Touring Cliff Dwellings At Mesa Verde National Park

While there are thousands of archaeological sites at Mesa Verde National Park, just five cliff dwellings are regularly open for tours: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, Long House, and Step House.

It's both amazing and unfortunate that while there are hundreds of cliff dwellings within Mesa Verde's boundaries, just those five are open on a regular basis for visitors.

Maps of the mesas included within the national park's boundaries are dotted with ruins -- Double House, Sun Point Pueblo, Square Tower House, Sun Temple, Fire Temple, Cedar Tree House, Kodak House, and Jug House. And those are just the ones with names. There also are sites denoted simply by numbers -- 1644, 1645, 1676, 1452, 1801, 1291, and 1595 just to name a few.

The problem of opening these to the public has been a lack of money and manpower. Money to both stabilize ruins enough so they can be safely toured, and manpower to provide the tours and the ongoing stabilization and monitoring work. And then, too, there's the issue of access. Some sites are just too remote and difficult to reach to make public tours realistic.

Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House all are located on Chapin Mesa, while Long House and Step House are located on Wetherill Mesa.

Cliff Palace and Balcony House are popular ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours. During periods of high demand, you may be asked to choose only one of these tours per day. A tour of Long House, located on Wetherill Mesa, can be taken on the same day as the Cliff Palace OR Balcony House tours.

Tour tickets are $3 per tour, per person, regardless of age.

Purchase tour tickets at:

•Far View Visitor Center

•Morefield Ranger Station

•Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum (from October 21 to November 10 ONLY)

•Colorado Welcome Center, Cortez

Balcony House

This one-hour tour involves climbing a 32-foot (9.8 m) ladder, crawling through a 12-foot (3.7 m) long tunnel, and climbing up a 60-foot (20 m) open cliff face with stone steps and two 10-foot (3 m) ladders to exit the site.

Tour begins at the north end of the Balcony House parking lot, a 10-mile (16 km), 25-minute drive from the visitor center.

May 25 to September 3 -- Every half-hour: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

September 4 to October 20 -- Every hour: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

October 21: Closed for season

Cliff Palace

This one-hour tour involves descending uneven stone steps and climbing five ladders for a 100-foot (30 m) vertical climb. Total walking distance is 0.25 miles (0.4 km). Tour begins at the Cliff Palace Overlook, an 8-mile (12.9 km) drive from the Far View Visitor Center.

May 25 to September 3 -- Every half-hour: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

September 4 to October 20 -- Every half-hour: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

October 21 to November 10 -- Every hour: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

November 11: Closed for season

Long House

This tour starts with a tram ride to the trailhead. This 90-minute tour involves climbing two 15-foot (4.6 m) ladders within the site. The round- trip hike is 0.75 mile (1.2 km), with a 130-foot (40 m) gain in elevation exiting the site.

Tour begins at the Wetherill Mesa kiosk, a 12-mile (19 km) drive from the Far View Visitor Center. Allow 45 minutes for this drive. Vehicles over 25 feet (8 m) long are prohibited on the Wetherill Mesa road.

May 25 to September 3 -- 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.

September 4: Closed for season

Spruce Tree House

Mesa Verde’s best-preserved and third-largest cliff dwelling, Spruce Tree House was constructed between A.D. 1211 and A.D. 1278. The site contains 130 rooms and 8 kivas built into a natural alcove. It is thought to have been the home to about 60 to 80 people. Allow 45 minutes to one hour for the 100-foot (30 m) descent and ascent on a winding path. The total walking distance is 0.5 mile (0.8 km) round-trip. Trail begins at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Rangers are available to answer your questions.

May 25 to September 3 -- Open 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

September 4 to October 20 -- Open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

October 21 to November 10 -- Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Spruce Tree House also is accessible in winter on three free ranger-guided tours. From Nov. 11 through Feb. 15, 2013, the tours are offered at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. From Feb. 16 through March 8, 2013, the tour times shift slightly to 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. On March 9, 2013, Spruce Tree House reopens for self-guided tours (with a ranger present at the site).

Step House

Allow 45 minutes to one hour for the 100-foot (30 m) descent and ascent on a winding path. Total walking distance is about 0.8 mile (1.3 km). The loop trail begins near the Wetherill Mesa kiosk. A ranger is available for questions. Step House is unusual in that two separate occupations exist in the same alcove; Modified Basketmaker, dating to A.D. 626, and a Classic Pueblo masonry pueblo dating to A.D. 1226. Trail to Step House open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Site closes at 5 p.m.

From late spring into early September the park offers special guided tours to Square Tower House and Mug House.

Mug House

Meet at Cliff Palace Overlook. Tour is limited to 20 people.

Price: $10 per person Tickets sold ONLY at the Far View Visitor Center.

This strenuous 2-hour, 3-mile (4.8km) round-trip hike offers the opportunity to see a rarely visited cliff dwelling. Mug House, built about A.D. 1150, was likely home to approximately 80 to 100 people. The hike traverses an unpaved, uneven trail that descends 100 feet (30 m), and includes steep drop-offs, switchbacks, and scrambling up and down boulders. This hike may not be appropriate for young children or children carried in backpacks. Each hiker must be able to scramble over boulders and navigate steep gravel trails unassisted.

May 27 to September 2 -- Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10 a.m. Meet at the Wetherill Mesa Information Kiosk. Tour is limited to 10 people. $25 per person

Square Tower House

A strenuous 2-hour, 1-mile (1.6 km) round-trip hike leads to a stunning and surprisingly intimate cliff dwelling. Unusual aspects of Square Tower House include an original kiva roof and the Crow’s Nest, both features that cannot be seen from the overlook. The hike involves exposed cliff edges, scrambling down rocky slopes, and climbing a 20-foot (6.1 m) ladder and two shorter ladders to visit a spectacular cliff dwelling. This hike may not be appropriate for young children or children carried in backpacks. Each hiker must be able to scramble over boulders and navigate steep gravel trails unassisted.

May 26 to June 16 and September 4 to October 6 -- Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8 a.m.

Meet at Square Tower House Overlook (MesaTopLoopRoad). Tour is limited to 10 people. $25 per person.

There also are other cliff dwellings that can be seen from park roads.

Mesa Top Loop Road

A 6-mile (10 km) driving tour has short, paved trails to 12 easily-accessible surface sites and views of cliff dwellings. High- lights include Square Tower House and cross-canyon views of Cliff Palace. The road is open 7:30 a.m. to sunset. Allow 45 minutes to one hour.