The Ancient Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde

The Ancient Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde

United States
United States

When Is the Best Time

Mesa Verde is a fantastic place to learn about the Anasazi and their culture. The lookouts to the ancient cliff dwellings are accessible throughout the year. Due to the location on a high elevation, most people visit the archaeological site between late spring to late fall. Read on for my detailed information about the weather, how to avoid the crowds, and the best time for your visit.

The best time to visit Mesa Verde regarding the weather and crowds are April until June and September until mid-October. The cliff dwellings are closed in the wintertime and early spring due to snowy conditions.

Update Feb 2021: The Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop Drive is closed for road constructions at least until mid-June 2021.

Avoiding Crowds

A guided cliff dwelling tour at Mesa Verde

Roughly 600,000 visitors come to Mesa Verde annually, most of them in the summer. There are fewer people in the early morning and the late afternoon during this time of the year. Spring and Autumn; September after the Labour Day Weekend are better months to enjoy and soak in the ancient history. 

Weather and Crowds by Seasons

Sunset at Cliff Palace House at Mesa Verde
The Cliff Palace - that largest of all

There is not much precipitation at Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a dry area better known as “Four Corners”. Due to the high elevation between 7,000-8,572 foot / 2.134-2.613 meter it doesn’t get too hot, but there is a high amount of snowfall on average 74 inch/1.880 mm in winter the reason for the closure. 

Spring (April-May)

The real spring starts late in April. It starts to warm up, and the Mesa Verde National Park gets opened. It is windy in spring, therefore bring an appropriate jacket. Decreasing rainfall in April and May. May is a pleasant month, with temperatures almost reaching 20°C/68°F. Nights are chilly almost freezing keep that in mind if you like to camp nearby. It is still not too busy except the Memorial Day Weekend. The road to Wetherill Mesa with the Step House and Long House opens to the public depending on the weather conditions (snow and ice) between late April to Mid-May.

Summer (June-September)

The driest month is June, the "wettest"  August. June is a lovely month with 26°C/79°F. July and August are a little hot around midday but on average still below 30°C/86°F. Due to the heat thunderstorms frequently occur in the afternoon. Night temperatures drop significantly ranging between 8-13°C/46-55°F. Due to the summer school holidays, it is the busiest time of the year from July until the Labour Day Weekend in September. 

Autumn (October)

The first weeks in October are still pleasant with temperatures on average around 16°C/61°F. Nights are already freezing. Depending on the temps and the first snowfall the National Park gets closed between mid to late October. Guided tours to the cliff dwellings are not any longer available. Why do I mention just one month for fall? I live in the mountains, and I know autumn is a very short time only, and it quickly starts to freeze and snow. I like to give you an idea that November is more a winter than a fall month.

Winter (November-March)

Due to the high elevation it starts to snow at the end of October latest beginning of November already. There aren’t any guided tours offered. The pro the park is silent and quiet. You can still drive into the park and soak in the spectacular scenery from the different outlooks. Usually, the Mesa Verde National Park experiences more than 70 inches/ 1.80 m of snow. Now winter trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. This is a completely different experience and lots of fun. The maximum day temperatures are ranging roughly from 50-40°F/9-3°C, but usually, they drop below 32°F/0°C from 26-15°F/-3 to -9°C. In March the Cliff Dwellings are still not accessible due to snow and ice. Expect minus degrees – below 30°F in the night and day temps below 10°C/50°F. Check out the winter trails here before you visit Mesa Verde.

Opening Hours

Mesa Verde lookouts are open year-round, even in winter. The gate is open from 8 am until sunset throughout the year. The Spruce Tree Cafe is open from 11 am to 2 pm in winter and the rest of the year from the morning until the late afternoon. Restrooms are always available.

Visitor Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum are also open throughout the year. Most shops, restaurants, gas station are open from late spring to late fall.

However, If you plan to visit the Mesa Verde National Park check out what is opened and closed before. Opening, Closure Dates, and Conditions

Best Months to Visit

Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec

Location and Tips

Colorado, Durango
United States
United States

Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve 600 cliff dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people or Anasazi. This important archaeological site was used for about a century only. The Anasazi left around 1300. It is estimated that it was home for 5000-6000 people. Mesa Verde housed one of the largest cliff dwelling complexes in the world with natural overhangs for shelter and plenty of sunshine. Four of them are open to the public, three guided and one self-guided. 

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
  • Cliff Palace: This is the largest cliff dwelling. Guided tours of the popular Cliff Palace are offered from the end of May until end of September. Tours are taking place every half an hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. duration one hour. You have to climb four wooden ladders. It’s almost one hour driving to the lookout and starting point. You get the best light for an awesome picture of the Cliff Palace from the early afternoon on. There is even a popular tour offered, the "Twilight Photography Tour" at sunset which has limited space on offer.
     
  • Balcony House: This one hour guided tour is offered at the end of May until end of October and very exciting. You need to climb a 32-foot-high ladder, crawl through a tunnel and again two ladders to the exit. It’s more than an hour drive to the starting point of this trail. ​"The Balcony House Sunrise Tour" is a marvellous experience but only offered very few times in June and in September. The advantage of this offered tours: You’ll have the place almost to yourself.
  • Long House: This is the longest guided tour and takes two hours. It is offered from the end of May to mid-October. This tour includes hiking and climbing to ladders. It’s more than an hour drive to the Wetherill Mesa information kiosk. Vehicles over 25 feet/8 meters are not permitted on this road.
     
  • Step House: It can be visited self-guided from mid-May to mid-October.
     
  • Spruce Tree House: It remains closed for the future due to safety reasons. There were rockfalls in August 2015 and there is still a concern for the future (updated Feb 2021). It is the third-largest and best-preserved one. However, it is still amazing to see from the overlooks close to the Chapin Mesa Museum.
     
3 Top Tips 
  1. Tickets are required and can be purchased 14 days in advance at the earliest. They are sold out quickly for the Cliff Palace, the Balcony House, and the Long House. Link Tour Tickets Mesa Verde
  2. Guided backcountry hikes to remote cliff dwellings range from half- to nine-miles, tickets have to be purchased in advance. Make a reservation online to get a ticket for the backcountry hikes, the Balcony House Sunrise tour, and the Twilight Photography tour. These tours are very popular, and tickets are sold out quickly. Link to all guided tours
  3. Schedule a whole day or even more if possible, the park shouldn’t be rushed. It’s almost one hour driving from the information center to the Cliff Palace lookout. Add additional time for stops at the different panoramic lookouts.

 

Pictures provided by my photographer friend Chris

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Created by
Micha Herber-Bleich
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