Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park attracts outdoorsy families with its scenic hiking trails, Pueblo cliff dwellings, easy railroad tours and thrilling whitewater rafting.
There should be no whats, ifs, ands or buttes – pun very intended – when deciding whether to visit Mesa Verde National Park. The southwestern Colorado park is a destination with geological splendors that even a screensaver can’t replicate. At Mesa Verde, walk in the footsteps of the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellers. Experience some of their spectacularly preserved houses and other archeological sites. Join a hike along scenic trails, book a bus tour, or board a railroad journey through the region.
History of Mesa Verde Park
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park is the first national park set aside to celebrate works of man. Avoid the crowds at other national parks. This park is less accessible than others because it’s located in the Four Corners area of the state.
Nearly a millennium and a half has passed since the first people appeared in the Mesa Verde region. Pueblo peoples settled there for over 700 years until abandoning alcoves, chiseled from the canyon walls in the late 1200s, for shelter. Today, the region comprises more than 52,000 acres atop the northeast section of the Colorado Plateau. Experience the wonder of nearly 5,000 archeological sites including homes and artifacts left behind by the Mesa Verde Ancestral Puebloans, at Mesa Verde.
Most Famous Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde
Perhaps the most interesting features of the “Green Table” are its cliff dwellings. Inhabited in the 13th century by ancestors of Arizona and New Mexico Pueblo Indians, the medium-sized cliff dwelling, Balcony House, depicts an elaborate adobe maze of passageways and tunnels. Here, kids will enjoy climbing the 32-foot ladder at its entrance.
The Cliff Palace is exceptional for its 150 rooms and 23 kivas (rooms often used for ceremonies, sometimes religious) constructed with sandstone, mortar and wooden beams. Excavated between 1959 and 1961, the Long House is considered the second largest cliff dwelling in the park. Spruce Tree House is slightly smaller.
Don’t be afraid to maneuver the scenic winding road that leads to these. Spruce Tree, along with the Step House cliff dwelling, are worth the drive. It’s true that the majority of Mesa Verde’s other cliff dwellings contain very few rooms, which makes these sites even more historically significant. Keep in miind that some cliff dwellings may close when the NPS deems there is a danger of rockfalls.
Mesa Verde Tours & Trails for Park Visitors
The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (VRC) is located 15 miles from the park entrance. It’s a good place to begin your historic trip through the area, and is the place to buy tickets for ranger-guided tours. Check the latest schedules for the guided motor coach tours. Coach tours are the easiest way to reach the short trails that lead to various archeological sites.
Open year-round, the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum displays dioramas illustrating Ancestral Puebloan life as well as prehistoric artifacts and a general history of the Mesa Verde region. It is closed in spring 2022 pending renovation but is a must-see when it reopens.
Seek out the number of trails begging to be explored. Hike in for the chance to spot indigenous yucca plants and plateau lizards. Rub hands along the formations of sandstone and shale dating from 90 million to 78 million years ago. Photograph the far-as-the-eye-can-see views. One in particular you’ll want to experience is the vista on the Point Lookout Trail. Here at Park Point, the highest elevation in the park at 8,427 feet, gaze out over the Montezuma and Mancos valleys and the surrounding countryside.
Like many other parks in the Southwest, Mesa Verde National Park Service offers a Junior Ranger program for kids 4-12 to get a little more out of their historical visit to each dwelling.
Nearby Attractions in Durango, Colorado
The National Park recommends spending at least two days in Mesa Verde in order to view all the most famous sites and enjoy a hike. However, I suggest that once you’ve seen most of the park, head an hour east along Route 160. In the town of Durango, enjoy modern-day cowboy culture set in the early days of a Western settlement.
To explore the area and the nearby San Juan National Forest, catch a scenic ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s transported passengers and precious metals through the canyons for over a century. In addition to a number of outdoor activities, Durango plays host to local hot springs and many annual events, from bluegrass festivals to farm markets and food tastings. Durango Arts Center is a cultural hub. Check their schedule for gallery arts, dance, theater, live concerts and educational programs for all ages.
Stay longer, since many companies run whitewater rafting trips and zipline adventures. Durango is a good base. In winter, some families will enjoy skiing at its famously challenging mountain, Purgatory.
Celebrate Indigenous Culture at the Other Mesa Verde
Other interesting day trips include Ute Tribal Park often referred to as “The Other Mesa Verde.” The Ute Tribal Park contains spectacular cliff dwellings in a remote and more undisturbed setting.
Indigenous tribes living on reservation lands suffered greatly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Book early for half and full-day tours as visitors are not allowed into the tribal park without a native guide.
Mesa Verde Family Trip Planning Details
For lodging within Mesa Verde, we recommend the Morefield Campground, which has 267 campsites. Bring your own camping equipment because single and group camping is available at bargain rates. Open April to October only, please book early.
Dine in the park at casual options to suit all budgets. (Restaurants are all expected to reopen for the summer season.) Aramark Parks and Resorts, the park’s concessionaire, is offering prix-fixe menus. Even with gas prices high again, you’ll get a break from them on family meals. For more information on these offers, visit the Mesa Verde National Park site.
If you don’t mind staying outside the park, check Booking.com for a choice of cheaper options. A smaller and cozier choice, Sundance Bear Lodge is 11 miles down the road from the Mesa Verde National Park entrance. The lodge is family- and pet-friendly and offers traditional bed and breakfast rooms and log cabins. The lodge’s amenities include a hot tub, complementary snacks, a toy box for kids and wifi.
About a 20 minute drive away, Doloroes Mountain Inn offers clean family suites of up to five beds, free high speed internet, and heat and A/C, all within a smoke-free environment and walking distance from a number of restaurants.
Getting there is pretty straightforward as part of a regional road trip. Mesa Verde is about four hours from Grand Junction, Colorado, and five hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is near several regional airports, including Durango-La Plata County Airport and Cortez Municipal Airport, which offer flights via Denver and Phoenix. For more information, visit Visit Mesa Verde.
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