Mesa Verde National Park will restart its hallmark cliff dwelling tours that were suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Tours will resume to the popular Cliff Palace and Long House sites. Backcountry tours will also restart for the less-visited Mug House, Square Tower House and Spring House.
“We are so excited to invite folks back into the cliff dwelling sites and share the amazing story of Mesa Verde with people from around the world,” said Kristy Sholly, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the park.
Tour tickets can be bought online only, 14 days in advance of the tour date, on a rolling daily window starting at 8 a.m. at recreation.gov.
The first cliff dwelling tours will be offered May 2. Because of road construction, Cliff Palace tours will begin in mid-June. Balcony House tours will not be offered this year.
The demand for tour tickets is high, Sholly, said, and they are selling fast.
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum will remain closed as a pandemic precaution and for construction upgrades to the heating and cooling systems.
Tour operations for the popular archaeological sites have been modified to improve pandemic safety. They will have reduced numbers of people to allow for distancing between travel groups.
Guided tours have been modified to be ranger-assisted, a system some may remember was in place in the early 1980s.
To reduce crowds, fewer people will be allowed in a tour site at a time, with groups separated from each other, and “pulsed through” in timed increments.
Interpretive rangers will be positioned at the ancient dwellings, kivas and features to explain the site and answer questions. Visitors will have a ticket for a particular time slot, and travel into the site with their group.
“Rangers will provide visitors with a meaningful connection to the sites so people have a good experience,” Sholly said.
The new format replaces the previous tour guide system where a ranger may lead groups of up to 55 people at certain cliff dwellings to various points of interest, and give a presentation about each one.
The new hybrid ranger-assisted tours provide insightful interpretation of the sites, and also allow visitors to move more at their own pace.
If visitors want a quick picture, they can move on, or if they want to hear more from a ranger at a particular point of interest, they can stay to listen and ask questions within the allotted time slot.
The backcountry tour group size will remain the same as before at 10 people. The tours traverse more rugged terrain, but the payoff is worth the effort.
For example, Mug House, named for three ancient mugs found tied together with yucca rope, involves a strenuous 3-mile round-trip hike along a rough trail that descends 100 feet and includes steep drop-offs and switchbacks. Each hiker must be able to scramble over boulders and navigate steep gravel trails unassisted.
Mug House was built over several decades in the 1100s and 1200s and likely supported a population of 80 to 100 people. Visitors on this tour will visit other Ancestral Puebloan sites and experience views of Rock Canyon.
Park guides and staff members are eager to reopen major sites and facilities, which provide a more full experience for the public.
“The excitement has been building at the park,” Sholly said. “The guides are really looking forward to visiting with people again.”
The Visitor and Research Center has reopened, along with the Mesa Verde Museum Association Bookstore inside the center.
On May 1, the Far View Lodge and Metate Room Restaurant will open along with the Morefield Campground. Evening programs will resume in mid-June at the campground.
This season, an outdoor visitor center will be set up in the Far View parking lot. There will be information booths and park rangers will be on hand to meet with people.
Aramark Concessionaire will also reopen facilities to the public, with some adjustments.
Far View Terrace dining and gift store opens May 2, and the Morefield Campground Store opens May 1.
The Knife Edge Cafe opens May 27. Spruce Tree Terrace will be closed from May 1 to Sept. 30.
Also, the Cliff Palace Loop Road will be closed for construction through June 15. The Mesa Top Loop Road will be closed for construction June 16 to Oct. 31.
According to national park pandemic protocols, masks are required inside all park buildings and where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Cliff dwellings and overlooks are considered high visitor-use areas, and people may need masks if areas become too congested to maintain social distancing.