There’s no doubt that Mesa Verde Country in southwestern Colorado is a place rich in history and culture. After all, it is best known as the home of the Ancestral Puebloans, who built impressive cliff dwellings along Mesa Verde’s canyon walls and are one of its main attractions.
Of course, there are plenty of things to explore and discover in, out, and around the Mesa Verde area, such as scenic byways, fantastic mountain biking destinations, a national park, and so much more.
The Best Things To Do in Mesa Verde Colorado (Including The Cliff Dwellings at The National Park)
1. Explore Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and once of the main reasons that people come to the area. The park was established in 1906 to protect and preserve Mesa Verde region’s archaeological sites, which includes some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States.
The park has more than 4700 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, six of which you can visit up close! One of the most popular of these dwellings is the Cliff Palace, one of the park’s largest and best-preserved of all of them.
Located at the heart of the park, you can get up close to the Cliff Palace via a tour, which takes you on a 1/4-mile (0.4-kilometer) walk through numerous steep, narrow staircases and ladders. The walk itself is bucket list worthy!
While the Cliff Palace is the most well-known of the dwellings, there are also many other impressive structures scattered across the park. For example, with 38 rooms and two kivas, Balcony House was a modest town that could potentially accommodate up to 30 people. Another highlight is the Spruce Tree House, which was built into a large Douglas fir tree. To get the most out of your visit, definitely book a tour!
The most convenient place to stay for easy access to the park, is Far View Lodge which is actually located inside Mesa Verde National Park. The lodge sits on a cliff with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This was my killer view:
2. Go Wine Tasting
Wine tasting in Southwest Colorado? Absolutely! And it is an experience not to be missed. Sutcliffe Vineyards and Yellow Car Country Wines offer some of the best wines in the region, and their tasting rooms are the perfect place to sample a variety of varietals.
Sutcliffe specializes in Old World-style wines (I bought a bottle of their Malbec!!), while Yellow Car offers a more modern twist on fruit wines and meads (like the Motor Car lime wine with mint and Yellow Car mead that tastes like the American Candy: Lemon Drop). You can make a nice afternoon sipping wine on their patios surrounded by the beautiful views of Mesa Verde Colorado.
3. Ride the Galloping Goose No. 5 (Or Just Ogle it!)
The Galloping Goose No. 5 is one of seven other railroad cars built in 1933 by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS). The railroad cars once transported goods and passengers between Durango and Ridgway, Colorado, until RGS went out of business in 1951. The Galloping Goose No. 5 was bought and restored by the Galloping Goose Historical Museum and now serves as its centerpiece in downtown Dolores.
A few times a year visitors can actually get the chance to ride this vintage railroad car, which takes you to different sights while coasting one of the local historic railroads.
4. Play a Round at Conquistador Golf Course
Are you a golf lover like me? Then don’t miss the chance to play a round at The Conquistador Golf Course in Cortez, Colorado. It is an 18-hole, par 72 public golf course built in the early 1960s and is known for its challenging layout and beautiful scenery.
FYI: The course is typically open from March 1st to mid-November 15th (weather permitting).
5. Explore by Mountain Bike
More than 600 miles of trails are available in Mesa Verde country, ranging from single tracks to strenuous climbs in the San Juan Mountains. Phil’s World Bike Trail is one of the best mountain biking trail networks in the state. The trail system is 26.7 miles long and has a variety of terrain, ranging from easy to difficult.
The trail is also home to beautiful scenery and diverse wildlife (like deer, weasels and rabbits), so keep your eyes peeled for those.
6. Hike Around the Hovenweep National Monument
Hovenweep National Monument is a collection of ancient ruins that date back to the 12th century—the monument includes six different archaeological sites that were once home to the Ancestral Pueblo people.
It is one of the best-preserved examples of Ancestral Pueblo architecture, providing insight into the everyday lives of these ancient people. Today, the monument is open to the public for exploration and education. You can get a great view of some of the sites by taking an easy 5-10 minute walk to the Square Tower, but some of the others will require more hiking on uneven terrain.
7. Explore Canyons of the Ancients Monument
The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which spans a whopping 176,056 acres, is a craggy and magnificent region with the highest known concentration of ancient sites in the United States. 6,000 ancient monuments (including cliff houses, communities, and rock art) are scattered over the area.
The site is also a beautiful place to explore on foot, but for an even better bucket list experience see it on horseback! Canyon Trails Ranch offers a horseback adventure that will have you feeling like you’re stepping back in time as you ride through canyons, sandstone cliffs, and mesas, taking in the amazing scenery. And a knowledgeable guide will be leading the way, so you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the ride.
Plus, you will also be able to hop off your four-legged ride so you can hike closer to some of the sites to get a better view. For something extra special, stay in one of their tiny wagons located at their campsite:
8. Drive the San Juan Skyway
The San Juan Skyway is a 232-mile long scenic byway that loops through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. It is also one of the most spectacular drives in the country, passing through the majority of Colorado’s San Juans, a rocky and inaccessible region of the Rocky Mountains. The loop traverses through numerous tiny towns, through breathtaking mountain passes, and follows creeks and rivers.
9. Sit on the Four States at Once
Did you know that you can stand on four US States at one time? The Four Corners Monument marks the point where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. And it is a popular spot for a quick stop to check it off the bucket list.
10. Visit Ute Mountain Tribal Park
Ute Mountain Tribal Park is a large, tribal-owned nature preserve in southwest Colorado. Also known as “The Other Mesa Verde,” it covers nearly 125,000 acres of land and is home to spectacular cliff dwellings, pictographs, and other ancient artifacts.
The park is open to the public and offers a variety of activities, including camping, hiking, fishing, and hosting several educational programs and events throughout the year. Whether you’re looking for a place to camp or just want to learn more about the natural world, Ute Mountain Tribal Park is definitely worth a visit.
11. Tap Into the Cider Culture
Fence Line Cider offers a variety of ciders made from locally-sourced apples, and their taproom is the perfect place to relax and sample a few different kinds, such as their Seedling Cider. EsoTerra Ciderworks specializes in artisanal ciders like Crimson Gold, and their tasting room is located in a beautiful setting with great views.
12. Peek Into the Cortez Cultural Center
The Cortez Cultural Center, located in a landmark structure from 1909, is home to a plethora of knowledge on archaeology and Native American culture. Interpretive exhibits on the Basketmaker and Pueblo periods of the Ancestral Pueblo people are on display in the Center’s museum, along with artifacts from the Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. Monthly exhibitions also feature art from local and regional artists.
13. Stay at a Guest Ranch
Hotels are definitely the go-to place for most tourists to stay when visiting a new locale or country. But since we are all about making memories and living our bucket list, why not add a different kind of experience during your adventure by staying at a guest ranch instead?
Like hotels, guest ranches offer accommodation to visitors. However, they also let you experience ranch life and plenty of other outdoor activities during your stay, like horseback riding and fishing.
I can whole-heartedly recommend the Canyon of the Ancients Ranch Guest House that is a peaceful piece of property with a few rentable cabins located in the heart of the canyonlands. And these aren’t any ordinary cabins, they are special. The interiors are worthy of a place in Architectural Digest—decked out in local handicrafts and artworks brought from India. Plus, fresh eggs from the chicken coop will be waiting for you in the fridge.
The working ranch also has plenty of opportunities for animal interaction. You will love the cows, chickens, sheep and friendly dogs!
Due to its location, it is the perfect place to stay when exploring all the area has to offer, like Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument and, of course, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
14. Stroll Through Downtown Mancos
Mancos is a small town in Mesa Verde where the cowboy culture meets western arts meets historic downtown. Its downtown area is home to eateries like Absolute Bakery where the people come for miles for the delicious pastries (I can certainly vouch for the Key Lime Raspberry Bar!). Don’t miss a stop at Mancos Common Press to purchase some handcrafted letterpress cards and to see printing artifacts that date back over 100 years. To get a little taste of the Wild, Wild West do some shopping at Dave Sipe’s Folk Art and Artisans of Mancos, who offer a wide range of goods, from clothes to jewelry to art.
15. Walk Through Hawkins Preserve
The Hawkins Preserve is a 122-acre nature preserve that is home to different plant and animal life. The natural desert environment offers over 3 miles of hiking trails lined with cactus and sagebrush (and blooming flowers in the spring!).
There are around 10-11 interconnected hiking trails in the preserve (which are all easy hikes!), with the most popular ones include Ruins Road Loop, Foxtrot Run, Jackrabbit, and Mesa View Trail. Notable sites are the Hawkins Pueblo, which is the largest ruin in the preserve, and several cliff dwellings that can also be seen in the area.
16. Visit Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is an educational nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding and preserving the rich history of the Ancient Pueblo people. Nestled in the canyon country of southwest Colorado, the Center offers a variety of programs and events that give you a taste of life in the ancient world.
From hands-on archaeological fieldwork to cultural demonstrations and lectures, there is something for everyone at Crow Canyon. The Center also houses a state-of-the-art archaeology laboratory, where researchers analyze artifacts from Crow Canyon and other sites in the region.
17. Daytrip to Durango
If you’re looking for things to do in Durango, you won’t be disappointed. Located around 46 miles east of the city of Cortez, this historic town offers a wealth of activities for visitors of all ages. Some of the top eats and drinks in the area include Michel’s Corner Crepes, Derailed Pour House, and The Office Spiritorium.
Start your trip by exploring the Animas Riverwalk, a scenic trail that winds along the riverside. Then head to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum to learn about the area’s rich railway history. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. For a taste of the local culture, be sure to visit the Strater Hotel, which is home to the largest collection of Victorian antique walnut furniture in the world.
18. See a Show at Sunflower Theatre
The Sunflower Theater is a performing arts venue in downtown Cortez that first opened its doors in January 2015. It features 107 seats and is the only multipurpose indoor venue in the area that can be used for live music, movies, lectures, and theater performances year-round.
Some of the many outstanding performances that graced the theater’s walls include Carvin Jones: King of Strings, Music in the Mountains, and the First Friday Cortez events.
19. Shop for Native American Arts at Notah-Dineh
When it comes to unique Native American art and souvenirs, Notah-Dineh is the place to shop. Some of the items they offer include custom-made Navajo rugs, sandpaintings, sterling jewelry, and original artworks by Native American artists.
Along with Ute and Navajo pottery, Notah-Dineh also contains an exceptional collection of Pueblo pottery, ranging from tiny collectible miniatures to intricate showpieces by contemporary master potters. They also have on permanent display the largest known weaving of the Two Grey Hills rug (12′ by 18′).
20. Hike McPhee Overlook Trail in Dolores
The McPhee Overlook Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in Dolores. This moderate 8.8-mile path offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and is found on the western edge of the Boggy Draw trail network.
The trail’s northern end connects with Bean Canyon Loop, and it is a point-to-point track that may be accessible from the southern end of Dolores, across from Joe Rowell Park. Do take note that portions of the trail close annually due to seasonal restrictions, starting from December 1st, so be sure to plan ahead.
Mesa Verde Colorado is a special place that offers a unique opportunity to step back in time and learn about the people who once called this area home. Whether you’re exploring the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, hiking through the forests, or simply enjoying the views, there’s something for everyone.
Best Tips for Visiting Mesa Verde Colorado
How to Get to Mesa Verde Colorado: Cortez Municipal Airport is the nearest airport to Mesa Verde and has daily connecting flights to Denver International Airport. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. From the airport to the city center, you can use the take a taxi or rent a car.
Getting Around: Driving in a new destination can be a bit of a challenge, but if you choose to rent a car, RentalCars.com has great deals. If you are not renting a car, there are plenty of other options. Taxis, Lyft and Uber are available all over the city.
Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde Colorado: The months of spring and fall are the ideal times to explore Mesa Verde Colorado, in terms of weather. You also encounter fewer visitors than during the busy summer months.
Where to Stay in Mesa Verde Colorado: It’s best to stay near the city center, public transportation or the area that you will be spending the most time in. Hampton Inn Mesa Verde/Cortez Co is a great choice in the Cortez district. For something on the less expensive side, try Retro Inn at Mesa Verde located in Cortez. For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the Rustic Hideaway. If you want to stay inside Mesa Verde National Park then the Far View Lodge is the perfect choice. Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to VRBO that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
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