Mesa Verde National Park is found on Colorado’s Western border and is one of the most unique parks in the collection. You’ll discover, among other amazing sights, the amazing and sacred Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, where the ancient Indigenous people lived for over 700 years, from A.D. 550 to 1300.
The park consists of 52,073 acres of federal land. Totally deserted by A.D. 1300 (no one knows exactly why, but warfare seems to be a factor), President Teddy Roosevelt made the pristine landscape a national park on June 29, 1906.
Mesa Verde National Park is within an hour’s drive from Durango and Dolores, both of which make excellent home bases for your RV travels. Here are some tips for visiting the park in an RV, plus suggestions for where to stay and eat along the way.
1. Carve Out Enough Time
Mesa Verde National Park requires a few hours to see effectively. Keep in mind that there are 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings inside this wondrous attraction. You could easily spend 4 to 5 hours there, but we saw everything we needed to in 3 — it wasn’t my first visit.
From the time your RV reaches the visitor center at the entrance, it will take around 45 minutes to make it to the most desirable locations: Cliff Palace and the Mesa Top loops. The speed limit is slow and the incline steep.
2. Pack Snacks And Drinks
Since there are no concessions inside Mesa Verde National Park, and it takes a minimum of 90 minutes round trip to reach the key attractions, you’ll want to come prepared with snacks and drinks. We bring a small cooler iced down for bottled water (or in our insulated Yeti tumblers) and sodas. Bagged snacks are good — nuts, cookies, trail mix, whatever you desire — but a thing I learned when traveling with my friend Sara was to bring sandwich fixings.
For us, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are just fine. Bring a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, packets or a jar of jelly, and a plastic knife for pulling off the road and throwing together a satisfying sandwich. Don’t forget the paper towels or napkins.
Pro Tip: Many newbies visit national parks, and they may not be as prepared as you. Keep your eyes open and offer a bottle of cold water or snacks if you see someone who looks like they could use it.
3. Know The Key Routes And Viewpoints
Cliff Palace Loop Road
My favorite part of Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace Loop Road, a 6-mile driving adventure. Here, you’ll find sweeping canyon views indented with the homes that ancient people used, as well as Cliff Palace, the biggest cliff dwelling in North America. The old cliff homes were constructed from sandstone, mortar, and wooden beams. I almost felt like I could see the day-to-day life in each of the built-in rooms, the area bustling with people and thriving communities. It appears almost like a miniature village from far away.
Pro Tip: Use Cliff Palace Overlook on the loop or Sun Temple on the Mesa Top Loop for the best views.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
If you are intrigued with history, and I’m figuring you must be by visiting this fantastic park, drive up to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to see the exhibits describing Native American culture during the time these mountains were inhabited. Spruce Tree House (the best-preserved cliff dwelling) can be seen from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Note: As of June 2022, the museum is closed for renovations — including the addition of accessible ramps. Check its website for updates.
Mesa Top Loop Road
Driving Mesa Top Loop Road will bring you face to face with 10 stops featuring majestic overlooks and historical sites. Among the most famous is Sun Point Overlook, where the pictures are sure to impress.
Enrich your drive by learning all the while. The Mesa Top Loop Audio Tour: A Pueblo Perspective on Mesa Verde, an audio tour narrated by park ranger TJ Atsye, a direct descendant of the people who lived here, is available on the NPS website and app. The podcast lasts 40 minutes. I recommend everyone download this podcast so you can experience a narrated explanation of what you are seeing as you wander the gorgeous scenery of this 6-mile loop.
If you want to focus on rock carvings, make it a point to visit Petroglyph Point Trail. Balcony House is another pretty spot with 13th-century cliff dwellings.
4. Plan Your Preferred Exertion Level
My husband and I walked out to many of the overlooks, and they were all easy walks. There is also plenty of parking fairly close to the attractions. There wasn’t anywhere in Mesa Verde National Park that we were overexerted, but we also didn’t take any hikes.
If you wish to hike, head over to the Wetherill Mesa, where you will have plenty of opportunities for hiking (even with pets), biking, and many ranger-led hikes. Another perk of doing Wetherill Mesa is that Step House, the only cliff dwelling you can visit without a tour, is found here.
Mesa Verde National Park may be busier in the prime of summer, so consider going to the park early morning or later in the day to avoid the daily rush (9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
5. Buy Tickets In Advance
You can purchase digital park entrance passes online at Recreation.gov. You can either print them or have them saved to your mobile device for your visit. Remember that cell service is very limited or non-existent in many of the national parks — namely this one — so saving the tickets on your phone can help if your phone service is not working. You can also use your America the Beautiful or National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands passes (Senior, Annual, or Access) at this park.
Tickets to enter Mesa Verde National Park cost $30 per vehicle (May 1 through October 31) and are valid for seven days. Winter prices are $20 per vehicle.
6. Study Its Accolades — It Can Add To Your Stay
I’m a UNESCO World Heritage Site fan and try to add a few new locations to my travels yearly. Mesa Verde National Park became a UNESCO member in 1978. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and its World Heritage Sites are deemed to display “cultural and natural heritage … considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
Mesa Verde is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, which means the area possesses exceptional views of the night sky and stars. It was the 100th site added to the list. Per the national park’s website, Morefield Campground and Far View Lodge are two places where visitors can stay overnight (May to October) for excellent stargazing. They even sometimes host ranger-led evening programs.
Pro Tips: As I learned at Big Bend National Park, it can take 20-25 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, allowing ample time away from bright lights before attempting to enjoy the night sky views. Follow this tip at any of these dark sky national parks.
7. Where To RV
Oasis RV Resort
My husband and I are full-time RVers. The park we chose to stay at for visiting Mesa Verde National Park was Oasis RV Resort and Cottages in Durango, Colorado.
The Oasis RV Resort is in a great location, only 6 minutes from many retail stores (Walmart included) and 12 minutes from historic downtown Durango. Rates are affordable, the park is quiet, and it has plenty of things to enjoy while you are there. The campground offers a seasonal cafe, dog park, community fire ring, mini-golf, and a heated pool. I was thrilled to see a whole recycling area, a rarity in the RV world.
Fun Fact: Oasis RV Resort has locations in Gunnison, Colorado; and Amarillo, Texas, too.
Dolores River RV Resort And Cabins By R Journey
Another excellent location for RVing is in the town of Dolores. The highly-rated Dolores River RV Resort and Cabins has spaces for RVers like me, cottages for those looking for a slice of home, and accomodations for those craving something new and fun, such as yurts, adorable covered wagons, and vintage Airstream trailers.
FYI: Dolores is 21 minutes to the north of Mesa Verde National Park, while Durango is 39 minutes to the east.
8. Where To Eat
Mesa Verde is situated in the town of Mancos, Colorado. We adored this cute small town, a heavy hitter in murals and great for fishing, camping, and boating. Lunch or dinner is exceptional from Chavolo’s, a Mexican restaurant right off the main highway. The chili con queso will leave you scraping the bowl; it’s so good.
My husband and I shared chicken fajitas for two, which looked like every other fajita skillet we order but had a much-elevated taste. I’m not sure how they season the chicken, but it is so darned good. The ingredients were all fresh, too.
Afterward, head over to Absolute Bakery (closed on Mondays) to satisfy your sweet tooth.
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