Exploring Mesa Verde Country – 3-day Getaway
Explore ancient cliff dwellings and see how Ancestral Puebloans not only survived in the desert—but thrived—on a weekend getaway to Mesa Verde Country. A 5.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City, many try to hit the area’s highlights in a day, but staying all weekend lets you explore beyond the national park.
Make your basecamp Cortez, Colorado, the gateway town to the ruins of Mesa Verde and Hovenweep, and a hotspot for food, events, and even a bit of nightlife. Follow this itinerary to discover the prehistoric sights and take in the Cortez culture of today, or plan your own itinerary.
Day 1: Cortez Eats & Brews
Drive from Salt Lake City to Cortez for dinner at one of Main Street’s restaurants. From Thai to Mexican, you’ll find nearly every type of cuisine, but top picks are The Farm Bistro’s Colorado-centric menu and Main Street Brewery and Restaurant.
Experience Small Town Nightlife
Cortez may be small, but that doesn’t mean it shuts down early. Just off Main Street, stop by WildEdge Brewing for beer paired with live music. Our favorite was a sour saison aged with local Palisade peaches, and the single barrel was so popular that similar ones are now menu fixtures.
Day 2: Cliff Dwellings & World-class Trails
Just eight miles from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez is the cultural center of Mesa Verde Country and within striking distance of ancient cliff dwellings and beautiful farm country.
Start your day at Spruce Tree Espresso House, a shop tucked in a cute, colorful house on Cortez’s Main Street that serves creative coffee concoctions such as Mexican Mochas and Lavender Lattes. Fill up with a hearty breakfast burrito or a pesto asiago bagel.
Listen & Learn
While you’re cruising from Cortez to Mesa Verde, listen to Episode 1 of Mesa Verde Country’s free Ancient Voices podcast driving tour. It relays great information about Cortez, the many archaeological attractions, and local history.
Tour Mesa Verde National Park
Stop first at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, wandering the exhibits to learn about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before heading into the park. Purchase tickets for the popular Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House tours, which must be done in person up to two days in advance.
If there’s time for only one cliff dwelling tour, choose Balcony House. This adventurous one-hour excursion is not for the height averse, as you must climb a 32-foot ladder to enter the dwelling. Next, a ranger describes life for cliff dwellers who lived here before you crawl through a 12-foot tunnel. Climb a ladder up a 60-foot rock wall to exit on top of the mesa.
Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road
Follow this six-mile scenic loop road around the mesa top to easy walking trails, overlooks of Ancestral Puebloan homes and villages, and archeological sites like the Sun Temple.
Break out your mountain bike for an afternoon at Phil’s World Trail System, one of Colorado’s best rides. Explore 60 miles of trails just six miles from Cortez with all-levels riding on slickrock, singletrack flow with Mesa Verde Mountain views. If you’ve got skills, try Rib Cage Trail, a fast, fun rollercoaster-y ride.
Day 3: Hovenweep National Monument
Kick off your last day with pastries made using Cortez Milling ‘Red Rose’ flour at The Pie Maker. This local bakeshop specializes in huge cinnamon rolls, homemade New York-style bagels, plus sweet and savory hand pies. Take some for the drive to Hovenweep National Monument.
Explore Hovenweep National Monument
Between 1200 and 1300, prehistoric tribes constructed homes and sacred sites on today’s Utah-Colorado border in what is now Hovenweep National Monument. Follow along paved and dirt road 45 miles from Cortez to reach the ruins of six villages built around the same time as Mesa Verde.
Start at the Square Tower Group, an easy walk from the modern visitor’s center. This 1.5-mile trail loops through serene desert past Hovenweep Castle and dramatic, multistory towers perched on the canyon’s rim.
Explore 20 miles of surrounding desert to see petroglyph panels and other preserved stone towers. Though we know little about the tribes who built and abandoned these structures, simply wandering amidst them inspires appreciation for the people who persevered in these harsh desert landscapes.
From here, drive six hours back to Salt Lake City and make it home in time for dinner.
Summer Festivals & Events
Pair your outdoor adventures with a Cortez summer event.
Cortez Farmer’s Market– Saturday mornings until October 27
Take home fresh Colorado peaches and roasted peppers from this weekly market on Main Street. Expect live music and specialty vendors selling dry local beans, breakfast, and crafts.
Harvest Beer Festival– September 8
Come for the history; stay for the beer. Local and tourists flock to Cortez for the Montezuma Land Conservancy’s annual beer festival. Last year’s event featured 12 breweries and over 600 guests. Expect live music, food, kids activities, and a silent auction.