Here's your guide to the Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tours, including one self-guided tour. Read up on ideas for timing and what to bring.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is the first national park in the United States created to preserve a culture.
Multiple cultures, in fact.
It's not only a national park; it's also a World Heritage Site. A handful of its thousands of archaeological sites are open for touring, and they're well worth seeing.
Keep in mind that the backcountry is considered an archaeological site and access is restricted. So you'll need to stick only to the designated trails when you're traveling through the park.
Ready to start planning? Here's what you need to know before you go on a Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tour.
Booking a Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tour
Tours are offered from late spring to early fall. Check the park service's website for exact dates.
Most of the tours are ranger-guided, and you’ll need to reserve a spot online. Reservations open up 14 days prior to each tour.
(One tour is self-guided and doesn't require a ticket, which we'll get to below.)
You need to be sure to print or download your ticket before the tour, because there's not much cell service in the park.
What Can I Expect On a Cliff Dwelling Tour?
You need to arrive to the locations about 15 minutes early so you can get briefed on safety and tour procedure.
All of the ranger-guided tours provide information on the ancestral Pueblo peoples who lived in the dwellings, theories on what the rooms and buildings were used for, and why the ancient peoples moved on to other areas and abandoned the cliff dwellings.
Informational pamphlets you can take home with you are available at the sites for a small suggested donation.
The dwellings are considered holy ground by the modern Pueblo people, and our Balcony House ranger mentioned that some still come here for ceremonies. (So be respectful while there.)
Timing Multiple Cliff Dwelling Tours
It takes quite a while to drive from the visitor center to the cliff dwellings — well over an hour in some cases. (If you need it, there's a gas station at Morefield Campground, just a few miles from the park entrance.)
The tours are located on different mesas: Long House and Step House are on Wetherill Mesa, while Balcony House and Cliff Palace are on Chapin Mesa. It can take about an hour to drive from one mesa to another.
Note for 2023: Wetherill Mesa is closed to the public for the 2023 season while work is being done.
For us, each tour ended up being slightly longer than the reservation site listed, so keep that in mind if you’re booking multiple tours. This is not really a place where you want to cram in all the destinations in one day.
What Should I Bring?
For sure, bring water, sunglasses and a hat.
But especially water! (It’s often hot and sunny.)
There are restroom facilities and picnic areas near many of these sites. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase at a few places in the park, but they can be expensive. So you might want to bring your own food.
If you're doing a lot of hiking in addition to tours, you might benefit from a trekking pole. I always bring mine whenever there's rugged terrain. I do NOT recommend bringing the trekking pole on any of the tours that include ladders, as you'd have to figure out a way to strap it to your pack.
(I do recommend checking out some of the trails — Knife Edge is gorgeous at sunset!)
For suggestions on footwear, see my post on the best women's hiking shoes and boots.
Which Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tour Is Right For You?
Let's take a quick overview of the tours:
This is the only self-guided cliff dwelling tour in Mesa Verde. No reservation needed!
It's located near Long House on Wetherill Mesa, over 20 miles from the park entrance. (Wetherill Mesa is closed to the public during the 2023 season.)
The trail to Step House is normally a 0.8-mile loop trail. There was construction work that closed part of the trail when we were there, making it a slightly longer 1.0-mile point-to-point trail.
There is a short, optional ladder to climb at the cliff dwelling. The trail does have some steep drop-offs, but it wasn’t exceptionally narrow.
If you’re afraid of heights and still want to see a cliff dwelling up close, this one is a little less intimidating than some of the others, so it's probably your best bet.
Long House is also located on Wetherill Mesa (near Step House). (Wetherill Mesa is closed to the public for the 2023 season.)
We toured Long House on our trip in 2016. We picked it because I’m mildly afraid of heights, and this one has the fewest ladders.
It turns out the ladders didn’t bother me, so when we came back we did the other two guided tours.
Expect a two-hour tour, with 2.25 miles of walking, and two 15-foot ladders.
Cliff Palace is located on Chapin Mesa, close to Balcony House. These sites are also over 20 miles from the park entrance.
Cliff Palace is very popular, and you'll have probably seen it in lots of photos. It's just such a beautiful site.
That also means the tours are probably going to be crowded.
Because the groups were so large, this tour experience wasn’t my favorite. It was sometimes hard to hear the ranger speaking. The buildings, however, were so impressive that it's worth going to see!
Cliff Palace is really considered more of a ranger-assisted tour rather than a guided one. You move from one "station" to the next and the rangers are there to provide information.
Expect about a 30-minute tour, a quarter-mile of walking, lots of uneven steps, and four short ladders.
Balcony House is located on Chapin Mesa, close to Cliff Palace.
This one is the most physically intense tour. You’ll need to climb ladders (one over 30 feet tall), walk along footholds on a cliff edge (with metal fencing to hold onto), and fit through a tunnel in the rocks.
I didn’t think it was quite as scary as it sounded, but if you’re extremely afraid of heights this tour might not be for you.
This was my favorite of all the Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tours. It was a small group with one tour guide and a park volunteer to help. The tour didn’t seem rushed and was really interesting!
Expect about a one-hour tour, an 18-inch-wide tunnel, two 17-foot ladders, one 32-foot ladder, and a 60-foot cliff face with uneven stone steps.
Spruce Tree House
And lastly, I should point out that you might see Spruce Tree House listed on your map as a self-guided tour. Both my National Geographic map and the map from the park service show it.
But Spruce Tree House, located near Balcony House and Cliff Palace, is CLOSED and has been since 2015 because of rock fall.
You can still see it from an overlook if you want to catch a glimpse.
Will it open again in future? We can hope so. But for now, it's off the itinerary.
Of all the Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tours offered, which are you planning to try? Let us know in the comments!