[Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Photo: Srikanth Jandhyala] Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most breathtaking national parks in the West, but unlike Zion and the Grand Canyon, it tends to be off the beaten path for most travelers exploring this region. If you’re planning a trip to Southern Colorado, you do not want to miss the range of unreal hikes at this park.
The hiking trails in Mesa Verde include ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs drawn on the rocks, and afford some of the most amazing views you’ve ever seen. You can view a list of the trails on the park’s website, which includes a few others.
Top Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde, Colorado
First established in 1906, Mesa Verde was created to protect the home of the Ancestral Puebloans, who built the 600 cave dwellings that reside within park boundaries. Many of the sites are open to the public and the easiest loops on our list will pass right by them and allow you to explore their confines and see their ancient art. Though the crowning jewel, Spruce Tree House, has been closed due to falling rock danger for the past few years, there are plenty of other archeological sites to explore.
The cliff dwellings may be the main focal point of Mesa Verde’s attractions but the views while hiking are out of this world. Today we’ve gathered some of the most scenic, unreal hikes in Mesa Verde National Park to help you choose your own adventure the next time you’re at this beautiful spot.
Here are the best hiking trails in Mesa Verde National Park, in no particular order:
Start your journey at Mesa Verde by driving up to Chapin Mesa, where the Petroglyph Point trail begins.
This trail isn’t for the faint of heart–it dives 2.6 miles into the Spruce and Navajo canyons and then back up, with a few scrambles and narrow passages along the way. Pick up a guidebook at the visitor’s center at Chapin Mesa before you get on your way, which will help you decode the over 30 markers that identify plants and archeological sites that dot the trail.
You won’t be disappointed at the main draw of this hike. The petroglyph panel that decorates the rocks is a sight to behold and the stone staircase that follows it will challenge even the most seasoned hiker. Once you reach the top, however, you’ll be afforded beautiful vistas of the mesas that surround you as well as the valleys below.
Petroglyph Point is one of my personal favorites at Mesa Verde and I recommend it for anyone who is looking for a hiking adventure. This trail is perhaps the most well-maintained in the park and it will bring out the inner child of just about anyone who decides to hike it.
Mesa Verde Point Lookout Trail
If you love to camp, the scenic Morefield Campground sits in a valley covered in greenery and affords you access to the next two hiking trails on our list. After a morning of coffee and bacon cooked over the fire, venture north until you find the Point Lookout Trailhead.
Be warned–this 2.1 mile out-and-back trail has some steep switchbacks, but the views of Montezuma and Mancos Valley make the challenge worth it once you reach the flat lookout at the end of this hike. No matter which direction you gaze, you’ll be awed by the vistas that stretch below you in deep green, yellow, and dusky orange. The La Plata and San Juan mountain ranges are highly visible from here and look gorgeous when capped in snow.
Knife Edge Trail
Another great hike that starts out from Morefield Campground is Knife Edge Trail. This trail follows a section of one of the first roads ever built through Mesa Verde in 1914, Knife Edge Road. It was named for its steep overhangs; the path is said to hang on a “knife’s edge” and was incredibly dangerous to build and maintain.
Follow this 2 mile out and back trail to the top to see incredible views of Montezuma Valley laid out before you with Sleeping Ute Mountain at its back. While there aren’t any interesting archeological sites along the way, the views more than make up for it.
Protect yourself from the elements, as there isn’t a whole lot of shade on this trail. Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen to avoid too much exposure to the wind and sun. This is also a hike to be wary of if you’re not yet acclimated to the elevation.
Spruce Canyon Trail
If you’re looking to explore all of the natural beauty that Mesa Verde has to offer, the Spruce Canyon Trail is a fantastic option. Starting from the same spot as Petroglyph Point–the top of Chapin Mesa–this 3.1 mile loop has sections that follow a gorgeous seasonal stream along the bottom of Spruce Canyon.
Don’t be fooled by the short mileage on this hike, as there is some serious elevation gain down into the canyon and then back out. It’s all worth it, however, to be enclosed in a canopy of big spruce, juniper, and oak leaves while the birds and insects twitter around you.
While there are no ruins on this trail, it’s a great hike for those who want to enjoy the natural landscapes at Mesa Verde National Park. Be sure to check out Spruce Canyon if you want to steep yourself in the array of wildlife and foliage that dots the region.
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail
Don’t have as much time to explore the hiking trails as much as you’d like? The Soda Canyon Overlook Trail packs a ton of beautiful views into one short 1.2 mile out and back trail that’s great for people of any age or fitness level.
The gravel path makes this one easy to navigate and the interior of Soda Canyon is a sight to behold. This hike also offers great views of Balcony House, which can only be toured via a guided hike, as well as other interesting archeological sites along the way.
If you’re looking for a short trail with tons to offer, look no further than Soda Canyon. Be warned that this trail is quite open and can be hot in the summer months, so make sure you hydrate and dress appropriately!
Step House Loop
If you’re looking for a more family-friendly hike, the last two on our list will be right up your alley. Step House Loop is a bit of a drive away from most of the trails that start from the top of Chapin Mesa. Instead, your trip starts on Wetherill Mesa, which affords incredible views of the western mountains.
Though this hike is very short (about one mile) and paved, it descends a steep path that leads into Step House. This is one of the only cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde that is open to be explored by the public.
The dwellings still stand as they did over a thousand years ago in the shade of the canyon. A reproduction ladder allows kids and adults alike to scramble into the upper levels and explore the dwellings the same way that the Pueblos did so long ago.
It’s not the most intense hike at Mesa Verde, but it is one that the whole family will enjoy as they learn more about the history of the area.
Badger House Trail
Like Step House, this trail begins from the top of Wetherill Mesa. Though it is paved a good portion of the way, one of the greatest things about this hike are the 400 years of prehistory that you will step back into as you hike through this 2.3 mile loop.
This trail offers views of several cliff-dwellings along the way, but the crowning jewel are the ruins. Many of the excavation sites are covered in concrete buildings to protect them from the elements, but there are a ton of plaques with information for those who are interested in the fascinating history of the Ancestral Peubloans.
While Badger House may not be as scenic as Step House or some of the others, it does offer a deeper look into the cultural sites that are so common at Mesa Verde. This trail is a great one for history buffs to explore.
More Activities in Southern Colorado
No matter what time of year you decide to visit Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll be amazed by the variety of natural and archeological wonders hidden in its canyons and mountaintops. Don’t miss this rarely-visited park on your next visit to Southern Colorado and be sure to check it out during the winter.
If you’re already seen everything that Mesa Verde has to offer, head on over to Canyon of the Ancients National Monument for more hiking trails and archeological sites to explore. If your interests tend more towards museums, check out these 5 Museums of Mesa Verde Country to learn more about the history of the area.