A handful of trails lead beyond Mesa Verde's most visited sites and offer more solitude than the often-crowded cliff dwellings. The best canyon vistas can be reached if you're willing to huff and puff your way through elevation changes and switchbacks. Carry more water than you think you'll need, wear sunscreen, and bring rain gear—cloudbursts can come seemingly out of nowhere. Certain trails are open seasonally, so check with a ranger before heading out. No backcountry hiking is permitted in Mesa Verde, and pets are prohibited.
Farming Terrace Trail. This 30-minute, ½-mile loop begins and ends on the spur road to Cedar Tree Tower, about 1 mile north of the Chapin Mesa area. It meanders through a series of check dams, which the Ancestral Puebloans built to create farming terraces. Easy. Park entrance road, 4 miles south of Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330.
Knife Edge Trail. Perfect for a sunset stroll, this easy 2-mile (round-trip) walk around the north rim of the park leads to an overlook of the Montezuma Valley. If you stop at all the flora identification points that the trail guide pamphlet suggests, the hike should take about 1½ to 2 hours. The patches of asphalt you're likely to spot along the way are leftovers from old Knife Edge Road, built in 1914 as the main entryway into the park. Easy. Morefield Campground, 4 miles from park entrance, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330. www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hiking.htm.
Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. One of the easiest and most rewarding hikes in the park, this little trail travels 1½-mile round-trip through the forest on almost completely level ground. The overlook is an excellent point from which to photograph the Chapin Mesa–area cliff dwellings. Easy. Cliff Palace Loop Rd., about 1 mile north of Balcony House parking area, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330. www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hiking.htm.
Petroglyph Point Trail. Scramble along a narrow canyon wall to reach the largest and best-known petroglyphs in Mesa Verde. Older literature occasionally refers to the destination of this 2.4-mile loop hike as "Pictograph Point," but that's a misnomer. Pictographs are painted onto the rock, and petroglyphs are carved into it. If you pose for a photo just right, you can just manage to block out the gigantic "don't touch" sign next to the rock art. A map—available at any ranger station—points out three dozen points of interest along the trail. The trail is open only when Spruce Tree House is open; check with a ranger to verify times. Moderate. Spruce Tree House, next to Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330. www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hiking.htm. Contact ranger for hours.
Spruce Canyon Trail. While Petroglyph Point Trail takes you along the side of the canyon, this trail ventures down into its depths. It's only 2.4 miles long, but you descend about 600 feet in elevation. Remember to save your strength; what goes down must come up again. Access to the trail is limited to times when Spruce Tree House is open; check with a ranger beforehand. Moderate. Spruce Tree House, next to Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330. Check with ranger for times; registration required.
Prater Ridge Trail. This 7.8-mile round-trip loop, which starts and finishes at Morefield Campground, is the longest hike you can take inside the park. It provides fine views of Morefield Canyon to the south and the San Juan Mountains to the north. About halfway through the hike, you'll see a cut-off trail that you can take, which shortens the trip to 5 miles. Difficult. West end of Morefield Campground, 4 miles from park entrance, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 81330.