One Day Itinerary for Mesa Verde National Park [Kid-Friendly]

Planning to spend one day in Mesa Verde National Park? This one day itinerary is the perfect way to spend your day.

Mesa Verde National Park is an incredible destination, but not for the usual reasons that a national park is famous. While it does have mountains, vistas, and trails, the main focus of Mesa Verde is the jaw-dropping human achievements – hundreds of dwellings constructed in small cracks in the middle of sheer cliffs by the Ancestral Pueblo Native Americans.

In fact, this was the first site designated as a national park to protect human-made locations instead of natural wonders. Mesa Verde is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We visited Mesa Verde on our most recent trip (of many!) to the Southwest, which is probably my favorite region in the entire United States, Our whole family, adults and kids alike, really loved our visit and we were amazed by the variety of things to see and do.

The good news is that while the park is quite spread out, most of the top highlights of Mesa Verde can be visited with just a single day in the park.

So, in this itinerary for one day in Mesa Verde National Park, we’re sharing how to spend the perfect 24 hours in the park. This is a great schedule for kids (and indeed, we did it with our four girls, ages 6-12), but it’s also an itinerary I would happily follow again if I was just visiting with adults.

Quick Tip: If you’re planning a Southwest US road trip, I recommend reserving a rental car ASAP for the best prices and availability. I always book my car with this rental car aggregate site to find the best deals.

The Geography of Mesa Verde – Important!

It’s important to understand how Mesa Verde National Park is laid out to understand the reasoning behind the itinerary. The park is actually quite long and it can take an hour to drive from one end to the other. Crucially, most of the coolest and well-known sites are located on the very, very far end of the park from the entrance, with just a few viewpoints and small hikes near the entrance.

From the park entrance, you’ll drive up a steep switch back for almost 10 minutes just to get to the campground. From there it is another 20 minutes through the mountains until you get to the Far View Lodge and the split between the two main mesas, Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa.

The sites in the Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa are 40 minutes apart, and if you only have one day in Mesa Verde, you really do not have time to visit both mesas. Chapin Mesa has two of the most popular cliff dwelling sites that you can tour, has multiple hikes, and nearly a dozen pull-off spots with viewpoints or dwellings to explore.

Wetherill Mesa has some cool viewpoints and dwellings to tour as well, but there are fewer, and most of the sites on the mesa are accessible only via a paved path (you can’t drive between sites).

For these reasons, I recommend you spend your day in the Chapin section.

Mesa Verde One Day Itinerary

Petroglyph Point Trail

Start your day in Mesa Verde with the main hike you’ll be doing in the park: Petroglyph Point Trail. This fun, adventurous, moderately difficult trail starts near the Museum, at the Spruce Tree House Overlook.

An overlook looking out a rock wall with a rock dwelling under it with a tree line right in front of it.
Spruce Tree House Overlook

Admire the Spruce Tree House (one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the park, but currently closed to visitors due to rock falls around the site), then descend partways into the canyon, and follow the cliff wall.

As you hike, you’ll walk under rocky overhangs, hike along the side of the cliff, climb up and down stone staircases, and observe a few, very small cliff dwellings.

A small rock pathway with rocks leading up to a small tunnel
A small rock ledge with bricks making a few small squares with a sign that says "Do Not Enter"

This trail is a one-way loop, and at the halfway point, you’ll reach a rock panel covered in petroglyphs. These petroglyphs are very well-preserved, are crisp and clear, and you can easily identify what they are. We liked the mountain lion petroglyph the best!

A dark rock wall with petrogylphys carved onto the wall

After the petroglphys, you’ll immediately start up a steep stone staircase that takes you back up to the rim of the canyon. From there, its a very easy, flat walk through a juniper and pinyon pine forest near the rim, back to the trailhead. 

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic hike in Mesa Verde and would recommend it to anyone. 


This small museum is located right by the trailhead for Petroglyph Point, and has exhibits of Ancestral Pueblo village objects, including ceramics, mugs, sandals, and jewelry, which help to bring to life the homes and buildings you’ll observe through the park. provide insight into what life was like at Mesa Verde.

You can also watch the short movie about the park, called, “Footsteps of Our Ancestors,” which shows every half hour.

This isn’t a must-do, but it’s a good, quick stop if you have some time between finishing Petroglyph Point Trail and before your Cliff Palace reservation time slots.

Cliff Palace Loop

The far end of the Mesa Verde National Park is sectioned off into two loops: the Cliff Palace Loop and the Mesa Top Loop.

The Cliff Palace loop is 10km/6 miles and you can drive and park at each location. These are the stops you need to make on the loop:

>>Cliff Palace Overlook and/or Tour

A rock dwelling with old prehistoric buildings with groups of people looking throughout the area underneath a rock wall.

Cliff Palace Overlook: This viewpoint offers a close-up above and to the side view of the Cliff Palace dwelling, which is truly one of the most incredible and beautiful dwellings in the park. This is also where you will meet if you do the Cliff Palace tour. 

Getting a Tour Reservation

While most of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde can only be viewed from nearby overlooks, there are a few large dwellings that actually allow visitors to walk in and through the dwellings as part of a guided ranger tour. The two main tours in Mesa Verde are for Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Reservations open up at 8am MT, two weeks in advance of the tour, and are generally sold out very fast. Visiting a dwelling is THE best thing to do in Mesa Verde, hands-down, no question, so it’s worth it to make sure you get a tour slot.

If you’re following this itinerary, I’d aim for a tour reservation between noon to 1pm.

What the Tour is Like

Cliff Palace is an expansive site, home to more than 150 structures and 21 kivas. Its sheer size and layout are truly impressive. Kivas are the circular structures you’ll see in the dwellings and were used for religious ceremonies.

A prehistoric rock dwelling with lots of small buildings and large sacred fire circles in the Mesa Verde area.

This dwelling is a sight to behold, set in a spacious and deep cliff cove. You’ll see a diverse array of towers, ladders, structures, and kivas, all arranged on different levels and in a variety of shapes and sizes.

There’s a lot to look at, and it’s all very visually stimulating!

Despite Cliff Palace’s extensive amount of rooms and buildings, it was actually home to only around 20 families at any one time. Many of these spaces were not in constant use.

In fact, Cliff Palace functioned primarily as a ceremonial and administrative center in Mesa Verde. It acted as a central gathering place for various groups to conduct religious ceremonies in the kivas or hold important community meetings.

The experience of this guided tour is slightly different if you visit in the morning vs afternoon. Morning tours are more formal guided tours, whereas in the afternoon a ranger is present to answer questions and talk about points of interest, but it’s much more informal.

Stephanie’s Tip: Even if you don’t get or decide not to do the guided tour of Cliff Palace, you definitely need to come to the overlook for incredible views down into the dwelling!

>>House of Many Windows

A very small rock dwelling across the valley with a small amount of buildings sandwiched between two rock walls.

While not named on the park map, this viewpoint offers a look at a cliff dwelling in a small crevice with 4 doors right in a row. Only this structure is left, but the original village had 15 dwellings in it.

Like most cliff dwellings, little hand and toe holds are carved out in the rock, leading from the alcove up to the mesa above. 

>>Hemenway House

A large alcove with a few tall rock buildings underneath the rock ceiling.

Here, you can see a few of the dwellings that remain in a large alcove. This site is of note because it’s named after Mary Tileston Hemenway, a philanthropist in the 1800s who gave significant financial support to Mesa Verde. 

>>Balcony House

This is the meeting point for the Balcony House dwelling tour. There is no overlook to the dwelling, so there’s no reason to stop if you’re not going on the tour.

However, as I mentioned above, Balcony House and Cliff Palace are both unique and incredible dwellings, and the best experiences in the park are going into these little crevices in the cliff. We did both tours, and I can honestly say they are each unique enough that I’d recommend you do both!

A rock dwelling within the ground fire circles. This is the main highlight of Mesa Verde.

I have a post all about the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours at Mesa Verde, and comparing and contrasting the experience and the pros and cons of each, as well as going into detail about the logistics of a visit. This post is particularly helpful if you only have time or interest for one tour.

Getting Reservations: Like Cliff Palace, you must have a tour reservation to visit the dwelling, and the process is exactly the same for both tours.

The Tour: Balcony House is a very fun experience since you climb up several very tall ladders propped up on the sides of the cliff to enter and exit the dwelling. You’ll also climb through tunnels and small passageways during the tour – the adventure aspect is very strong here.

You’ll walk through several rooms of the dwelling and learn about their different uses and features. You’ll also get to see the seep springs in and near the dwelling, which were crucial for Native American life. 

People climbing up the fifty foot ladder to a rock dwelling
A woman crawling through a very small rock tunnel

Stephanie’s Pro Tip: If you’re doing both tours, I’d recommend scheduling Balcony House 2 hours after Cliff Palace.

>>Soda Canyon Overlook Trail

A dwelling with a large ladder leading up to it and different sections of the dwelling having small rock dividers separating them.

This trail is an easy, mostly flat 1-mile trail through a juniper and pinyon pine forest trail to reach 2 overlooks. The first overlook is of Balcony House, and is the only viewpoint of this cliff dwelling in the entire park.

The second viewpoint is over Soda Canyon, named for the white calcium deposits on the cliff that are left from the dried up seep springs used by the Native Americans. 

Mesa Top Loop

This is the second of the two loops, and the Mesa Top Loop takes you around to different historic sites and viewpoints of cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde. Like the Cliff Palace Loop, the Mesa Top Loop is 10km/6 miles and you can drive and park at each location.

Each stop is pretty quick, so they the loop doesn’t feel too long – we spent about 1.5 hours in the loop. There are 8 different stops – here’s a brief overview of each:

>>Pit House

The remains of a pithouse from almost 600 AD with a metal fence around it.

Dated at around 600 AD, this is one of the earliest dwellings from the Mesa Verde area. You can see the remains and perimeter of an early pithouse, which was dug down a few inches into the ground, and then a domed wooden log cover was built on top of it. 

While there were many people who lived in the cliff dwellings, there were also a lot of people who lived on the mesa tops in houses such as these, and there are many pit house ruins around the park.

>>Navajo Canyon  View

A deep canyon with a mesa on the other side with lots of greenery on the bottom

A view over the deep canyon and flat mesa on the other side of the gorge. I’d actually skip this one as it’s not nearly as cool as the others, as most of the dwelling viewpoints also overlook the canyon.

>>Square Tower House Overlook

A large dwelling built in a spacious rock alcove

This viewpoint gives a great view down into an expansive and spectacular cliff dwelling that has eight kivas and 60+ rooms. The most amazing part of the dwelling, though, is the tall, 4 story tower that stands proudly over the rest of the structures. 

>>Pit Houses and Villages

A small dwelling built into the ground on display with a metal fence around it.

Here, you can observe the remains of several pit houses in villages located on the mesa top. These dwellings were dug much deeper into the ground than the previous pit houses seen on the loop. 

Stephanie’s Note: If you have just one day in Mesa Verde, I’d stop and look at the two pit houses that we’ve highlighted so far on this loop – but I’d probably skip any other pit houses.

Frankly, I just don’t think they are nearly as interesting as the cliff dwellings, and when you’ve seen one or two, you’ve seen them all. With your limited time, I’d focus on the other cliff dwellings and sites.

>>Sun Point View

A large building built in the gap in the rock wall with stairs leading up the dwelling.

If you only stop at one viewpoint on the Mesa Top Loop, it needs to be Sun Point View. The canyon walls curves around the viewpoint, offering views of 9 different dwellings! Eight of these are cliff dwellings, and one is a pueblo built on the mesa directly across from you.

A rock wall with two small buildings built in between the ledges.

Cliff Palace is one of these dwellings you can see, and it’s really cool to see it across the way. Placards show you where to look and the names of all the cliff dwellings, and there’s a free telescope you can use for a close-up view.

Three girls look out at the seven different dwellings with a metal fence keeping them from falling into the valley

It’s really incredible seeing so many spread out right in front of you! The last stops on the loop bring you to more straight on views of the dwellings you’ll get a glimpse of here.

>>Oak Tree House

A rock dwelling with a small alcove over the top of the buildings.

This stop isn’t listed on the park map, but it’s an official stop with an up-close view of the Oak Tree House, one of the cliff dwellings that you saw from a farther distance at Sun Point View. 

>>Fire Temple/New Fire House

Two dwellings on top of each other off the side of a rock wall with trees at the bottom of the valley

Another stop not listed on the map, this viewpoint gives a much closer view of a set of dwellings that were seen at a far distance from Sun Point View. 

>>Sun Temple

The side of the stone building with the roof missing

The Sun Temple is an above ground complex of rooms that sits on top of the mesa.

It is unclear to archeologists what it was used for, as no other structure like it exists in the region outside of a pueblo. You can walk around the exterior of the site, and there are a couple of spots where you can peak in. There is also a great, straight-on view of Cliff Palace from here as well. 

Far View Sites

There are 6 different sites you can see at Far View, each one a few minutes walk from the others and connected via a pathway.

To start, you’ll see the Far View House and the Pipe Shrine House, two pueblos in partial ruins that have a complex of rooms and kivas. You can walk around the outside and look in. These are right by each other. 

A dwelling that rises up the hill with ropes blocking off the entrances.
A small dwelling about two feet high with bushes and trees on either side of the dwelling
Pipe Shrine House

Next, visit the Coyote Village House. This is another pueblo with a complex of kivas and small rooms. The walls here aren’t as high as Far View House and Pipe Shrine House, but we found it infinitely more interesting, as this is the only pueblo in the entire Mesa Verde National Park that you can actually walk through.

A sandy prehistoric dwelling with two girls standing on the edge of a fire circle

There are a few openings in the walls where you can go into the pueblo and walk around the kivas, and even enter some of the rooms as well, which is very fun. Our kids loved this spot!

Four girls walk in one of the dwellings on a sandy path

There are three other spots that you can walk to in the Far View area: Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House, and Water Tower. I’d just go ahead and skip these sites – they’re in heavy ruin, and I didn’t find them nearly as interesting as other spots.

Montezuma Overlook

A small path leading up the mountain with white rocks at the top

This viewpoint overlooks the valley and mountains, as the other viewpoints do, but it also is right under the rock formation known as Knife Edge, an impressively sheer, tall, rocky crest right on the edge of the cliff. 

Park Point Overlook

A sunset with large mountains in the background.

End your day in Mesa Verde at Park Point. A short walk (0.2 miles round trip) from the parking lot takes you to the overlook, which is the highest point in Mesa Verde National Park, at 8572 feet high.

On the way to the lookout spot, you’ll pass a Fire Tower that is used during the summer months as a lookout post for fires in the valleys below. This is a fantastic spot for sunset!

There is a second viewpoint on the other side of the Fire Tower that looks back at the park and it’s fun to see how much distance you’ve covered that day.

Helpful Information for Planning a Mesa Verde Itinerary

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park is late spring, summer, and early fall. Winter can see heavy snowfall, and the trails are closed by snow in winter. Additionally, the tours of Balcony House and Cliff Palace are only available from late April to mid-October, and many other amenities are not available in winter.

Truly, it’s worth prioritizing a visit during the late spring, summer, or early fall – you’ll get a MUCH better and more enriching experience then.

Hours and Entrance Fees

The park is always open, but sites and trails are open generally from 8am-sunset. The park features wonderful dark skies.

The entrance fee for a private vehicle is $30 between May 1 – Oct 22, and $20 between Oct 23 – April 30. These passes are good for 7 days.

Alternatively, if you are going to visit a few national parks, national monuments, or sites within the National Park Service in the next 12 months, it’s definitely worth buying an America the Beautiful Pass. For $80, you get into all sites in the National Park System for free for one year.

Where to Stay

Hotel: Mesa Verde National Park is one of the few US parks that offers a hotel within the park boundaries – the Far View Lodge.

Camping: The Morefield Campground inside Mesa Verde National Park is quite large, with 267 spaces, and thus rarely fills up. This is awesome for anyone who likes camping in national parks, as it is easy to get a spot even if you don’t book months in advance. 

The campground has a camp store, a small cafe that does breakfast, a gas station, and showers, and sites that have trees and grassy areas surrounding them. There are also a lot of deer that come through the campground. Bears occasionally come through, so you do have to be careful with your smellables, keep all food in your car or a bear box at the site, and take other basic precautions. 

Cost is $40/night for a standard tent site. The campground is open from mid-May to mid-October.

Getting Around

Mesa Verde does not have any shuttle system in place, so you’ll need to drive your personal vehicle (or bike) to all sites. The park is very large and will require a lot of driving to reach the main sites, so make sure you have a full tank of gas before setting out.

Jr Ranger Program

As a national park, Mesa Verde has a Junior Ranger program, which is one of our kids’ favorite activities at any of the national park sites that we have visited.

A small girl holding a Junior Ranger badge from Mesa Verde

If you’re traveling with kids between the ages of 5 and 12, you’ll definitely want to stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center (hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm – but this changes quite a bit during the year) to pick up a Jr Ranger booklet at the start of your day.

Kids need to complete a certain number of activities in the booklet (the number is based on age), that are all centered around what they will see and experience in the park, and then turn the booklet back in at the end of the day to receive a nice, wooden badge.

My kids love doing the Junior Ranger Activities, and it’s been really fun to collect the badges and booklets from sites we’ve visited all over the country.


Mesa Verde actually offers quite a few different restaurants and cafes within the park, including the Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe, the Far View Terrace Cafe, the Metate Room, Far View Lounge, and Knife Edge Cafe.

Where to Visit Nearby

Located in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde is close to many other parks, monuments, and places of interest, and it’s easy to make a whole road trip around the region.

Less than one hour away is Four Corners Monument, and Lake Powell is just 3.5 hours away. Monument Valley and Natural Bridges National Monument are both about 2.5 hours away.

And of course, you can continue south and west to Zion National Park or the Grand Canyon, or head north to Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park, or Goblin Valley State Park (one of our family’s favorites!), or a host of other hiking destinations across the Southwest.

One Day in Mesa Verde – The Wrap Up

Mesa Verde is a national park that is absolutely worth visiting – we were astounded by the dwellings left behind by the Ancestral Puebloans and loved exploring the unique landscape. This is a great park for adults and children alike, and definitely one that is worth putting on your bucket list!

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