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Best Things To Do in Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE. Today, the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.

My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 47 of our 61 National Parks — and Mesa Verde is a unique park, given its historical and archeological significance. I have explored most areas of the park — so I’m ready to help! So if this is your first time to the park, or your returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Mesa Verde National Park!

Self-Guided Tours

Spruce Tree House – Best-Preserved Cliff Dwelling

Spruce Tree House
You can observe Spruce Tree House from viewpoints near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Rangers are available at the overlook to answer questions and share information.

Mesa Top Loop Road – Auto Tour – 700 Years of Mesa Verde History

A 6-mile driving tour with short, paved trails. Twelve easily-accessible sites, including surface dwellings and cliff dwelling overlooks. Highlights include Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point and Sun Temple stops.

Far View Sites Complex – Five Mesa Top Villages & Far View Reservoir

Far View
Far View House plus four other villages and a dry reservoir on a level 3/4-mile (1.2 km) unpaved trail. Four miles north of the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Step House – Pithouse, Petroglyphs and Cliff Dwelling

Step House
A 100 foot descent and ascent on a winding path. Total walking distance is about one mile (1.6 km) round-trip. Allow 45 minutes to one hour. Trail begins near the Wetherill Mesa Kiosk.

Badger House Trail – Trail to Four Mesa Top Sites

The 2.25 mile round-trip trail through Badger House Community surface sites begins at Wetherill Mesa Kiosk. Your walk through this area is a journey through 600 years of prehistory. Combination gravel and paved trail.

Cliff Dwelling Guided Tours

Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House can only be visited by taking a ranger-guided tour which are very popular. A tour of Long House, on Wetherill Mesa, can be taken on the same day as a Cliff Palace or Balcony House tour. Tours can be strenuous.

There are no height or age restrictions for tours, but children must be capable of walking the extent of the trails, climbing ladders, and negotiating steps independently. All infants must be carried in backpacks while on tours and adults carrying children in backpacks must be able to maintain mobility and balance.

Tour tickets for Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House must be purchased in person. Tour tickets sell out quickly, but can be purchased up to two days in advance.

Cliff Palace – Mesa Verde’s Largest Cliff Dwelling


This one-hour, ranger-guided tour involves climbing five, 8-10 foot ladders, on a 100 foot vertical climb. Total walking distance is about 1/4-mile, round-trip. The tour begins at Cliff Palace Overlook, an 23-mile, one-hour drive from the Visitor and Research Center.

Cliff Palace Twilight Tours

Enjoy an intimate, leisurely encounter with Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. Dramatic sun lighting will appeal to both amateur and professional photographers as well as those seeking a deeper connection with this extraordinary archeological treasure.

Balcony House – Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour

Balcony House
This one-hour, ranger-guided tour involves climbing a 32-foot ladder, crawling through a 12-foot long tunnel, and climbing up a 60-foot open rock face with two 10-foot ladders to exit the site. The tour begins at the Balcony House parking area, a 25-mile, 1-1/4 hour drive from the Visitor Center.

Long House – Mesa Verde’s Most In-Depth Tour

Long House
Starting at the Wetherill Mesa information kiosk, this two-hour ranger-guided tour involves hiking at least 2.25 miles round-trip, and climbing two 15-foot ladders within the site. The hike has an elevation gain of about 130 feet. The tour ends at the Long House trailhead, giving you the choice of returning to the kiosk or exploring more of Wetherill Mesa on your own. Allow about 2.5 hours (total) for tour and return to kiosk.

Half-Day Guided Bus Tours

Mid-April to mid-October
Mesa Verde National Park concessioner, Aramark Leisure, conducts guided bus tours that offer modern views of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Tours include the 700 Years and Far View Explorer Tours. Tickets may be purchased at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Far View Lodge and Terrace, and Morefield Campground.

Balcony House Sunrise Tour

Rise before dawn, and experience the magic of Balcony House at sunrise! For centuries, Pueblo farmers have been observing the sky and the change of seasons. Take the Sunrise Tour of Balcony House at summer solstice or fall equinox and join in the long tradition of skywatching in Mesa Verde.

On this 90-minute tour, you will climb a 32-foot ladder, crawl through and 18-inch wide and 12-foot long tunnel, and climb up a 60-foot open cliff face with stone steps and two 10-foot ladders to exit.

Cliff Palace Early Bird Tour

Looking for an early morning adventure? This daily, early bird tour offers the benefits of a smaller group size, cooler temperatures, and the ability to reserve a tour of Cliff Palace in advance with online reservations!

On this 60-minute tour, you will descend uneven stone steps and climb four ladders, with an elevation change of 100 feet. Total walking distance is 1/4 mile.

Evening Programs

Morefield Campground Evening Program

In 1907, archeologist Jesse Fewkes began the first evening campfire talks in the history of the National Park Service at Mesa Verde. That tradition continues today. Enjoy a free, 45-60 minute presentation each evening by rangers at the Morefield Amphitheater (weather permitting). The amphitheater is located at the end of the road in Morefield Campground. Bring a flashlight. Program is free and offered each evening.

Bird Watching

Mesa Verde National Park is home to several distinct habitats. The types of species which you will encounter depends on the habitat present. If you are an avid birder, make sure to purchase a copy of the brochure, “Checklist of the Birds.” This will help you locate where species are found in the park. The listing of birds in this page will get you started as a bird watcher in Mesa Verde.

Take the Petroglyph Point or Spruce Canyon Trail and look for warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, jays, hawks, chickadees, titmice, and other species. The Knife Edge Trail also has good birding. If you are lucky, you may see a peregrine falcon or a golden eagle soar from its nest out across the Montezuma Valley.

During the summer months, you can walk the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail near Balcony House, or the short trail to the Park Point lookout. The Park Point area is a good place to see hawks, towhees, grouse and eagles, in addition to the many species listed above.

In the fall, you may want to take the Knife Edge Trail early in the morning to catch migrating warblers and hummingbirds feeding on the Indian Paint Brush.

During winter months, be on the lookout for chickadees, nuthatches, an occasional brown creeper, canyon wrens, woodpeckers, flickers, and jays during your Spruce Tree House tour. Turkey vultures usually arrive in late March and leave in early October, so the large black birds you see will likely be common ravens or the vivid black-billed magpie.

Photography

Picture Taking Tips

Some cliff dwellings are open only from late spring through early fall. During the off-season, photos may be taken from the overlooks above the cliff dwellings, weather permitting.

Most of the cliff dwellings are best photographed in mid-to-late afternoon.

If you have an adjustable lens we suggest you close your lens down at least 1/2 stop from what the photo meter indicates (spot meters excepted). For example, in black and white photography the front walls of Cliff Palace will give your meter a false light reading. We suggest you bracket your settings on Cliff Palace exposures.

If you are looking for pointers to help you make your summer snapshots look more like professional photographs, see the Amateur Photographer’s Guide to Mesa Verde National Park (pdf, 317 kb).

Best Times to Photograph by Season

June to September – 3:45 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
October to November – 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
December to March – 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
April to May – 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

During mid and late fall and early and mid spring the sun is lower in the southern sky and more light strikes the cliff dwellings. Winter light is generally less bright. On overcast days the soft light allows for photos to be taken that will show good details and subtle colors. During the winter months there is less vegetation obstructing views from the overlooks after the scrub oak has lost its leaves for the season.

Stargazing

While not offered as a guided activity, Mesa Verde National Park provides wonderful opportunities for stargazing. Since there are no large cities in the Four Corners region, there is very little artificial light to detract from the stars in the night sky. Most nights the skies are clear and full of stars. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way. The locations recommended for stargazing in the park are listed below:

Far View Lodge

The only lodging available in the park from mid-April to mid-October. Each room has a balcony where guests can see for miles. For visitor safety, this area is well-lit. You may want to seek out a darker place, if this obstructs your view of the stars.

Morefield Campground

The only place to camp in the park from mid-May to mid-October. Located in the Morefield Valley, this is an especially place good for looking at stars since there is little artificial light. Join a ranger at the Morefield Amphitheater for the nightly (Memorial Day through Labor Day) campfire program. Bring a flashlight for the walk back to your campsite.

Montezuma or Mancos Overlooks

These are really the best areas in the park for stargazing. If you are staying outside of the park or want to get away from artificial lights, both of these overlooks along the Main Park Road provide views of the twinkling lights of the valley towns and the stars above. Unfortunately, these areas are not available for overnight camping.


Mesa Verde National Park

Click here to see the Mesa Verde National Park poster.

Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!

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Best Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the eastern United States. There are many ways to enjoy the park — an auto tour, bicycling, hiking, horseback rides — and take in the panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 48 of our 61 National Parks — and Great Smoky Mountains is one well worth the visit. I have explored many areas of the park — so I’m ready to help! If this is your first time to the park, or your returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Auto Touring

There are 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved, and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars. Travel speeds on most of the park’s paved roads average 35 miles per hour.
Great Smoky Mountains - Cades Cove
Here are some of the more popular routes:

  • Cades Cove Loop Road
  • Cataloochee Valley
  • Newfound Gap Road
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Upper Tremont Road

Fishing

Great Smoky Mountains Fishing
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 2,900 miles of streams within its boundaries. Approximately 600 miles of stream contain fish, providing for an abundance of angling opportunities from high elevation trout streams to cool water low elevation streams.

Rainbow trout, brown trout, and the native brook trout are the fish that are primarily targeted by fisherman inside the park. However, the streams of the Great Smoky Mountains do offer other angling opportunities. Smallmouth bass are another native game fish species that can be found in a number of the large lower elevation streams in the national park.

Hiking


Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year with every season offering is own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy.

Hiking with children? Kid-friendly hikes are an excellent way to learn and enjoy the outdoors. Check at the Visitor Center for your best options.

Horse Riding

Horseback Rides

Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Rides on scenic park trails are offered lasting from 45 minutes to several hours. All rides proceed at a walking pace.

Hayrides

Cades Cove Riding Stables offers a 1.5 – 2 hour hayride around the Cades Cove Loop Road. Passengers sit on a bed of hay in a trailer pulled by a truck and enjoy an open air view of the scenery of Cades Cove.

Ranger-led hayrides are also offered on some evenings on a first-come, first-served basis. See the Schedule of Events for scheduled ranger-led hayrides.

Carriage and Wagon Rides

Carriage or wagon rides are offered at two of the horseback riding stables in the park. These rides provide an opportunity to experience a 20-30 minute horse-drawn carriage or wagon ride on a park trail.

Carriage Ride – Cades Cove, near Townsend, TN
Wagon Ride – Smokemont, near Cherokee, NC

Picnicking

Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks.

The picnic areas at Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms remain open year-round. The remaining picnic areas are closed during the winter.

Picnic pavilions are available at Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks, Pavilions can be reserved for groups one year in advance.

Waterfalls

Great Smoky Mountains - Waterfall
Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Rainbow, and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.

The Great Smoky Mountains abound with the two ingredients essential for waterfalls-ample rainfall and an elevation gradient. In the Smokies high country, over 85″ of rain falls on average each year. During wet years, peaks like Mt. Le Conte and Clingmans Dome receive over eight feet of rain. This abundant rainfall trickles and rushes down the mountain sides, from high elevation to low, sometimes dropping more than a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills at the park’s boundary.

Waterfalls You Can Drive To

Meigs Falls

The pulloff to view Meigs Falls is along Little River Road, 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center (7 miles east of Townsend). The falls is tucked away on the far side of Little River and can be easily missed while driving.

The Sinks

This waterfall is short in stature, but its volume includes the entire flow of Little River. The parking area to view the falls is along Little River Road, 12 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Place of a Thousand Drips

During wet periods, this waterfall is dramatic as the flow of water splits into numerous small channels cascading around rocks and creating “a thousand drips.”

Wildlife Viewing

Great Smoky Mountains Wildlife
Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloocheeand Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, raccoon, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals. The narrow, winding road of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bears and other wildlife. During winter wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves.

Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.

So, if you’ve never been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — put it on you bucket list! If you have been, you might enjoy my WPA-style poster for Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate your adventures!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Click here to see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park poster.

Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!

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Best Things To Do in Big Bend National Park

Los Chisos Mountains

Big Bend National Park offers nearly limitless opportunities for scenic driving, hiking, camping, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, bird watching, wildlife observation, and stargazing. Additionally, the Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles providing options for half-day floats to extended excursion by raft, canoe, or kayak.

My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 47 of our 61 National Parks — and Big Bend is one well worth the visit. I have explored many areas of the park — so I’m ready to help! So if this is your first time to the park, or your returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park!

Scenic Drives

Chihuahuan Desert
100 miles of paved roads and 150 miles of dirt roads connect the desert to the mountains and the river and offer exceptional ways to explore the park by vehicle.

Here are the top five scenic drives — on paved roads!

Chisos Basin Road – 6 miles

A drive to the Chisos Basin is an excellent way to experience the transition between arid desert and cooler mountain habitats. As this scenic, winding road rises over two thousand feet above the desert floor, it offers breath-taking vistas of the mountain peaks and the erosion-formed basin area. The Chisos Basin has a visitor center, campground, lodge, restaurant, camp store, and access to miles of hiking trails.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – 30 miles

A trip along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive highlights the geologic splendor Big Bend is famous for, and offers many scenic overlooks and exhibits along the way. Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Overlook, and Tuff Canyon are all worthwhile stops. Continue the drive to the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon, where limestone cliffs rise 1,500′ above the Rio Grande. A short trail leads into the canyon.

Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village – 21 miles

The drive to Rio Grande Village traverses ancient limestone and has marvelous vistas across the river to the magnificent Sierra del Carmen escarpment. In twenty miles, the road descends nearly two thousand feet. There are several worthwhile stops and highlights along the way. Dugout Wells includes a desert nature trail and a shady oasis, nice for picnicking and birding. A soak in the Historic Hot Springs is also a popular activity.

Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction – 28 miles

This road connects the north entrance to park headquarters at Panther Junction. From Persimmon Gap, the road descends a long, gentle, gravel slope to Tornillo creek and Tornillo Flat. The Rosillos Mountains rise to the west; to the east the Dead Horse Mountains dominate the skyline.

Maverick Entrance Station to Panther Junction – 23 miles

This drive, through striking desert scenery, has excellent views of the surrounding mountains. Several roadside exhibits describe wildlife that might be seen along the drive. Junctions for the Chisos Basin road and Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive are located along this route.

Hiking

Day Hikes

Big Bend is a hiker’s paradise containing the largest expanse of roadless public lands in Texas. More than 150 miles of trails offer opportunities for day hikes or backpacking trips.

Desert Hikes

The Chihuahuan Desert covers about 80% of the park and surrounds the Chisos Mountains. Bare, rocky ground and sparse vegetation are hallmarks of the desert, but there is plenty of life here. Look for termite nests along plant stems, exoskeletons of millipedes, animal scat, and rodent and reptile tunnels. Bird life is plentiful, especially in the morning; look for nests hidden in yuccas and cacti. In the spring, bluebonnets, paintbrush, bi-color mustard, desert marigold, yucca, ocotillo, and cacti blossoms add color to the desert landscape.

Mountain Hikes

The Chisos Mountains contain some of the most rewarding day hikes in Big Bend, especially during the summer months when it is too hot to hike at lower elevations in the park. It is not uncommon to see tracks and scat of black bear, mountain lions, and gray fox along Chisos Mountains trails. Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, rock squirrels, whiptail lizards, spotted towhees, tufted titmice, and Mexican jays are also common in these mountains.

River Hikes

The Rio Grande creates a distinct environment in Big Bend National Park. Countless bird species can be found in the riverbank vegetation. The river provides water for many desert animals; look along the muddy shoreline for tracks, signs, and scat.

Backpacking

Backpacking in the Desert

The most remote areas of Big Bend National Park are best left to experienced backpackers. Each year, park rangers respond to desert emergencies when hikers are not prepared for the heat and extreme conditions of the desert. Due to the complex topography and vague trails/routes, a topographic map and a compass/gps are necessary for some hikes. Not for novices, you will need to be fully equipped and physically prepared to pack your gear and water into the desert and camp primitively.

River Trips

Santa Elena Canyon

Floating the Rio Grande

Big Bend offers a variety of river adventures. Enjoy a day trip, or plan an extended float through spectacular limestone canyons. If you have the time and a spirit of adventure, you may want to consider a river trip. Seeing the park’s canyons from the middle of the Rio Grande can be an incredible experience. There are many possibilities including half-day floats or multi-day excursions.

Floating the Rio Grande can take you through miles of canyons up to 1,500 feet deep, where the sunlight may reach the bottom only briefly on winter days. As in other parts of the park, your ears may tell you more than your eyes. Listen for beavers crawling through the brush;you might catch a glimpse as one slides down the riverbank into the water. Turtles, especially red-eared sliders, often sun themselves on rocks and logs just above the waterline. Great blue herons and green kingfishers are just some of the many birds you may see flying along the river.

Bicycling

Lightly traveled roads and varied terrain make Big Bend a premier bicycling location. Over 100 miles of paved roads and 150 miles of backcountry dirt roads provide challenges for riders of all types and abilities. Bicyclists must be extremely cautious and well-prepared, but bicycling allows outstanding panoramic views unobstructed by a windshield. It also allows the bicyclist to see and hear some of the smaller wonders of Big Bend from a more intimate viewpoint.

Bird Watching

Big Bend’s position near the 100th meridian in the middle of the continent and along a migration route makes the park ideal for bird diversity throughout the year. Northern species migrate here for the warm winter climate, while birds from the tropics range this far north to breed in the spring. One of Big Bend’s highlights, the Colima warbler, is a predominantly Mexican species that only nests in the United States in the Chisos Mountains from April to September.

Fishing

Sometimes visiting a National Park can seem as though time is not on your side and the pace of “have to see everything” takes over. Perhaps fishing, which might seem unusual in a desert park, could be just what the “ranger” ordered. This activity is less harried, relaxing, and most of all, edible. Fishing the Rio Grande is something that is fun for visitors of all ages. And best of all it’s free, and requires no Texas fishing license. All that is required is a fishing permit which may be obtained at any open visitor center. So if a lazy day by the Rio Grande is something you might enjoy, ask a ranger about fishing opportunities here in the park.

Stargazing

El Capitan
On the clearest nights, more than 2,500 stars are visible to the naked eye! Big Bend is known as one of the outstanding places in North America for stargazing. In fact, it has the least light pollution of any other National Park unit in the lower 48 states. One factor that makes this possible is simply the sparse human occupation of this region.


I’ve created a WPA-style poster for Big Bend National Park to celebrate the 75th Anniversary!

Big Bend 75th Anniversary

Click here to see the Big Bend National Park poster.

Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!

Share this with Friends, Family & Followers