See and Photograph Mesa Verde in 24 Hours

Cliff Palace

We have all seen images of these world famous, beautiful, and remarkable cliff dwellings. Before our trip I was terribly excited to see them in-person and make a few photos.  Here is a plan to do it all in just twenty-four hours.

Mesa Verde National Park is located near the four corners area on CO Highway 160 between Durango and Cortez.  I have a few suggestions as you plan your trip.  It is too long a drive for a day trip from Durango.  It is also a long drive to get up and down the 1,000 foot plateau from Cortez.  There is a nice hotel in the Park at Far View.  Stay there.

Spruce Tree House

If you want to actually walk inside the cliff dwellings, you will need a reservation for a ranger-led guided tour.  You can make these reservations at the Far View Visitors Center (they are building a new one right off of Highway 160) or in Cortez at the Visitors Welcoming Center.  Each tour is limited to 50 people and you will want to be sure you have a spot before you drive up the hill.

Unlike most times, most of your photos will include NO sky, so you do not need dramatic clouds or anything like that.  However, you do want direct sunshine because it creates great gold color and deep shadows for contrast (see cover photo).

There are three good lookouts to the Houses on Chapin Mesa.  The Spruce Tree House is right behind the Museum.  You do not need a reservation to walk around this one.  Make sure to go into the Kiva and bring your camera.

If you do not want people in your photo, then you will have to be patient and use Photoshop to remove the people.  Spruce Tree house has several large trees in front of it that obscure the dwelling, but also acts as a mask for people.

Spruce Tree House from the overlook behind the museum

Cliff Palace is extraordinary.  It is huge and complicated.  It can also be hard to photograph.  If you want the whole thing, there is a very short window of time between tours when there is no one in the frame.  I estimate it is no more than a few minutes and definitely not five.  Also the best position to photograph the Palace on the viewing platform is on the extreme right hand side.  When you get there you will see why as the viewing platform rock juts into the frame on the left side.  We did a bit of combat photography with a few people on the viewing platform.  Try to be on the last tour of the day at 5 PM to get the best and most yellow light.

The entire Cliff Palace from the overlook

Then drive over to Square Tower House for sunset.  It is a really short walk and you will want both a wide angle and short telephoto lenses.  There is ONE best tripod spot on this viewing platform too, on the extreme left side.  When we were there a guy we met earlier on the Cliff Palace platform had commandeered the spot and would not leave.

Square Tower House
Square Tower House and Environs

In the morning you will want the first tour of Balcony House at 9 AM.  Balcony House is the only cliff dwelling that faces north-east and therefore only receives morning sun unlike the others on Chapin Mesa.  We found that the first and last tours of the day have the fewest people.  We only had about ten people on each one rather than the normal 50.

Kiva and tower in Balcony House

After you tour Balcony House, drive down the road a bit and hike half a mile to the Soda Canyon overlook.  You will need a telephoto lens here to get a decent shot.  We each used our Canon 70-200 mm lenses and 1.4x and 2.0x extenders.  By the time you get out there, it is pretty bright and so you might want to try HDR as well.

Balcony House from the Soda Canyon Overlook

On the way in or out of the Park, you can stop off at the The Rim to see smaller ruins not in the cliffs.  This was unimpressive after seeing the cliff dwellings.  Then you are off to the next adventure.

Dwellings on the Rrim

To recap, we recommend you arrive on day one about 3 PM or so.  See Spruce Tree House.  Then shoot at the Cliff Palace overlook.  Then tour Cliff Palace and finish with a sunset shoot at Square Tower House.  In the AM, do the first tour out at Balcony House and then the overlook.  Photograph the Rim on your way out of the Park.

Balcony House

One caveat, we did not get a chance to go to Wetherill Mesa as it is only open Memorial Day through Labor Day.  It is the home of three cliff dwellings inlcuding Long House.  I still think you can do the whole thing in twenty four hours including Wetherill Mesa.  The ranger told me that they close it for fall and winter because there is not enough traffic to support it being open.

Lastly, remember, shoot wide; try tight compositions; get the whole thing; and get the little details.  We packed a lot into 24 hours and so can you.  To see more of our photos, please go to


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