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Exploring Mesa Verde in Winter: Embrace Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing

Exploring Mesa Verde in Winter: Embrace Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing

During the A.D. 1200s, Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings sheltered ancestral Pueblo Indian communities. Today, this archaeological treasure draws visitors worldwide to Mesa Verde National Park, open year-round. Its cultural richness isn’t limited to summer; between November and March, the park reveals a serene and distinct side. Discover the top winter activities at Mesa Verde and immerse yourself in its tranquil charm. And while exploring the area, seize the chance to stand in four states at once by visiting the Four Corners Monument—a must-do for your bucket list!

1. Escape the Crowds

In typical years, Mesa Verde gets over a half million visitors—but according to the park, fewer than 50 people visit on the quietest off-season days. After the ranger-guided tours end in the fall, enjoy the solitude and photograph Cliff Palace or Spruce Tree House bathed in golden light.

2. Ski Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace Cross Country Ski Tour
Cross country ski the Cliff Palace Tour.

For an archaeological adventure, ski the Cliff Palace road (closed in winter) on the mesa-top. It’s a 6-mile, ungroomed loop—with a shorter option to ski to the Cliff Palace overlook, then return the way you came. On a sunny weekday in February, I didn’t see another person on the trail.

The park grooms cross-country ski trails at Morefield Campground. The gentle terrain here is ideal for novice skiers. For descriptions of all trails, directions, and parking information, see the park website. Rent cross-country skis from Slavens True Value Hardware in Cortez (970-565-8571).

3. Snowshoe in the Moonlight

Mesa Verde Morefield Campground Winter Snow
Snow-covered Morefield Campground.

In January and February, the park hosts events including a moonlight ski and snowshoe at Morefield Campground. Some years the snow lies deep; other years, the lack of snow canceled events.

Check winter trail conditions here, and check the park website for updates on weather-dependent events. A moonlight snowshoe & ski event has been announced for Friday, January 6, at the Morefield Campground trails from 6 pm until 10 pm (free and open to all ages). Day visitors can check out snowshoes for free at the Visitor Center or the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

4. Explore the Archaeology of Winter

Mesa Verde Winter Spruce Tree
Spruce Tree House. Photo: NPS/Sandy Groves

Gaze across the canyon at the snowed-in Spruce Tree House, then step inside the cozy Chapin museum, open daily (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Contemplate how ancestral Pueblo people kept warm as you view items such as a fragment of a turkey-feather blanket, and an ancient down jacket/comforter in one.

5. Travel Back in Time

Mesa Verde Winter Spruce Tree House Monochrome
Snowy Spruce Tree. Photo: haaln

Under a blanket of snow, Mesa Verde feels very far from the modern world. Rancher Richard Wetherill was the first Anglo settler to glimpse the cliff dwellings, in December 1888. Author Willa Cather described the moment in her 1925 novel The Professor’s House: he saw “through a veil of lightly falling snow …. a little city of stone, asleep.” Beautiful and timeless.

Usually, we’d look forward to one more reason to visit Mesa Verde in the winter: the popular luminaria event in December when cliff dwellings are illuminated. The event has been canceled this year due to the risk of rockfall at Spruce Tree House.

Mesa Verde Winter Spruce Tree
Solitude at Spruce Tree.
Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House Winter
Close-up of Mesa Verdes cliff dwellings.
Mesa Verde Winter Chapin Museum
Chapin Museum at Mesa Verde.

The park entrance is ten miles east of Cortez on US Highway 160 in Southwest Colorado. The road to the top of the mesa is narrow, with steep drop-offs and tight curves; ice lingers in shadowy spots. Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, and Durango all make great winter bases for exploring the Four Corners Region.

For information about the area’s activities, check out the Mesa Verde Country website because “one day just isn’t enough.”

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