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Mesa Verde in One Day

For a full experience, take at least one ranger-led tour of a major cliff dwelling site, as well as a few self-guided walks. Arrive early and stop first at the new Visitor and Research Center, where you can purchase tickets for Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours on Chapin Mesa. If it's going to be a hot day, you might want to take an early-morning or late-afternoon bus tour. Drive to the Chapin Mesa Museum to watch a 25-minute film introducing you to the area and its history. Just behind the museum is the trailhead for the 0.5-mile-long Spruce Tree House Trail, which leads to the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park. Then drive to Balcony House for an hourlong, ranger-led tour.

Have lunch at the Spruce Tree House cafeteria or the Cliff Palace picnic area. Afterward take the ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace (one hour). Use the rest of the day to explore the overlooks and trails off the 6-mile loop of Mesa Top Loop Road. Or head back to the museum and take Petroglyph Point Trail to see a great example of Ancestral Puebloan rock carvings. A leisurely walk along the Mesa Top's Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (off Cliff Palace Loop Road) gives you a beautiful bird's-eye view of the canyon below. On the drive back toward the park entrance, be sure to check out the view from Park Point.

Mesa Verde in Three Days

If you're lucky enough to have a few days at Mesa Verde, devote Day 2 to Wetherill Mesa, weather permitting. Start early, pack a picnic lunch, then drive to the Visitor and Research Center to purchase tickets for the Long House tour. The 12-mile drive from the visitor center to Wetherill Mesa is steep and filled with hairpin curves. Take your time and enjoy the view from any of the five turnouts. Once on the Wetherill Mesa, take the 90-minute ranger-led tour of Long House, then try the self-guided tour of Step House (it will take you 45 minutes to an hour).

Eat lunch at the Wetherill Mesa Picnic Area and enjoy the view of Long Canyon. After lunch, hop the tram to the Badger House Community. Plan to take about an hour to wander through the area, which includes four separate sites along a level, pleasant 1.5-mile trail through the woods. Leave Wetherill Mesa in time for a long stop at breathtaking Park Point, off the main park road. At roughly 8,500 feet, it's the highest point in the park and offers a 360-degree view of the Four Corners. Look to the southwest for the flat-topped Black Mesa, over 100 miles away in Arizona and south for the ghostly igneous sails of Shiprock in New Mexico, a 1,600-foot-tall rocky outcrop that plays a central role in Navajo legend.

On Day 3, take a tour of whichever cliff dwellings you were unable to fit in on either Day 1 or 2, then hike around the Morefield Campground area. Hardier hikers will probably want to hit the 7.8-mile Prater Ridge Trail, while those with less stamina or time can opt for the 1½-mile Knife Edge Trail. Enjoy the view at Mancos Valley Overlook before leaving the park.