“What are we looking for?” my daughter asked from the back seat. I didn’t really have a good answer. While the setting was beautiful, it was, well, flat.
I was expecting to enter in the park and immediately spot cliff dwellings we’d traveled to see. We could see for miles and miles, but no cliff dwellings. Driving up to Mesa Verde is surprisingly and unassumingly flat.
Mesa Verde is perhaps the most inspiring and educational of all the Native American ancient dwellings. In fact, this archaeological area is one of the best preserved in the world. People lived here between 1,400 and 700 years ago.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including a staggering 600 cliff dwellings, and most these are open for viewing and exploring by the public. Here’s what you need to know about exploring Mesa Verde with kids.
Mesa Verde Tours with Kids
After entering the park, be sure to stop at the Far View Visitor’s Center on the mesa top, where you’ll learn the history of Mesa Verde. You can also purchase tickets for the guided tours here. This is the only way to experience Cliff Palace and Balcony House, two of the most impressive cliff dwellings, where rangers lead small groups through the cliff-side ruins.
We were visiting during March, which is a bit early in the season so there were not guided tours available of all the houses. If you’re interested in spending time with a guide in the park, consider touring Mesa Verde during the summer months when tours of the ruins are in full swing.
After a quick stop at the visitor center, we drove for about 30 minutes around a well-marked ring road in the par. Finally, we turned the corner around a small hill, and there it was!
We parked at the Spruce Tree House, and walked only about 5 minutes down to the cliff dwelling. This hike was perfect for little legs. There are park rangers on hand to answer questions while you walk around the cliff dwelling at your own pace.
Walking at Mesa Verde
Even the smallest kids can walk around and in some cases climb on these amazing ruins for a fun and educational hands-on experience. Kids can hike right down to the ruins (some self-guided, some in group tours) and walk through ancient doorways, climb wooden ladders, and see how Mesa Verde’s first inhabitants lived firsthand.
Be sure to bring good climbing shoes if you plan to do all of the ladders into the sites and explore the steep hikes and stairs in/out of the canyons.
Location and History of Mesa Verde
The Anasazi/Pueblo inhabited Mesa Verde between 600 to 1300, though there is evidence they left before the start of the 15th century. They were mainly subsistence farmers, growing crops on nearby mesas. Their primary crop was corn, the major part of their diet. Men were also hunters, which further increased their food supply. The women of the Anasazi are famous for their elegant basket weaving. Anasazi pottery is as famous as their baskets; their artifacts are highly prized. The Anasazi kept no written records. – Wikipedia
While these ruins can be found at many sites in the American Southwest, including Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Mesa Verde National Park is considered to be the best.
If you go to Mesa Verde…
It’s possible to do a self-guided tour of Mesa Verde. Allow for at least 3 hours, but a full day is ideal.
While there is lodging in the park, it’s not great. And nearby Cortez isn’t much better. If you want to be close to the park, camping is your best option. Full-day and half-day tours depart daily from Far View Lodge and Morefield Campground. Tours are fully interpretive, fun and interactive, guided by professionally trained concession employees. Admission tickets for individual ranger-guided dwellings (Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House) are sold at Far View Visitors Center on a first come, first serve basis. All tours depart from both Far View Lodge and Morefield Campground except for the Balcony House Tour.
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwestern section of Colorado, one hour from the town of Cortez, off the I-160 highway. This is an excellent stop if you’re going to be in Durango or Telluride, Colorado.
Want more? Check out my Colorado Family Travel Guide here for great things to do in Colorado in both winter and summer!
Have you been to Mesa Verde? I’d love to hear about your experience! Leave a comment below.