The Map

The “main” areas of the park are the two mesas; Weatherill and Chapin. Chapin Mesa is where the most popular cliff dwellings are located. In between the Visitor Center, located just off Highway 160, and Chapin Mesa are a number of overlooks that have stunning views onto the surrounding area. The drive takes about an hour, without stops, so be sure to factor that into your plans.

Click on the camera icons to see a photo, a location name, and coordinates for the closest parking area. I also show park entrances, visitor centers, the hotel(s) where I stayed, hiking trails, and airports.

Visitor Statistics

Mesa Verde is the busiest of the southern Colorado parks. I went the week before Memorial Day. Looking at the park’s hours, you can see that hours expand after Memorial Day, presumably because of the increase in traffic. The tour groups were somewhat large, but manageable. I don’t know that I would want to see what they look like during the July peak.

This graph shows the average number of visitors each month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NPS visitor data from 1979-2013. The “2000” should be ignored.

The Climate

The temperatures were pleasant during the short time I was in Mesa Verde. I would guess they were pretty close to the average of 70 degrees.  During the day, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen, but some rolled in for sunset.

This graph shows average temperature and precipitation by month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. You can select different variables and parks in the panel on the left.  NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NOAA weather data dating as far back as the early 1900’s. The “2000” should be ignored.



The camping facilities at Mesa Verde were much better than what I had stayed in at Great Sand Dunes.  There were showers and a camp store.  The contractor, Aramark, runs campgrounds and a lodge within the park. I paid $30 for my one night of camping and I was surprised to find that you got to choose your campsite. When I went there were very few people there so I didn’t have any problems finding a decent spot, but I can imagine in the busy season I would have had some anxiety about getting to the campground to pick out a spot. I spent very few daylight hours in the campground so I’m not sure if there are particularly bad spots aside from those that are a long way from the bathrooms.


I was still picking through my groceries, so I didn’t take stock of what food was available. Like I said, there is a campstore for some of the basics.  There are a few cafes run by Aramark throughout the park.

My Experience

I’ll say at the outset that I did not spend enough time in Mesa Verde.  In planning the trip, I was more excited about the possibilities in Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, so only allowed for a day.  I had one sunset and I spent sunrise packing up my campsite. This is a park that I will make it back to some day, but it’s not the highest of priorities.

Day 1

I had planned to shoot sunrise at Great Sand Dunes National Park, but decided to hit the road early. It’s a 4-hour drive between the Dunes and Mesa Verde and I wanted to get there early to make sure I would get tickets to see the two most popular, and ticketed, attractions in the park; Cliff Palace and Balcony House.  Those worries, as they usually are with me, turned out to be unfounded. When I arrived around 9:30, I had my choice of times. I told the woman that I was interested in taking both tours and she knew exactly how to space them out, I just had to pick when I wanted to begin. I decided on early afternoon so that I would have time to look around first.  So I bought my tickets and started the drive up the mesa.

My first stop was Spruce Tree House. That is one sight where you can climb down into an kiva. I had been excited to get a picture inside of there. When I finally got down there though, I realized it was more cramped than I expected and even my wide-angle lens had trouble capturing it. Furthermore, the area was in shadow so very little light made it’s way through the hole in the ceiling.  I struggled with high ISOs and various ways of bracing arms to get some mildly blurry photos. Perhaps not surprisingly, the small cramped area was filled with people. I was the annoying guy who waited for the area to clear out. People came and people went for about 20 minutes before I got a minute or two to myself. 

After Spruce Tree House, I headed to Cliff Palace for my tour.  As soon as I showed up, I realized there was going to be some photography problems.  It was around 1 p.m. and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky so there were harsh, harsh shadows being cast by the cliff overhangs. I enjoyed the history lessons from the park ranger, but did not get any pictures I was happy with.  The tour takes about 45 minutes and you get to descend some rough cut stairs and climb up some ladders, so that was exciting at least.

Once that tour was over, I made the short drive to Balcony House. This was the highlight of my time in Mesa Verde.  Balcony House was also cast in shadow, but it was almost entirely covered so there wasn’t any sharp contrast with the sun. So I did manage to get some photos on that trip. Balcony House was also the great adventure I talked about in the intro.  In order to get to the dwelling you have to climb up a 30-foot ladder and to leave you have to climb through a tunnel and then up another ladder. So it was a different sort of National Park trip in that respect.

After Balcony House, I headed to the campground to claim my spot. On the way there I noted (1) that Chapin Mesa closes at sunset and (2) the various scenic overlooks. I had planned on taking sunset photos at Cliff Palace, but I didn’t want to be shooed away by park rangers (an unfounded worry, I’m sure). So I decided against coming back to the cliff dwellings and went with one of the overlooks instead. 

After I set up my campsite and ate, I drove to the Park Point Overlook which has an amazing view of the mesa and the surrounding area.  The view was spectacular, but I decided to head to the Geologic Overlook instead. I’d seen it from the road and I thought that it had more potential.  I spent about an hour there walking around the small area trying to line up different shots, waiting on the sun to drop below the horizon. 

After that, I called it a day. I got a shower after a couple days without at Great Sand Dunes and fell asleep very quickly.

Day 2

As I mentioned before, Chapin Mesa closes at sunset. The sign never did say when it opened back up.  I was afraid I would make the 45 minute drive to the mesa just to find it closed until sometime after sunrise, so instead I spent the sunrise packing up my campsite and then started the 3-hour drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  On my way out of the park, I stopped to take a photo of the mesa. Otherwise, I was focused on starting the next adventure.

What I Would Do Differently

There were several areas of the park I never got to see. When I go back, I will go to Weatherill Mesa and I will take a few of the hikes in the park.  Also, on the drive to Chapin Mesa you pass through an area of forest that had suffered some fire damage. It looks very post-apocalyptic. I will definitely spend more time there, assuming I get back before new growth starts to come in.

The One Shot

The one shot I knew I wanted before heading to the park was the view of Cliff Palace from the overlook. I could see some fun possibilities in that photo for tilt-shift processing.  As I mentioned above though, I arrived at the exact wrong time, in the worst possible conditions.  You can see in the shot that I did get that Cliff Palace is barely visible in shadow.  I tried messing with the HDR processing, but couldn’t come out with anything I liked and ended up settling for this.

Other Resources

  1. Mesa Verde National Park on - Get information straight from the people who know best.

  2. My Mesa Verde National Park Gallery on Flickr - A collection of my photos from this trip on Flickr.

  3. Buy A Print - I hope the information above helps you get your own great photos, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to purchase one of mine.

  4. My South Colorado National Parks Pinterest Board - My collection of other people’s photography from this park.

  5. My Other National Park Galleries on Flickr - A collection of all my National Park Galleries.  I’m planning on building this collection as I visit new parks, so check back.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know using my CONTACT FORM.