8 Key Tips for Discovering Mesa Verde National Park in an RV
Mesa Verde State Park sits on the western border of Colorado and is one of the most unique parks in the collection. You will discover, among other amazing sights, the amazing and sacred ancient cave dwellings of Puebloan, where the ancient indigenous peoples lived for over 700 years, from 550 to 1300 AD.
The park consists of 52,073 acres of federal land. Totally deserted by 1300 AD (no one knows exactly why, but war seems to be a factor), President Teddy Roosevelt declared the pristine landscape a national park on June 29, 1906.
Mesa Verde National Park is less than an hour’s drive from Durango and Dolores, both of which are great starting points for your RV trips. Here are some tips for visiting the park in a motorhome, as well as suggestions for accommodation and food along the way.
1. Allow plenty of time
Mesa Verde National Park requires a few hours to view effectively. Keep in mind that there is 4,000 archaeological sites and 600 cave dwellings inside this wonderful attraction. You could easily spend 4-5 hours there, but we saw everything we needed in 3 — not my first visit.
From the time your RV reaches the Visitor Center at the entrance, it will take approximately 45 minutes to get to the top spots: Cliff Palace and Mesa Top Loops. The speed limit is slow and the grade steep.
2. Pack snacks and drinks
Since there are no concessions inside Mesa Verde National Park and it takes at least 90 minutes round trip to reach the main attractions, you’ll want to come prepared with snacks and drinks. We bring a small ice cooler for bottled water (or in our Yeti insulated tumblers) and sodas. Bagged snacks are good – nuts, cookies, trail mix, whatever you desire – but one thing I learned while traveling with my friend Sara was to bring sandwich fillings.
For us, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are perfect. Bring along a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, packets or a jar of jelly, and a plastic knife to get out of the way and whip up a satisfying sandwich. Don’t forget paper towels or napkins.
Pro Tip: Many newbies visit national parks and they may not be as prepared as you are. Keep your eyes peeled and offer a bottle of cold water or snacks if you see someone who seems to need it.
3. Know the main routes and viewpoints
Cliff Palace Loop Road
My favorite part of Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace Loop Road, a 6 mile driving adventure. Here, you’ll find sweeping views of the recessed canyon with the homes the ancients used, as well as Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The old cliff houses were built from sandstone, mortar and wooden beams. I almost felt like I was seeing daily life in each of the built-in rooms, the neighborhood bustling with people and thriving communities. It almost appears like a miniature village from a distance.
Pro Tip: Use Cliff Palace Overlook on the loop or Sun Temple on the Mesa Top loop for the best views.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
If you’re intrigued by history, and I suspect you must be when visiting this fantastic park, drive to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to see exhibits describing Native American culture during the time these mountains were inhabited. Spruce Tree House (the best preserved cliff dwelling) can be seen from vantage points near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
Note: As of June 2022, the museum is closed for renovations, including the addition of accessible ramps. Check his website for updates.
Upper Mesa Loop Route
Driving Mesa Top Loop Road will bring you face to face with 10 stops with majestic viewpoints and historical sites. Among the most famous is Sun Point Overlook, where the images are sure to impress.
Enrich your ride by learning all the time. The Mesa Top Loop Audio Tour: A Pueblo Perspective on Mesa Verdean audio tour narrated by ranger TJ Atsye, a direct descendant of the people who lived here, is available on the NSP website and application. The podcast is 40 minutes long. I recommend everyone download this podcast so you can experience a narrated explanation of what you see as you hike through the beautiful scenery on this 6 mile loop.
If you want to focus on the rock carvings, head over to Petroglyph Point Trail. Balcony House is another pretty place with 13th century cliff dwellings.
4. Plan your preferred level of effort
My husband and I walked to many lookouts, and they were all easy walks. There are also plenty of parking spaces fairly close to the attractions. There was nowhere in Mesa Verde National Park where we were overworked, but we didn’t hike either.
If you want to hike, head to the Wetherill Mesa, where you’ll have plenty of opportunities for hiking (even with pets), biking, and plenty of ranger-guided hikes. Another benefit of doing Wetherill Mesa is that Step House, the only cliff dwelling you can visit without a tour, is located here.
Mesa Verde State Park can be busier during the height of summer, so consider heading to the park early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the daily rush (9:30 am to 3 pm).
5. Buy your tickets in advance
You can purchase digital park passes online at Recreation.gov. You can either print them out or save them to your mobile device for your visit. Keep in mind that cell service is very limited or non-existent in many national parks, including this one. Therefore, saving tickets to your phone can help if your phone service isn’t working. You can also use your America the Beautiful or National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands (Senior, Annual, or Access) passes at this park.
Tickets to enter Mesa Verde National Park are $30 per vehicle (May 1 through October 31) and are valid for seven days. Winter prices are $20 per vehicle.
6. Study its accolades – it can add to your stay
I am a UNESCO Fan of the World Heritage Site and try to add a few new places to my travels every year. Mesa Verde National Park became a member of UNESCO in 1978. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and its World Heritage Sites are said to exhibit “a cultural and natural heritage …considered to be of exceptional value to humanity”.
Mesa Verde is also designated International Starry Sky Park, meaning the area has exceptional views of the night sky and stars. It was the 100th site added to the list. According to the national park website, Morefield Campground and Far From The View Lodge are two places visitors can spend the night (May through October) for excellent stargazing. They even sometimes have evening programs led by rangers.
Pro tips: As I learned at Big Bend National Park, it can take 20-25 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, allowing plenty of time away from bright lights before trying to take in the views of the night sky. Follow this advice in one of these dark-sky national parks.
7. Where to go by motorhome
Oasis RV Resort
My husband and I are full time RVers. The park we chose to stay in to visit Mesa Verde National Park was Oasis RV Resort and Cabins in Durango, Colorado.
The Oasis RV Resort is in a great location, just 6 minutes from many retail stores (Walmart included) and 12 minutes from historic downtown Durango. Rates are affordable, the park is quiet, and there’s plenty to enjoy during your stay. The campground offers a seasonal cafe, dog park, community fire pit, mini golf, and heated pool. I was thrilled to see a whole recycling area, a rarity in the RV world.
Fun fact: Oasis RV Resort has locations in Gunnison, Colorado; and Amarillo, Texas, too.
Dolores River RV Resort and Cabins by R Journey
Another excellent place for the motorhome is in the town of Dolores. The highly rated Dolores River RV Resort and Cabins has spaces for RVers like me, cabins for those looking for a slice of home, and accommodations for those looking for something new and fun, like yurts, adorable boxcars, and vintage Airstream trailers.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION: Dolores is 21 minutes north of Mesa Verde National Park, while Durango is 39 minutes east.
8. Where to eat
Mesa Verde is located in the town of Mancos, Colorado. We loved this cute little town, a heavy hitter in murals and great for fishing, camping and boating. Lunch or dinner is exceptional from Chavolo’s, a Mexican restaurant just off the main highway. The chili con queso will leave you scratching the bowl; it is so good.
My husband and I shared chicken fajitas for two, which looked like every other fajita skillet we ordered, but tasted really high. I don’t know how they season the chicken, but it’s so good. The ingredients were all fresh too.
Then head to Absolute Bakery (closed on Mondays) to satisfy your sweet tooth.