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I’ve had seeing Mesa Verde in winter on my national park bucket list since I visited the park in 2017. And i sort of got to do that in December!
I say sort of because we went for the Luminaria and it was just sort of snow-raining while we were at the top and we didn’t actually get to see any cliff dwellings with heavy snow.
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And then it was like a blizzard on our drive out of the park. So we got to see the road covered in snow but not the parts we really wanted to see covered in snow.
We were really only there for one day in the winter but I feel like I learned a lot in that one day and since then. I know Mesa Verde in winter isn’t like, a top tier destination but if you are planning a winter visit to Mesa Verde, I hope this will help you.
The park might be closed
Yup. The park might be closed and you probably won’t know until the day of or the night before so a back up activity plan is a must-have if you plan on visiting Mesa Verde in winter.
The best way to keep up with closings is checking on Facebook. I’m following the park page and I saw a lot of updates about the park closing from December to February.
If it’s open, you might need chains or snow tires
We tried to go back into the park the day after the blizzard we drove down in and in order to actually go into the park, we needed snow tires or chains. And we didn’t have either so we had to leave.
They did have someone at the entrance station telling people this and explaining everything so they will turn you away. It’s a bummer but having driven down (or at least having been the passenger) during a blizzard, I understand. It was slippery and a bit harrowing.
The weather is wild
It can be clear or sort of rainy at the first visitor center and blizzarding up by the Far View sites then just lightly snowing on the Top Loop Road.
And it changes fast. On the Top Loop Road it was just sort of sleeting then a ranger came through and said they were closing the park and we headed down. Then, by the time we got to Far View, the road was covered in snow and it was hard to see.
The drive down was pretty slippery and I would avoid that if I were you, but we managed. We kind of had to. It was not something I would want to do again or recommend. Then, down in Cortez, it was just raining.
They have a Luminaria
In December, they have a Holiday Open House and Luminaria where they put lanterns in the cliff dwellings on the Top Loop Road (pictured above.)
It’s usually announced fairly last minute, maybe a month before the event, so keep an eye on their Facebook page updates on that. This was why we made the trip there in December, but unfortunately, it was cancelled.
But it can also be cancelled last minute
Yup, it was cancelled because of the blizzard we got stuck driving in. It was posted on Facebook just before noon the day it was supposed to happen but we went up anyway because weather wasn’t bad yet. It was just forecasted to be bad at that point.
They said they would reschedule it for later in the year, which is why I followed them on Facebook but as far as I’m aware, it has not been rescheduled.
So if you’re planning to go to the Luminaria, know that it could be cancelled at the last minute and that it may or may not be rescheduled.
Not all of the park is accessible
The only area you can really drive in is the Mesa Top Loop Road. Wetherill Mesa is closed in the winter and only open from May to October. But it’s still cool to see everything and not have many other people around.
Most trails are closed, facilities are mostly closed, and who knows, the park itself might be closed, too. If you’re visiting Mesa Verde in winter, definitely don’t expect the access you would on a summer visit.
The Far View Lodge is closed
The hotel in the park is seasonal and closed in the winter, as is any camping so you’ll have to spend the night down in Cortez. Which isn’t bad. You’d probably have to go there to eat anyway.
There isn’t much hiking you can do
Any winter activities will depend on weather conditions. Trails and roads may close. But you can hike the 2.4 mile Petroglyph Point Trail near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. You can walk the 3/4 mile trail to the Far View Sites as well.
If you do want to get moving, there are actually quite a few Nordic skiing and snowshoeing trails in the park you can choose from. I haven’t done any of these but would like to eventually (now that I know all of this!)
No tours are running
Tours to cliff dwellings aren’t offered in the winter, just the snow-free months. Most of the winter, the trails would be covered in snow and/or ice and it’s just not a busy park in the winter so there’s that.
Most buildings are closed
The only things that are open at Mesa Verde in the winter are the main visitor center and the cafeteria at Far View, but it’s only open for lunch. And the visitor center can have weird hours, especially if the park closed for snow, because employees live on top in the park.
Have you been to Mesa Verde in winter? How was it? Have you been to the Luminaria? How was that? Do you want to go?