings were built between 1190 and 1270s. 

Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is a great year-round travel destination, but if you are camping, your best months will be April-October and you will find several campgrounds only open during the summer months. Winters can be chilly, so if you’re visiting in the winter plan to dress warmly.

In the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are common, so it is best to explore in the morning. When we visited in August, a large thunderstorm rolled in overnight. It was beautiful to watch from high on the Mesa, but not so fun to hang out in the tent!

Basic Geography of Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is located high on a Mesa. Once you enter the park, the road winds up the steep walls of the Mesa to the plateau on top. Once you are up on the Mesa, the park is broken into two Mesas: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. Most of the main attractions are on Chapin Mesa, but if you want to see the quieter side of Mesa Verde, visit Wetherill Mesa.

Map of Mesa Verde Things to Know

How to Get to Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is in Southwestern Colorado. The closest airport is Cortez Airport. The best way to get to Mesa Verde and around is by car, so you will want to rent a car if you aren’t driving to the area.

Common Driving Distances:

  • Durango to Mesa Verde: 40 min
  • Denver to Mesa Verde: 7 hours
  • Zion to Mesa Verde: 5.5 hours
  • Phoenix to Mesa Verde: 6.5 hours
  • Albuquerque to Mesa Verde: 4 hours

How Long do You Need at Mesa Verde

You should plan on a day to explore Mesa Verde with either 1-2 nights of camping. This will give you time to see the main sites and do a tour. If you plan to drive out to Wetherill Mesa, you may want to give yourself 2 days.

Complete Details of Things to Know About Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde

Take a Tour and Book it in Advance

The best thing to do when you visit Mesa Verde is to take a tour on one of the ancient dwellings. Tours are offered only during the summer months and you should absolutely book a tour in advance. We had trouble booking a tour as there were still limited options with COVID and we waited too long.

You can only enter most cliff dwellings with a guide, so booking a tour will give you the best views of the dwellings and will give you a deeper understanding and better perspective on what you are seeing. There is some great signage and information available if you don’t do a tour as well, but we highly recommend a tour.

You can see more about booking a tour at NPS.

  • When you book a Mesa Verde tour, you will book a tour of a specific dwelling. Here are your options:
    Cliff House Tour
     – this is a moderately difficult tour that includes stair and a ladder. The tour is just 30 minutes to a nice short one to an amazing house.
  • Long House Tour – The long House Tour is more difficult and lasts 120 minutes over 2.25 miles.
  • Balcony House Tour – This is another difficult tour that includes a long 32-foot ladder and a crawl through a narrow tunnel and more This 90-minute tour is the most adventurous!
  • Mug House – Another difficult tour that descends via switchbacks to the Mug House and Rock Art.

Also check out the tours to Oak Tree House, Spring House, and Yucca House tours.

Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde
Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde

Things to Do at Mesa Verde

In addition to taking a guided tour, there are many other activities to do in Mesa Verde. Most of the popular sites are found on Chapin Mesa, but driving out to Wetherill Mesa gets you off the beaten path. Use the map above to plan your activities or choose from the list below:

Drive the Loops to see the Different Sites – this is the most obvious thing to do at Mesa Verde and should be at the top of your list. To get to the best loops, you will drive the exciting Mesa Top Ruins Road. There are several great places to stop for views including Montezuma Valley Overlook, Park Point, Far View House and Geologic Overlook. Once you are at the loops we recommend driving all the loops and stopping at the sites along the way.

Lookout for Wildlife: There is more to Mesa Verde than the cliff dwelling, including a diverse ecosystem with plenty of animals including bear, wild horses, deer, and the Mexican Owl.

Take a Hike: To see many of the dwellings you will need to take a hike to access them. There are also several excellent hikes from the Morefield Campground and on Wetherill Mesa. Here are a few of the best hikes:

  • Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles)
  • Cliff Palace Loop (0.4 miles)
  • Soda Canyon OVerlook Trail (1.2 miles)
  • Mesa Top Loop Rd (4.6 miles)
  • Long House Trail (2.1 miles)
  • Wetherill Mesa Loop (6 miles)

Star Gaze: If you’re lucky enough to be there on a clear night, the stars here away from the city lights are amazing.

Do a Self-Guided Tour: A great option to explore the park is to do a self-guided tour. You can simply download an audio tour or podcast.

Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde
Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde

Camping at Morefield Campground

We loved camping at Morefield Campground inside the park. This campground is huge and rarely fills up although reservations are still recommended. We visited on a weekday in mid-August and the campground was maybe 20% full.

Morefield Campground is made up of several loops and has 267 spots for tents, RVs and groups. You can book your spot through the National Park Service.

Once we booked our spot, we stopped by the Morefield Ranger Station on our way in, and then we could simply go pick any spot we liked. There are 3 loops in the campground and we drove every loop looking for a good spot and finally determined that they are all good sites. The sites are mostly private with bathrooms nearby and many have excellent views. We could watch the sunset right from our site!

We recommend Morefield Campground for exploring since you are already inside the park although there are several good options for camping outside Mesa Verde if you want to be closer to restaurants, etc.

Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde
Exploring and Camping at Mesa Verde

Be Prepared for the Driving and Remoteness

Before you drive up onto the Mesa, there are a few things to know. We were surprised by the remoteness of the park. There is a camp store at Morefield Campground but besides bathrooms, you will find very few facilities. Make sure you enter the park with a full talk of gas and food and water for your stay. While you can drive out to get things, you are pretty far from the nearest gas station.

It’s also important to know that many of the roads are windy and there was a recent fire in Table Mesa so you will likely drive through some areas that have been burnt.

Respect the History and Sacredness of this place

Table Mesa is not just a tourist destination, but a sacred place. For 700 years the Pueblo People lived here and built a thriving culture. Please respect signage and stay on the trail. As always, practice Leave No Trace. It is truly a privilege to visit this place.

We loved our visit to Mesa Verde during our 1-month road trip and hope to make it back soon to do a few more of the tours.

Looking for more places to explore, check out our guides to Zion and Rocky Mountain National Park.

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