A Day in Mesa Verde National Park
During National Park Week 2017, we posted several photos of Mesa Verde on Instagram and Facebook. We had several people ask us about the park, so we decided our next blog post should be all about Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde National Park was established to help preserve the archaeological history of the Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly known as the Anasazi). Within the park, there are over 4,500 archaeological sites, including those on the mesa and 600 cliff dwellings. We have visited the park twice, and it remains on our list to see again.
Our first visit to Mesa Verde was in 2003 when we visited my grandparents, who were summering in Colorado. They told us we just had to visit Mesa Verde. I am sad to say, we had never even heard of Mesa Verde, but, after hearing their stories, we made sure we visited. We spent the day in the park and were in awe of the cliff dwellings. Years later, when we were planning our 5 week RV road trip in the summer of 2016, I realized we would be in the general area of Mesa Verde on our return trip, so I quickly added it to our itinerary. We have never forgotten what it felt like to stand in the cliff dwellings, and we wanted our kids to experience the same feeling. We wanted them to see how the Ancestral Puebloan people built such amazing homes without any modern day tools or techniques. You cannot visit the park without being impressed by the creativity, ingenuity and perseverance of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Where is Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde is located in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It is 10 miles from Cortez, Colorado, and 36 miles from Durango, Colorado.
How do I see the cliff dwellings and archaeological sites on the mesa?
Everyone should start their visit at the Visitor and Research Center located at the entrance to the park. This will give you a great introduction to the park and the Ancestral Pueblo people. As you drive through the park, there are overlooks that will allow you to view the cliff dwellings. Our kids got their first glimpse of a cliff dwelling when we stopped at an overlook to see Cliff Palace.
They were in awe! I will never forget their excitement as they looked across the canyon to see the dwellings for the first time. There are 3 different driving loops within the park that offer overlooks for the cliff dwellings and stops to see pit houses and villages on the mesa. These stops are usually right beside the road and do not require a long walk. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is a great stop to make during the heat of the day. Our family enjoyed seeing pottery and jewelry found in the area, as well as learning more about the Ancestral Pueblo people. There is a nice and shady picnic area right next to the museum. (Just be aware of the truck that is emptying the porta potties, but that’s another story!)
For those that are more adventurous and want to walk in a cliff dwelling, the park offers several guided tours of the dwellings. Tours are available of Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House. Each of these tours will require you to climb ladders, and, in Balcony House, you will have to get down on your hands and knees to climb through a short tunnel.
Both times we visited the park, we went on the Balcony House tour, otherwise known as the Indiana Jones tour. We had so much fun on our first tour, we just had to take the kids. We chose to go on an early morning tour to try and beat the July heat. Our tour was at 8:30 AM, and it was still very hot! We arrived at the Balcony House parking lot about 30 minutes early to meet the ranger leading our tour. While we stood and waited for the tour to begin, our son walked over to chat with the ranger. When it was time for the tour to start, the ranger announced our son would be her assistant and that meant we would be first in and last out of the dwellings. What a fun experience! That also gave our very active son a job to do and kept him away from the edge of the cliffs, something this mom was grateful for.
When you enter the dwellings, you will have to walk down a flight of stairs and then climb up a 30+ foot ladder. If you are afraid of heights, this may cause you a little discomfort. The ladders are all made of wood, but are very sturdy. Once you make it to the top of the ladder, you will be inside the dwelling. It is so amazing to walk through the dwelling and see the rooms and kivas built so many years ago. As you travel through the dwelling, you will climb several short ladders and footholds. Throughout the tour, the ranger will share how the dwellings were built and about everyday life for the Ancestral Pueblo people. When you exit the dwelling, you will crawl through a 4 foot high, 12 foot long tunnel, climb up a ladder and use footholds with a chain handrail. It is quite the adventure!
We were recently asked if you should visit the park if you are unable to climb or walk long distances…ABSOLUTELY! You may not be able to walk around inside the dwelling, but you can take the scenic drives around the park and visit the museum.
What do I need to do to schedule a tour?
Tour tickets can be bought up to 2 days in advance, and, during peak season, the tours fill up quickly. Tickets must be bought in person at Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Morefield Ranger Station or the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. We bought our tickets the day before visiting the park at the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez. Tickets are $5 per person.
Does the park have a Junior Ranger Program?
Our kids earned another Junior Ranger badge at Mesa Verde National Park. They completed their book in the day we spent at the park. At Mesa Verde, kids only have to complete 4 pages in the book to receive their badge. They are not required to complete any hikes or attend a ranger talk. By completing the book, they will learn about being good park stewards, Ancestral Puebloan life and about the migration of the Ancestral Puebloan. If you do take a tour and visit a dwelling, kids have an option to complete a cliff dwelling bingo. Our kids worked on the book while driving through the park and while eating our picnic. This is a great way to keep kids busy on the long drive in and out of the park.
Where can I spend the night?
If you are looking to stay the night in the park, you can camp at Moorefield Campground. The campground is open from mid-May to mid-October and offers campsites with and without utilities. The campground is first come, first served, so you will want to arrive early.
If you are looking to stay the night outside the park, there are hotels and RV parks located in Cortez. We stayed at the Cortez/Mesa Verde KOA. It was located not far from the entrance to Mesa Verde. They offer cabins and RV camping. Our kids really enjoyed ending our day with a swim in their pool.
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Each time we visited Mesa Verde we bought a few bags of Anasazi beans to bring home for family and friends.The original settlers of Mesa Verde may be called the Ancestral Puebloan now, but for many years they were known as the Anasazi or “Ancient One” in Navajo. Anasazi Beans were found in cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and in other dwellings in the Four Corners area. They are sweeter than the Pinto bean and work great in chili or cooked with ham. We have always picked up our bags at grocery stores in Cortez. For a few dollars you can pick up a 1 pound bag. Not many people get beans as a gift, but the people we shared them with have always enjoyed cooking and eating them. In fact, we had several family members request more when we visited the second time.
Mesa Verde National Park is not a well known park and, often when we talk about it, people have no idea where it is. Just because it is not as well known as parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Zion does not mean it should be overlooked. When you enter Mesa Verde, you step back in time and walk in the footsteps of a people that lived 750 years ago. You will be in awe of what they were able to accomplish all those centuries ago. We left the park feeling grateful for the modern day conveniences we have today and inspired by the ingenuity of the Ancestral Puebloans.
If you have been to Mesa Verde or are planning your trip, leave us a comment. We would love to hear about your experiences. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to follow our travels!
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