Mesa Verde National Park gets a lot of attention for the cliff dwellings in the park. One thing it gets less attention for is actually being a mesa. This is actually the first thing a visitor will notice as immediately after entering the park the road snakes up to the top of the mesa. Along the way there are some fine views of southwestern Colorado. The highest peaks in the park and the campground are located just past the initial summit. A decent percentage of the actual hiking trails in the park are located here as well.
Once you past the current visitor center and lodge (soon to be the old visitor center) you've entered the cliff dwelling portion of the park. The lower side of the mesa has several large erosion gorges that run roughly parallel to one another. They look approximately like this and if you stop at some of the overlooks along the loop roads you'll probably find you've been driving right along the edges of them.
Cliff Palace and Balcony House are the two main guided tour attractions in Mesa Verde. We carried our 10 month old kid along in a carrier so Balcony House (which involves crawling through a tunnel) wasn't on our itinerary. Cliff Palace is more accessible and baby-carrier friendly.
It's also spectacular. As it was built under an overhanging shelf of rock it has remained very well preserved. Most of the square and round towers were used (presumably) as dwellings. The round chambers in the foreground are kivas used for ceremonial purposes. Above and in the back of the cave are some long narrow buildings that were used for storage.
The current working theory of Cliff Palace (and these do change over time) is that the tallest tower in the back of the cave was built first. Other buildings were added on using shared walls and the complex grew organically from there.
If you park at Cliff Palace you're almost directly above it. There is an overlook (first picture above) but the best view is actually across the canyon on the Mesa Top Loop. The tour of Cliff Palace descends on one side (the left side in this view), moves through the ruins and then climbs back up on the opposite side.
The ascent is via a narrow staircase carved into the rock. There are several ladders involved as well. As you can see here Alaric has had enough ancestral pueblo history for one day and passed out for the climb back up to the top.
Square Tower House is an impressive site located on the Mesa Top loop. It's visible via a short walk from the road but cannot be accessed directly. That is actually true of the majority of ruins in Mesa Verde. Only a select few can be directly visited.
There are dozens of ruins in this part of the park. From Sun Point View many of these can be seen. This two-level complex is called Sunset House.
Other ruins are not named on the park map. From several overlooks extra walls and towers can be seen. Binoculars and/or a good zoom lens are recommended.
Spruce Tree House is the one complex that can be visited on foot without a guide. There is a museum and visitor center located opposite the ruins. This is a short but steep hike which believe it or not is actually stroller friendly if you have a fairly rugged stroller. Also it's a scenic place to feed a child a culturally-relevant jar of corn and squash. (That was kind of an accident but it sounds planned).
The kivas at Spruce Tree are accessible and one of them has been partially reconstructed with a roof and central ladder. From Spruce Tree there is a longer hiking loop out to a view of petroglyphs. There is also a western section of the park (Wetherhill Mesa) which was closed during our visit.