Known for its spectacular cliff dwellings built into the sides of sweeping mesas nearly 1,000 years ago, Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado is one of the most spectacular examples of preserved Ancestral Pueblo ruins and relics in the United States.
While nobody is quite sure why this site was chosen by the Puebloan people, the 52,485-acre park now preserves more than 5,000 sites Pueblo structures, including more than 600 cliff dwellings — the most popular structures in the park.
Mesa Verde National Park is not only an extraordinary feat of Pueblo engineering and construction, but it’s also become the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. Let’s take a look at the notable cliff dwellings, tours, hours and much more.
Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
It’s estimated by archeologists that Mesa Verde was seasonally settled by groups of nomadic Paleo-Indians as early as 7500 BC. While the area remained a hotbed for nomadic hunter-gatherers through the years, the first full-time settlers began building Pueblo structures, similar to those found at nearby Aztec Ruins National Park and Chimney Rock National Monument, sometime shortly after 650 AD.
By the end of the 12th century, the Mesa Verdeans began to build the infamous cliff dwellings you can now see inside the park. But the reign of land didn’t last long. The now-desert climate of southwest Colorado was taken over by long droughts and became too harsh for them to grow corn, beans, squash and other crops.
By 1285, less than two centuries after they built the first cliff dwellings, the Mesa Verdeans abandoned the area and set out south for Arizona and New Mexico. When the area became a national park in 1906, archeologists moved quickly to begin preserving the spectacular cliff dwellings.
1. Cliff Palace
By far the most popular cliff dwelling inside Mesa Verde National Park is Cliff Palace. The enormous structure was built into the side of a mesa overlooking the valley more than 700 years ago. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the world, with more than 150 individual rooms and more than 20 kivas, which are ceremonial chambers, crafted out of sandstone, wooden beams and mortar.
The use of this meticulously designed and ceremonial activities among the highest-ranking members of the tribe. It’s estimated that nearly 100 people lived in Cliff Palace and the remaining rooms were used for storage and other things.
When you take into account that nearly 75% of the park’s 600 preserved cliff dwellings had just one to five rooms, Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace is by far the most spectacular Pueblo structure in the country.
Tours through Cliff Palace are currently suspended due to the pandemic. However, when they open up again, you can take a ranger-guided tour through Cliff Palace for just $7 per person. Tickets can be purchased up to two weeks in advance and there is a percentage of tickets each day that are sold first-come, first-served.
2. Long House
Mesa Verde’s Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park and, unfortunately, one of the only visible cliff dwellings I failed to see during my two days in Mesa Verde National Park. It was also one of the last major cliff dwellings to be excavated, which occurred from 1959 to 1961.
Long House is in the most remote part of Mesa Verde and can only be accessed by a 12-mile road that ventures off the main roads leading to the majority of the park’s cliff dwellings. But you can walk through Long House on a 90-minute ranger-guided tour if you snag tickets. However, tours only operate between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so you better act fast.
3. Spruce Tree House
The third-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park, Spruce Tree House is a three-story structure that contains more than 130 individual rooms and eight kivas. The site is somewhat remote inside the park and doesn’t have the sweeping canyon views that many of the other cliff dwellings do.
It’s unsure why the Puebloan people decided to build the cliff dwelling in this space between 1211 and 1278, but it quickly became home to about 60 to 80 people until the site was abandoned.
Spruce Tree House also features one of the largest kivas, a circular room designed for ceremonial activities, inside the park. It measures 216 feet wide and 89 feet deep at its greatest points, which surpasses the Great Kivas at Chimney Rock National Monument and Aztec Ruins National Monument by more than 100 feet.
You’re typically able to take a free self-guided tour through Spruce Tree House, but it’s closed until further notice due to preservation and the pandemic.
4. Balcony House
Although Balcony House is less than half the size of Cliff Palace, it’s equally as astonishing to see and imagine having been built. The 40-room structure, which includes a balcony overlooking the valley and a few large kivas, is perched high atop the ground floor near the top of a mesa.
Getting to Balcony House is arguably the most adventurous expedition in the park. It’s accessible if you’re willing to crawl through tunnels and climb a 32-foot ladder to the structure. While the hike is only about 1 mile round trip, exploring Balcony House is only available via one-hour ranger-guided tours.
5. Square Tower House
Square Tower House was one of my favorite cliff dwellings inside Mesa Verde National Park for a few reasons. If you take the Mesa Top Loop to Cliff Palace Loop Roads, which I highly suggest you do in that order, Square Tower House is the first cliff dwelling you’ll see.
It also has the most expansive and sweeping views of any cliff dwelling in the park, barely beating out the valley views of Cliff Palace. At one point, Square Tower House reaches four stories high. Its expansive views of the Navajo Canyon are truly second to none inside the park.
Ranger-guided tours are offered into Square Tower House daily for $25 per person. On the 1-mile, 2.5-hour hike, you’re guided down a slightly strenuous trail that drops into the canyon via a ladder and boulder stairs at a rapid rate.
From the close-up overlook views along the short hiking trail to the ranger-guided hike to the interior of the dwelling, Square Tower House should not be missed during your trip to Mesa Verde!
6. Oak Tree House
Oak Tree House may look small from the overlook, but the crumbling structure was once one of the largest structures inside Mesa Verde National Park with more than 60 rooms and seven kivas. Since it was built on two ledges instead of one, as most cliff dwellings inside the park were, Oak Tree House is an extremely fragile structure that has, unfortunately, crumbled over the past 1,000 years.
Ranger-guided tours are sparse, but you can tour the inside of Oak Tree House if you’re one of 12 lucky individuals to figure out the tour times and purchase a hard-to-secure ticket.
Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tours
While Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tours are currently canceled until further notice due to the pandemic, the park offers $7 ranger-guided tours to the Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House cliff dwellings multiple times a day from May to October.
Tickets to those notable cliff dwellings, which are the three largest cliff dwellings in the park, are available for advanced purchase through Recreation.gov. But if you can’t snag one online, don’t panic. The park leaves an allotted number of tickets each day for purchase on a first-come, first-served basis. However, those tickets sell out very quickly, so it’s advised to be waiting in line before the park opens.
The park also offers backcountry ranger-guided tours to Mug House, Square Tower House and Oak Tree House, as well as early bird and twilight tours of Cliff Palace and a sunrise tour to Balcony House. Those tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased at Recreation.gov. The park also offers a day hike to Spring House for $45 per person.