Translated from Spanish as “green table”, Mesa Verde National Park is very appropriately named. The “green table” for which it’s named is prominent from the start, appearing very shortly once you pass the entrance. One of the first things I remarked upon on after entering was the full, lush greenery that encased the mountains, surrounding us like a hug. While the drive from the entrance to the top is rather long and winding (make sure you have a full gas tank!), you get gorgeous views of the mountainside and surrounding valley below. It will give you a very “I’m on top of the world” feeling.
Located within the American Southwest, in the southwest corner of Colorado, it’s rather accessible to those within the surrounding areas. It’s a 4-hour drive from Albuquerque, 6 from Phoenix and Salt Lake City, roughly 6.5 from Denver, and roughly 7.5 from Vegas and Amarillo. Regarding road tripping – it’s very doable. In fact, these cities all house the nearest large airports, so road tripping might be the best (or only) option (there is a small “puddle jumper” airport in nearby Cortez, Co.; however, flight times and dates might be limited).
As a National Park (NP), it’s very easy to traverse and certainly not the most crowded, large, or complex NP I’ve been to. We started the journey at around 7am in Phoenix, first stopping at Four Corners National Monument (blog on that coming up!), and still managed to see and experience about 80% of Mesa Verde despite stopping. This was mainly due to the prior stop being a 45-minute quick venture and not an all-day event. We arrived at Mesa Verde at exactly 3pm and stayed for approximately 3 hours. We left around 6pm because 1) the road and trail to the main site (Castle Palace) was closed to visitors, cutting our visit shorter (more on that later), and 2) numerous signs state that the gates are closed and locked at “sunset”. Better to not risk it!
However, both my brother and I felt that 3 hours was a decent amount of time (especially with that main event being closed). Not only were other numerous stops closed off for one reason or another, but Mesa Verde is not a hiking-friendly NP, unlike the Grand Canyon or Zion. Due to the delicate and important nature of the artifacts and sites at Mesa Verde, it’s more of a “look and appreciate from a distance” NP. There are numerous turnoffs and parking spaces at each stop, varying between epic lookout points across valleys and near cliff dwellings to partially enclosed archeological sites.
Truthfully, after about the 5th enclosed archeological site, they all begin to look the same: medium-sized dirt pits carved into the ground with maybe a few holes here or there that once housed something important. It was great to see the first handful in person because it is such an important piece of history; however, there can only be so many variations to “large hole in the ground that was once a hut”.
Now the lookout points… epic. There are two great lookout points called Point Lookout and Navajo Canyon View, with the latter being near the Square Tower House cliff dwelling. While both offer amazing views, Navajo Canyon View is unbelievable. Easy to access and right off the main road leading through the park, it’s must-see. All the lookout points showcase the beautiful mountains and valleys of Mesa Verde, but many also afford magnificent views of the various multi-family cliff dwellings built into the cliffside. These cliff dwellings were mind-blowing. Both towering and complex, these large mini cities were made of mud bricks and built super high, directly into the cliffside by people who lived 921 years ago.
More must-sees are the above-mentioned Square Tower House, Sun Point View, and of course, the Castle Palace. The way the cliffside is built, Square Tower House is probably the most up-close cliff house available to see. Sun Point View is right before the Sun Temple and lookout point for the Castle Palace, and it is WELL worth a stop. Here, you look down into a canyon, and are greeted by cliff dwelling after cliff dwelling, all also built high into the cliffside. It reminded me of mini subdivisions in a city. Some were larger and more complex than others, but they were all incredible, especially given the time they were built with the tools that were available. As for Crystal Palace… it’s certainly earned its name. Massive and intricate, it’s a multi-level, multi-room community mecca, by far the largest of the bunch. To put it into perspective, if Mesa Verde were a modern-day city, the Crystal Palace would be downtown/inner city and the rest of the cliff dwellings sprinkled throughout would be the suburbs. Sadly, the road to the Palace was closed and blocked by an NP employee. I am not sure why.
To be honest, I am unsure if we would’ve been able to see the Palace up close anyway, as it’s one of the sites that requires a ticket (aka tour). I figured there might be a nearby pathway we could take, but alas, we never found out. The other ticket-required site is the Balcony House. As for getting a ticket – good luck. They are usually booked up months in advance, so best to really plan ahead!
Last, but not least, the bathrooms. As with most NPs, there is a nice, regular bathroom near the entrance; however, the bathrooms sprinkled throughout on the side of the road or near the sites are all port-a-potty style. Some were cleaner than others 🥴. Just an fyi!
In the spirit of full transparency, Mesa Verde National Park is not the most mind blowing or jaw-dropping NP I have been to. While it is quite beautiful, serene, and educational, it lacks a certain “OMG factor” that NPs like Zion (Zion National Park.), Grand Canyon (Grand Canyon National Park (it’s really grand).), Glacier, Redwoods, and Yosemite can invoke. That’s not to say that Mesa Verde isn’t far behind these above-mentioned NPs. While it may not be the most jaw-dropping NP, it was still gorgeous and a fantastic learning and life experience. Please don’t pass over this wonderful National Park. Come take a seat at the green table!
P.S. As mentioned in the beginning, the closest town is Cortez, Colorado, with a population of about 8,800. It’s about 10 miles outside the entrance to the park and offers numerous lodging accommodations, including hotels, motels, and Airbnb’s. We stayed at the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel, which is roughly 25 minutes south of Mesa Verde and on tribal land, outside city limits. It was a nice enough hotel and I’d stay there again (although they did put bulky anti-theft security tags inside all of their pillows…). As for food, there are numerous restaurants to choose from within Cortez and we chose Gustavo’s Mexican Bar and Grill. I’d rate it a 3/5. Last important note – the surrounding areas sit on Ute tribal land, so everywhere outside of Mesa Verde and the Cortez city limits is subject to Ute tribal law.