Are you thinking about going camping at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado? Look no further than our guide to Mesa Verde National Park camping!
This park is full of scenic beauty with its landscape and diverse wildlife. And its ancient cliff dwellings make tours, in a way, time-traveling experiences that are not worth missing!
We’ll tell you about these features in this guide, as well as what you should expect when making the trip. We’ll also describe the best places to camp in and out of the park and other activities you can do there.
History of Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is known for its ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. About 1,400 years ago, and for 700 years, the Puebloans built stone communities on the park’s mesas and cliffs. Around the late AD 1200s, the people moved away.
It was 1874 when photographs of the area piqued people’s attention to the cliff dwellings. Years later, out of concern about vandalism, the Denver Tribune Republican editor suggested setting the area up as a national park.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt did just that for Mesa Verde (green table) to preserve the area’s works and history. It became a World Heritage Site 72 years later, preserving nearly 5,000 archaeological sites for present and future generations.
What to Expect at Mesa Verde National Park
Before you make the trip, here are three factors to keep in mind as you pack your gear:
Mesa Verde National Park camping during the summer will give you a lot of 90-degree weather. As for winter, it will be very cold if you plan your trip then. You’ll also have to expect closures due to dangerous accumulations of snow and ice.
Be sure to pack the right sets of clothes and plenty of water bottles. Also, take advantage of the park’s potable water and always check for weather alerts in the area.
Fees, Reservations, and Permits
Entrance fees for camping at Mesa Verde National Park depend on your vehicle and the number of people in your party. They also depend on whether you’re going on a commercial or non-commercial tour.
You’ll have to pay additional fees if the number of people exceeds the fees’ appointed numbers. This is especially true if you’re checking in at the Morefield campground with groups larger than two.
If you purchase a digital site pass before you arrive, you’ll be covering your entrance fees! Just go to recreation.gov, follow the directions, and save the passes on your mobile device or print them out.
As for reservations, most of the campgrounds and the park’s tours highly recommend you make them. Come summer, they’ll be extremely useful in securing a site. And some of the tours will only take reservations either by phone or online, not both.
Limited Cell Service
If you absolutely have to have some contact via phone, Mesa Verde has telephones in their facilities. However, Wi-Fi is available at the Morefield campground store, Far View Lodge, and Far View and Spruce Tree Terraces.
Camping at Mesa Verde National Park
In the Park
Though there’s only one campground in the park for Mesa Verde National Park camping, it’s not the only place to settle. For campers and non-campers, something will work for both sides.
Four and a half miles from the park entrance, the Morefield campground has 267 sites that offer single and group camping. It’s in a high grassy canyon and has scenic hiking trails that leave the campground.
Each site has a table, grill, gravel tent pad, and bench, and there are 15 hookup sites for less-than-46-foot-long RVs. Amenities include a dumping station, coin-operated laundry, a gas station, restrooms, and a village kennel for your dog(s)!
The fees for tent, dry, and full hookup RV camping are affordable. Reservations are optional, but we and the park highly recommend making them if you want one of the RV sites.
Far View Lodge
If you’ve brought non-rustic camping friends and family members, or if you didn’t drive an RV, stay at Far View Lodge! Rates for reserving rooms are subject to change but can be done online or by phone. Its operating dates are from April to October.
The rooms are decorated with handcrafted furniture that gives you a sense of history and culture. They also have private balconies, where you’ll have stunning views of the mountain ranges and wildlife.
Like a hotel, there are private bathrooms, warm hospitality, fine dining, and other amenities. But unlike a hotel, the only TV in each room is the view from the balconies.
Near the Park
RV or no RV, if you decide against the Morefield campground, here are two spots outside the entrance of Mesa Verde:
Ancient Cedars Mesa Verde RV Park
This classic RV campground welcomes any-sized RV, even pets! Ancient Cedars Mesa Verde RV Park is open from mid-March to October. And you can make reservations all year round online or by phone.
Cedar trees surround the area, and they offer full hookups, potable water, and 20/30/50 electrical service. Near the RV park, campers can enjoy activities such as miniature golf, horseback riding, and hot tubbing.
The sites also offer individual tent and group camping; for this year, they’re offering extended stays in the wooded sites. You can even rent log cabins that sleep up to four to five people and allow for a two-day stay.
Mesa Verde RV Resort
Down the street from the previous RV park, the Mesa Verde RV resort is a top-rated site. Visitors who’ve stayed here marvel over how clean the place is, especially the facilities.
They don’t have dry camping RV sites, but they have a tenting area and full hookup, back-in, and water-and-electric-only sites. All of the sites have a beautiful view of Mesa Verde. And if you don’t have an RV or tent, rent a single cabin!
When you’re not visiting the national park while staying here, you can go fishing, rafting, mountain biking, and hiking. They’re open daily, so call or email the resort to make reservations!
Out of the Park
Should Mesa Verde National Park camping not involve the campsites within or near the park, consider these two spots:
County Road 34 Campsite
This campsite in Mancos, CO, is just four minutes away from the park’s entrance. It’s also free of charge, which is perfect for saving money while camping at Mesa Verde National Park!
Its 15 sites are open seasonally from May to November and allow for tents and small RVs or trailers. Site 14 lets you see mid-range views through the trees, and you can see the peaks across the road!
Keep in mind that access to this campsite isn’t guaranteed. The dirt roads get rocky as you progress, and low-clearance vehicles will have a harder time getting up there. Snowy conditions will also dictate whether or not you can access the site.
Madden Peak Road Campground
Madden Peak Road is the most popular campground near Mesa Verde for dispersed camping and boondocking. Located in the San Juan National Forest, this free campground is at least 18 minutes away from the park entrance.
This seasonal campground is just off the highway, and its 14 sites allow for tents and RVs. It’s set in a wooded area, but at least two to three sites have unobstructed views of the mountains.
Just like County Road 34, access to the campground isn’t guaranteed. The dirt road may be well maintained, but rainy and snowy conditions can make driving there difficult.
Things to Do at Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park camping gives you 30 miles of trails, and they range from easy to moderate to strenuous. As you trek along, you’ll be awarded the many views of the park’s cliff dwellings and canyons.
Here are three trails to give you an idea of what you’ll experience as you hike:
- Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (easy): This 1.2-mile roundtrip trail of Chapin Mesa is leveled. From its three overlooks, you’ll see the Soda Canyon’s cliff dwellings, namely Balcony House.
- Nordenskiold Site No. 16 Trail (moderate): This two-mile roundtrip gravel trail of Wetherill Mesa lets you bring your pets along! On the way, you’ll get to an overlook with a view of Rock Canyon’s cliff dwelling.
- Prater Ridge Trail (strenuous): This 7.8-mile roundtrip trail of Morefield Canyon is not for the faint of heart. You’ll have a choice of more than one trail loop overlooking the Montezuma Valley or the canyons.
Certain trails require a ranger to go with you and your group. If your trail involves sites like the Step House, the rangers need to ensure they remain protected.
Other rules for hiking involve staying on the marked trails and respecting the no-smoking policy. Most importantly, keep your water in hand and wear sturdy shoes!
The main attractions at Mesa Verde are the cliff dwellings, and most of them are available to explore only by tour. From May to October, you can purchase tickets to tour these ancestral buildings.
Ranger-assisted tours involve rangers accompanying tourists as they move at their own pace while exploring the cliff dwellings. The following two dwellings are part of these tours:
- Cliff Palace: (half-hour tour) The largest cliff dwelling in North America that’s known as an architectural masterpiece.
- Long House: (one-hour tour) The second-largest cliff dwelling with changing landscapes and views of mesas and canyons.
Ranger-guided tours have a ranger leading small groups of tourists through the park’s backcountry. They lead them through these dwellings:
- Balcony House: (one-hour tour) The most adventurous tour in the park that requires climbing ladders and squeezing through a narrow tunnel.
- Mug House: (90-minute tour) A structure that has three mugs tied together hanging on the inside of one of the rooms.
- Square Tower House: (90-minute tour) The tallest standing structure in the park that’s open daily.
The self-guided tours are similar to the ranger-assisted tours. But they’re not timed, and the sites won’t only be of cliff dwellings. Some are seasonal like the cliff dwellings, but others are open year-round for you to tour.
You’ll be hiking or driving around these sites in Chapin and Wetherill Mesas whenever you please:
- Mesa Top Loop Road: The tour shows you 12 archaeological sites, along with the Square Tower House Overlook and Cliff Palace.
- Far View Sites Complex: Going on this woodland trail, you’ll see the Far View House, four villages, and a dry reservoir.
- Spruce Tree House: You’ll see this best-preserved cliff dwelling from the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
- Cedar Tree Tower: From a small parking area, you’ll see this tower and kiva complex.
- Step House: You’ll follow a winding path after descending 100 feet to see this cliff dwelling.
- Badger House Trail: You’ll see the Badger House Trail exhibit on this 2.25-mile trail and journey through 600 years of prehistory.
With its high elevation, desert environment, and sparse populations, this national park boasts the darkest skies for stargazing.
The best stargazing spots are at the Morefield campground and the Far View Lodge. Even the Mancos, Montezuma Valley, and geologic overlooks have spots for stargazing.
Bring your telescope, binoculars, and star chart for a cosmic night of Mesa Verde National Park camping! Don’t forget to wait at least 20 minutes to a half hour to let your eyes adjust to the darkness.
Eating and Shopping
You may have packed food for your trip, but don’t forget to check out the park’s dining options! Their food may be pricey, but they’ll accommodate you should you decide to extend your stay.
There are three cafés at Mesa Verde: the Knife Edge, the Spruce Tree Terrace, and the Far View Terrace cafés. Their services are like that of a cafeteria and food court.
You can enjoy all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, buffets, daily lunch specials, and grab-and-go meals. Need a drink? Your options include a variety of beers, wines, and cocktails, and coffee and espresso.
If you’re camping in the Morefield campground, there’s a store for if you want to purchase basic food and drink. You don’t even need to have your camp set up there to refuel! Just go there whenever before or after your hike(s) or tour(s).
And if you want a souvenir or two, stop by the gift shops at the Far View Lodge and terraces!
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
The park’s visitor and research center is the primary facility that houses exhibits of ancestral Pueblo culture and daily life. They have many archives and over three million museum pieces.
The center’s bookstore is extremely useful for learning more about the park and finding your way around it. And if you absolutely need Wi-Fi coverage, you’ll get it in the lobby or in the parking lot.
Mesa Verde National Park camping treats you to the diverse fauna and flora throughout the park. The national park lies in a transition zone between arid and forested environments, supporting the many wildlife living there.
The park’s fauna consists in many reptiles, mammals, birds, invertebrates, and amphibians. All are picture-worthy, but if you want to see them up close, only do so with your camera lens.
Many wildflowers and colored sunflowers are among the park’s flora. Besides the cedar trees outside the park, the ones within include pines, Gambel oaks, Douglas firs, cottonwoods, and more. The plant communities vary depending on elevation.
Coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, venomous snakes, and other dangerous animals roam the park. Keep your food sealed, do NOT feed the animals, and make enough noises so you don’t surprise them.
Also, when camping at Mesa Verde National Park, note that the area has a protected status. Many species of rare animals and plants are found here and nowhere else. Your safety from dangerous wildlife is not the only reason to keep your distance.
The best times to watch the fauna would be in the early morning or at dusk. If you’re interested in bird watching, the best time for that is in late spring during their migration and nesting seasons.
Trails like Knife Edge, Petroglyph Point, and Spruce Canyon are good places to watch birds and other wildlife. In fact, sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of them on the roads and even during the cliff dwelling tours.
Feel free to take a wildlife sighting card to mark what animals you’ve seen. Also, refer to the bird checklist for the many varieties you’ll see during your Mesa Verde National Park camping experience!
Geography and Geology
Mesa Verde has a 7,000-foot elevation, so its viewpoints will give you breathtaking views of the Colorado Plateau. As amazing as that is, we advise you to get accustomed to the elevation to ward off altitude sickness.
The national park is more of a cuesta than a mesa, meaning the top of the elevated land slightly dips in one direction. In the case of this park, it’s angled at seven degrees toward the south, but its name remains intact.
Visit the geologic overlooks on or off certain trails with a guide to learn about the park’s geology. Park Point is one overlook worth visiting first; it’s the highest point of the main park road with wayside exhibits.
Mesa Verde National Park Reviews
Currently, the park has four and a half-filled circles on TripAdvisor. And according to Google Maps, the rating is 4.8 stars.
Park visitors, whether or not they engage in Mesa Verde National Park camping, marvel over the cliff dwellings. They find the trip fun and informative, despite the cold and windy conditions on some days.
One visitor recommends staying for about a couple of days to take in the park because of its size. Another recommends taking a week or two to prepare for your trip and checking for updates regarding the national park.
Venture to Mesa Verde National Park!
Now you’ve got the gist of Mesa Verde National Park camping! Whatever campsite you choose at or near Mesa Verde, you’re in for a ruggedly good time.
Visit our National Park Camping page to learn more about camping in America’s national parks.