If you are planning to visit Mesa Verde CO, then you are almost certainly doing so to see the native American cliff dwellings.  Mesa Verde National Park is not the only place in the US that you can see Anasazi cliff dwellings, but it is arguably the most famous.  For a reason.  The Mesa Verde Colorado cliff dwellings are some of the largest and best-preserved in the country.  Visiting them is to walk through and discover their fascinating history. 

I love Mesa Verde, but, before I went there, I found it quite confusing.  What cliff dwellings were available, what were worth seeing, how could I see them, and how did I get tickets?  Well, if you are feeling the same way, let me help take the confusion away. 

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How to Visit Mesa Verdes Cliff Dwellings
Visit Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings_All You Need to Know

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A Quick Orientation to Mesa Verde 

Before we start looking at the Mesa Verde dwellings, there are some important things to note. 

First, in case you are wondering ‘What does “Mesa Verde” mean?’, a mesa (which literally means “table” in Spanish) is a small(ish) flat-topped hill with steep sides.  “Verde” is “green” in Spanish, named because of the trees on top.  In actual fact, Mesa Verde isn’t a mesa because it slopes down gradually at one side rather than having steep drop offs on all sides, but let’s overlook that technicality.   

The second thing you need to know is that Mesa Verde is actually two separate mesas.   

Chapin Mesa 

This is where most of the major dwellings are.  It is the first mesa you reach when you drive up from the Visitor Center / park entrance at the bottom of the mesa. 

Wetherill Mesa 

This is smaller and less visited.  To get there, you need to drive down from the beginning of Chapin Mesa into the ravine between them, and back up again, so it is not quick.  It is a narrow, winding road that is closed from October to May.  Vehicles longer than 25 feet are not permitted on the road to Wetherill Mesa.  There are only five cliff dwellings, but one of them is Long House, the second largest dwelling.  If you decide to visit Wetherill Mesa, allow about half a day. 

When is the Wetherill Mesa Road open?

The road is not open year round.

It is closed October 31 (or earlier) to May 2 (or later)

It is open:

  • May 2 (or as soon as weather/road conditions permit) to May 28: 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. 
  • May 29 to October 23: 8:00 am to 7:00 pm.  Long House and Step House can be visited during this time  
  • October 18 to October 31 (earlier if weather conditions close the road): 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. 

Travel Times in Mesa Verde National Park 

  • To get from the Visitor Center near the park entrance (at the bottom of the mesas) to Chapin Mesa takes about an hour.   
  • To get from the Visitor Center to Wetherill Mesa takes about 1.5 hours.   
  • To get from Chapin Mesa to Wetherill Mesa takes about 1.25 hours.  

For more practical information on Mesa Verde, including where to stay, when to go, where to eat and how to get around, read my Guide to Visiting Mesa Verde.

Third, one small thing to note is that while you may see some reference online to the Anasazi, Mesa Verde staff now refer to the original inhabitants of this area as the Ancestral Puebloans, since they are the ancestors of the current Puebloan people. 

A fourth thing to keep in mind is that the cliff dwellings are just that – they are built in overhangs in the cliffs that are below the top of the mesa, so you need to descend down into them (and ascend back out at the end).  If you have mobility difficulties, then there are still overlooks where you can see many of the dwellings.

Balcony House Mesa Verde National Park
Balcony House

Finally, visiting the cliff dwelling may the main reason to go to Mesa Verde, but there are more things to do. Check out my Top Ten Things to Do In and Near Mesa Verde for more details.

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Guide to Visiting the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

How to Visit Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings 

We will take a look at each of the famous cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in a moment, but first, a quick overview of how to see them.  There are basically four “types” of dwellings (from a sightseeing standpoint, not architecturally or historically-speaking). 

(1) Cliff dwelling that have daily, ranger-assisted tours 

These are the three major cliff dwellings and they all have (largish) tours throughout the day, every day in the season. 

The tours aren’t tours per se.  This is actually more of a timed entry system.  You enter at the time on your ticket and move through the dwelling in a (large) group.  There are rangers spaced along the way to give information.   

Although there are ladders to climb, they are very wide and designed for mass use.  You do need to have a basic level of fitness, good health and regular mobility, but if you do, you should be fine.  However, bear in mind that you will be between 7,000 and 7,500 feet (2,134m and 2,286m) above sea level, which can affect some people and make physical activity more difficult.  You should wear solid shoes or boots (read my Guide to the Best Hiking Shoes/ Boots if you need to buy some). 

Balcony House as a narrow section you need to crawl through. 

ny House exit ladder and steep steps Mesa Verde National Park
Exiting Balcony House up a ladder and steep steps

Buying tickets for Mesa Verde tours 

You used to have to buy the ranger-assisted Mesa Verde tours in person, but now you can only buy them online. 

Tickets go on sale 14 days/ 2 weeks in advance at 8:00 am Mountain Time (so, for example, tickets for a June 21 tour go on sale June 7 at 8:00am MT). 

You used to be able to get tickets fairly easily, but in summer – and especially with COVID – tickets can sell out quickly. So, I recommend booking right at 8:00am on the day the tickets get released.  You will book on the National Park reservation system recreation.gov. Note that before you can book anything, you need to be logged in, which means you need to first create a profile.  Do this a day or two (or more – do it right now if you want) before the tickets go on sale.  Then, on the day (exactly 14 days before you want to take the tour), log in about 7:45am Mountain Time. Have your credit card ready.  Choose the tour you want to do and wait until 8:00am when it gets released, then book it straight away.  

If you are traveling at a busy time or trying to get tickets for one of the special tours (which only have 10 spaces), if you have more than one computer and several household members, you could all log on at the same time and each book different tours (this is what I do).

Then, print your receipt or take a screen shot of it.  This will act as your ticket.  I like to take a screen shot or take a photo of a print out and save it on my phone as a backup, so I always have it with me.  

Which cliff dwellings have regular ranger-assisted tours? 

  • Cliff Palace 
    • Chapin Mesa 
    • Late May – Mid-September 
    • Available in 2021 
  • Balcony House 
    • Chapin Mesa 
    • Late April – Early October 
    • NOT open for tours in 2021 
  • Long House 
    • Wetherill Mesa 
    • Mid-May to mid-October 
    • Available in 2021 

Tickets are $8 per person (it’s the same price for adults and children). 

Balcony House ladder Mesa Verde National Park
Ladder to climb into Balcony House

(2) Cliff dwellings that have special tours 

There are several cliff dwellings that you can only see on a small tour that goes once or twice a day (or sometimes just a few times a season).  There are several dwellings in this category, but they are not all available every year.  Each year some are closed for the full season to prevent damaging them from over usage.  For example, I saw Square Tower House and Oak Tree House, but Oak Tree House is not open for visitors in 2021 (but other ones are).   

These tours are typically early in the morning and you go in a small group (just 10 people) with a guide. 

Getting to them is more difficult – rather than wide ladders that are easy to navigate, you may need to climb down narrow ladders or even use the steep footholds carved by the dwelling’s original inhabitants right into the cliff face. (There are ropes to hold on to, though, so it not really dangerous).  Several are at the end of long back-country hikes.  Summer temperatures can reach 100°F / 38°C, so you need to be fit enough and adequately prepared for these. 

For more information about hiking in Mesa Verde, read my Guide to the Best Hikes in Mesa Verde (that you can do without a guide).

Square Tower House - Getting There Mesa Verde National Park
Climbing down the original Ancestral Puebloans’ footholds to reach Square Tower House

They are a more intimate experience and have plenty of opportunity to ask the guide questions.  You will usually have more time there, and at some of them, you can even see artefacts like ancient corncobs, bits of pottery, etc. still strewn around. However, the sites are smaller, less excavated and in some ways less spectacular than the main three in the Ranger-Assisted tours.  

If you are able to, I recommend visiting at least one of these, as the visit is quite different from the ranger assisted tours to Cliff Palace or Long House. 

Buying tickets for special tours 

You have to buy tickets online. The process is the same as for the ranger-assisted tours described above.  

Which cliff dwellings have special tours in 2021? 

  • Mug House (Wetherill Mesa) 
  • Square Tower House (Chapin Mesa) 
  • Spring House (Chapin Mesa) 

Tickets are $25 per person (all ages) for Mug House and Square Tower House and $45 for Spring House. 

(3) Cliff dwellings you can visit by yourself on a self-guided tour

There is one Mesa Verde cliff dwellings tour you can visit by yourself, as a self-guided tour.  There is no cost (other than the park entrance fee) for a self-guided tour. 

Step House 

  • Wetherill Mesa 
  • May 29 to October 23  
  • Available in 2021 

See below for details 

(4) Cliff dwellings you can see from an overlook

You can drive around the top of the mesa and visit mesa-top sites and stop at multiple viewpoints to see various cliff dwellings. Most of them are fairly small (still very cool to see, of course), but a few on Chapin Mesa that are especially noteworthy are: 

  • Cliff Palace. This can also be visited on a ranger-assisted tour.
  • Spruce Tree House. This is the best-preserved cliff dwelling, but instability makes it too dangerous to be open for visitors.  You can see it very clearly from behind the Chapin Archaeological Museum. 
  • Balcony House.  This is closed for visitors in 2021, but you can see it from an overlook. Most overlooks are a very short walk from a parking area, but for Balcony House, you need to hike out to Soda Canyon Overlook.  It’s a 1.2-mile/ 1.9-km round trip mostly flat trail.   
  • Oak Tree House.  This is open for special tours in some years, but not 2021.  However, you can still see it from an overlook.
  • Square Tower House. This is open for special tours in some years, including 2021.  You can also see it from an overlook.
  • Sunset House (small, distant) 
  • Mummy House (small, distant) 
  • Fire Temple (small, distant) 
Cliff dwellings from overlooks Mesa Verde National Park

On Wetherill Mesa, there are two cliff dwellings you can see from overlooks, but not visit: 

  • Kodak House 
  • Nordenskiold #16  

Note that there are other places of historical interest on the top of the mesa, which I am not including in this guide. 


The Major Cliff Dwellings 

Although there are several Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Colorado, Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are the most famous, well-preserved and concentrated in a fairly compact area.  Which makes seeing several of them during your visit to the national park relatively easy. 

AT A GLANCE: MESA VERDE CLIFF DWELLINGS LOCATION

Chapin Mesa
  • Cliff Palace – Ranger-Assisted Tour | Overlook
  • Balcony House – Ranger-Assisted Tour (not available in 2021) | Overlook from Soda Canyon Overlook trail
  • Spruce Tree House – Overlook
  • Spring House – Special Tour/ Backcountry Hike
  • Square Tower House – Special Tour/ Backcountry Hike | Overlook
  • Oak Tree House – Special Tour/ Backcountry Hike (not available in 2021) | Overlook
  • Sunset House – Overlook
  • Mummy House – Overlook
  • Fire Temple – Overlook
Wetherill Mesa
  • Long House – Ranger-Assisted Tour
  • Step House – Self-Guided Tour
  • Mug House – Special Tour/ Backcountry Hike
  • Kodak House – Overlook
  • Nordekiold #16 – Overlook

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park 

Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park

The Cliff Palace is the largest and most famous Mesa Verde cliff dwelling.   

The Mesa Verde National Park cliff palace was built between 1190 CE and 1260 CE and abandoned by 1300 CE.  No one is quite sure why the dwellings were abandoned, though droughts and lack of food are thought to be likely reasons.  There are 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round sunken ceremonial rooms).  It was home to about 100 people/ 25 families at its height. Despite its name, it was not actually a palace, but is thought to have been a ceremonial site, as well as residence.  The site has been stabilized and partially reconstructed.   

You can see the dwelling in its entirety from an overlook before or after the tour and then walk through it.  This is one cliff dwelling not to miss. 

Location: Chapin Mesa  

How to visit Cliff Palace: Ranger-assisted tour 

Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park

What to Expect 

The tour starts at the Cliff Palace Overlook.  There are uneven steps, some areas with no handrails and four ladders (each 8 feet/ 2.6 m to 10 feet/ 3 m high) to climb down.   

Total elevation change is 100 feet/ 30m.  Total walking distance is about 1.4 miles / 400m roundtrip. You will go down to the dwelling and walk along the front of it.  At one point, you can look down to the kivas.   

Total time: Approximately 30 minutes 

How to Get Tickets 

  • Mesa Verde Cliff Palace tour tickets need to be purchased online – see above for full details.  
  • Ranger–assisted tours are available June 16 to October 23.  Mesa Verde hours vary for each dwelling.  Tours for Cliff Palace run every half hour from 9:00 am to 11:30 am and 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm.   
  • Price: $8 per person (no matter what age) 

Long House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Long House Mesa Verde National Park

Long House is the second largest of the Mesa Verde National Park cliff dwellings.  It has about 150 rooms and 21 kivas. There is a large dance plaza resembling ceremonial plazas used in modern Pueblo villages today. About 100 to 150 people may have lived there at its height, in the mid 1200s CE.    

Location: Wetherill Mesa  

How to visit Long House: Ranger-assisted tour 

Long House Mesa Verde National Park
You can see the two ladders you need to climb through Long House

What to Expect 

The tour begins and ends at the Long House trailhead (about a 20-minute, 0.75-mile/ 1.2km hike from the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk). Make sure you are at the trailhead (not the kiosk) at the start of your tour time. 

It’s a 2.25-mile/ 3.6-km roundtrip hike in total, which is quite a bit longer than Cliff Palace and Balcony House.   

To get there, the trail is paved, but goes down some fairly steep switchbacks.  You will need to climb two 15-foot (4.5m) ladders within the site.  Unlike many of the dwellings, you actually walk through the site, rather than just in front of it. One of the kivas has a roof (most don’t anymore). 

Total time: The tour is 60 minutes, but the National Park Service recommend allowing 1.5-2 hours in total, including the tour and the walk between the kiosk and the Long House trailhead. 

How to Get Tickets 

  • Mesa Verde Long House tour tickets need to be purchased online – see above for full details.  
  • Ranger–assisted tours are available May 29 to October 23.  They run every half hour from 9:30 am to 11:00 am and 1:30 pm to 3:00 pm. 
  • Price: $8 per person (no matter what age) 

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Balcony House Mesa Verde National Park

Balcony House is not the largest cliff dwelling at mesa Verde, but, when it is open for tours, is the most adventurous of the main tours.  It was a mid-sized village with 38 rooms and two kivas and housed up to 30 people. It has been stabilized, excavated and partially reconstructed. 

Location: Chapin Mesa  

How to visit Balcony House: Ranger-assisted tour (not open in 2021) 

What to Expect 

The tour starts at the Balcony House parking area. You start by descending 100 feet/ 30 meters down stairs, then climb up a 32-foot / 9.7-meter ladder.  The ladder is very wide (two people can be side by side easily) and the rungs are thick and easy to hold on to. 

Balcony House access Balcony House access ladder Mesa Verde National Park
Climbing into Balcony House

You then enter the first half of the village.  It’s in great condition, and you can peer through a window into the second section.  You have to walk around the circular kivas in the ground.  Then, there is a 12-foot/ 3.6-meter tunnel that you need to crawl through.  It is only 18 inches/ 45.7 cm wide, so if you are on the heavier side, you should know this in advance to make sure you will fit through it. 

Balcony House tunnel crawl space Mesa Verde National Park
You can see how narrow the tunnel is (and yes, I am sunburned!)

Once you’ve crawled through, you need to climb up more ladders and steep steps to get back to the top.  It’s interactive and interesting, but you need to be up for the challenge.   

Balcony House Mesa Verde National Park

Total time: Approximately 60 minutes 

How to Get Tickets 

Unfortunately, Balcony House is not open in 2021. 


Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Spruce House Mesa Verde National Park

Spruce Tree House is the third largest – and best-preserved – cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde.  There are about 130 rooms and 8 kivas and was home to about 60 to 80 people.  It was built around 1211 CE to 1278 CE by the ancestral Puebloan people.   

Location: Chapin Mesa  

How to visit Spruce Tree House: Can only be seen from overlook 

What to Expect 

Unfortunately, it is closed to visitors because of safety concerns.  However, you get a great view of it from behind the Chapin Archaeological Museum.  


Spring House, Mesa Verde National Park  

Spring House is the largest unexcavated cliff dwelling in the park.  It has 86 rooms and seven kivas. It is rarely open for visits, so a visit there is a rare opportunity.  

Location: Chapin Mesa  

How to visit Spring House: Special tour/ backcountry hike 

What to Expect 

Spring House is reached after a long hike through the park’s backcountry.  The total trail length is 8 miles / 12.9 km and has an elevation change of 1,500 feet / 457 m, so you need to be fit to do it.   

The trail starts at the Chapin Archaeological Museum and descends into Navajo Canyon.  Along the way, you can see Echo House, Teakettle House and the Navajo Watch Tower in the distance.  The trail starts to climb up the side of Wickiup Canyon, with a good view of Buzzard House across the canyon along the way.  It reaches the top of Long Mesa, and there are steep drop offs.  There is a view of 20.5 House before arriving at Spring House. 

To reach Spring House, which is below the top of Long Mesa, there are two ladders, some ropes and a narrow rocky trail to navigate.  You don’t enter the site, but can see it well from a platform at the southern edge of the dwelling.   

The national parks service recommends good hiking shoes/ boots (read my Guide to the Best Hiking Shoes/ Boots if you need to get some), lunch and snacks and at least one gallon/ 4 liters of water.  Make sure you have everything on my Day Hike Essentials list. 

Total time: Approximately 8 hours 

How to Get Tickets 

  • There are only four Spring House tours/ hikes offered in 2021.   
    • May 23 at 8:00 am 
    • May 30 at 8:00 am 
    • September 5 at 8:00 am 
    • September 12 at 8:00 am  
  • Tickets need to be purchased online – see above for full details.  There are only 10 people on each tour, so if you hope to do this, book the second that tickets go on sale. 
  • Price: $45.00 per person (any age) 

Step House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Step House Mesa Verde National Park

This is a fairly small site, with a cliff dwelling, pit house and some petroglyphs. 

Location: Wetherill Mesa  

How to visit Step House:  You can visit yourself on a self-guided tour 

What to Expect 

You will descend about 100 feet/ 30m down a winding path (that you return up). The total hike is about one mile (1.6 km) round-trip. The trail begins near the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk.  There is a ranger there to answer questions. 

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes 

How to Get Tickets 

Tickets are not necessary, but it is only open May 29 to October 23 from 9:15 am to 3:45 pm. 


Mug House, Mesa Verde National Park 

This dwelling is named for three mugs that were found hanging tied together with yucca rope inside one of its rooms when it was “discovered”.  Mug House is a large dwelling, with 94 rooms and eight kivas housing about 80 to 100 people at its height.  It dates from the late 1100s and early 1200s CE.  

Location: Wetherill Mesa  

How to visit Mug House: Special tour/ backcountry hike 

What to Expect 

About 0.5 miles from the parking lot, the ranger leads you down through scrub until you get to the edge of a large cliff.  There, you use the same hand and foot holds that the Ancient Puebloans carved into the cliff to descend below the mesa top.   The trail passes a large snake pictograph and evidence of fires burned by the original inhabitants of this area. There are great views of Rock Canyon.  

Mug House is large, but not fully excavated.  As in several of the other dwellings visited on the special tours, you can still see remains of life in the space, such as corncobs, shards of pottery, etc.   

This is a strenuous 3-mile / 4.8-km round trip hike on an uneven trail that includes some switchbacks and steep drop offs. 

Total time: Approximately 1.5 hours 

How to Get Tickets 

  • Mug House tours/ hikes are offered daily:   
    • May 2 to May 28 at 9:00 am and 12:00 pm 
    • May 29 to October 23 at 9:00 am and 11:00 am 
  • Tickets need to be purchased online – see above for full details.  There are only 10 people on each tour, so if you hope to do this, book the second that tickets go on sale. 
  • Price: $25.00 per person (no matter what age) 

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Square Tower House Mesa Verde National Park

Square Tower House is named after the three-storey square tower that is the dominant feature of the dwelling.  High above the tower, in a small crevice and bricked in, there is a Crow’s Nest.  On the ground, there is a kiva with its original roof and ample ruins to explore.  These can only be seen on the tour, as they are not visible from the mesa top. There are several small petroglyphs that the ranger can help point out. It’s a fairly small, but fascinating dwelling.  

Location: Chapin Mesa  

How to visit Square Tower House: Special tour/ backcountry hike 

What to Expect 

Square Tower House is one of my favorite Mesa Verde sites.  It is reached on a short but adventurous one-mile/ 2.6 km round trip trail.  You descend down two steep, narrow ladders (the longest is 20 feet / 6.1m), along narrow trails and steep steps with ropes to hold on to and even down footholds carved into the rock face that the original cliff dwellers used to access the dwelling.   

Square Tower footholds Mesa Verde National Park
Using the Ancestral Puebloans’ footholds to descend into Square Tower House

When you get there, you can walk along the front of the dwelling and you are allowed to walk in one small section of the complex. 

Square Tower House Mesa Verde National Park
You can see the Crow’s Nest up high

Total time: Approximately 1.5 hours 

How to Get Tickets 

  • Square Tower House tours/ hikes are offered twice a day for a month and a half only.  Tours are daily May 2 to June 15 at 8:30 am and 12:00 pm.  
  • Tickets need to be purchased online – see above for full details.  There are only 10 people on each tour, so if you hope to do this, book the second that tickets go on sale. 
  • Price: $25.00 per person (no matter what age) 

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park 

Oak Tree House Mesa Verde National Park

Special tours are not available in 2021, but this may be seen from an Overlook.  Special tours run some years, and also include climbing down steep steps and ladders.  It is a fairly small site to explore.  

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Guide to Visiting the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Enjoy the Mesa Verde ruins

What are your favorite cliff dwellings? Colorado / Mesa Verde NP has plenty of others.  I’d love to hear about them.  Comment below.    

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Visit Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings_All You Need to Know
How to Visit Mesa Verdes Cliff Dwellings

About the Author 

James Ian Yosemite

James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents.  He has visited all of the main national parks in the United States, as well as many national monuments and state parks.

He has rafted through the Grand Canyon; rappelled down slot canyons near Zion and Arches; hiked among the hoodoos in Bryce and the enormous trees in Sequoia; admired the waterfalls in Yosemite and the colored hot springs in Yellowstone; seen moose in Grand Tetons and seals in the Channel Islands, and much more.

Read more…


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2 thoughts on “How to Visit Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings”

  1. Thank you for all of this information. Mesa Verde has been on my bucket list for decades and we are finally visiting in late May.

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