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 in southwestern Colorado, a destination with geological splendors that even a desktop screensaver can’t replicate. At Mesa Verde, you can walk in the footsteps of the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellers, viewing some of their spectacularly preserved houses and other archeological sites; join a hike along scenic trails or board a railroad tour of the region.
History of Mesa Verde Park
Nearly a millennium and a half has passed since the first people appeared in the Mesa Verde region, settling there for over 700 years until abandoning alcoves, chiseled from the canyon walls in the late 1200s, for shelter. Today, the region of more than 52,000 acres atop the Northeast section of the Colorado Plateau offers nearly 5,000 archeological sites of the homes and artifacts left behind by the Mesa Verde Ancestral Puebloans.
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, while Spruce Tree House is slightly smaller. This site, along with the Step House cliff dwelling, is worth maneuvering the winding and scenic road that leads to each. It’s true that the majority of Mesa Verde’s other cliff dwellings contain very few rooms, which makes these sites even more proportionally and historically significant.
Tours & Trails for Park Visitors
The new Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (VRC), replacing the Far View Visitor Center, has exhibits on the park museum and research collection. 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. The park offers three such tours during which visitors are transported in coach buses to short trails that lead to various archeological sites.
Open year-round and offering tours of the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, 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.
The park also has a number of trails begging to be explored, each giving hikers the chance to spot indigenous yucca plants and plateau lizards, feel the formations of sandstone and shale dating from 90 million to 78 million years ago, and take in 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, you can 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. Once they’ve completed a provided booklet of fun activities for each site, they can earn a Junior Ranger certification badge.
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, but I suggest that once you’ve seen most of the park, you head an hour east along Route 160 to the town of Durango, where you can experience 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 which has transported passengers and precious metals through the canyons for over a century. In addition to a number of outdoor activities, the humble town of Durango plays hosts to many annual events from bluegrass festivals to local food tastings. Durango Arts Center, a cultural hub, presenting the visual arts, dance, theater, live concerts and educational programs for adults, children and families. Adventurous families will find many companies that offer whitewater rafting trips and zipline adventures in Durango, so it’s a good base for a longer stay as well. In winter, some families will enjoy skiing at its famously challenging mountain, Purgatory Mountain Resort.
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. Half day and full day tours are offered.
For lodging within Mesa Verde, we recommend the Morefield Campground, which has over 200 campsites. Single and group camping is available for those who bring their own camping equipment, with rates from just $30/N plus tax per campsite for 2 people. The park also offers base camping, where they supply you with camping equipment. Rates start at $40/N plus tax and includes breakfast.
If you don’t mind staying outside the park and want a smaller and cozier lodging option, 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. Rates from $225/N.
About a 20 minute drive away, Doloroes Mountain Inn offers clean family suites of up to 5 beds, free high speed internet, and heat and A/C, all within a smoke-free environment and walking distance from a number of restaurants. For more hotel suggestions, see Popular Hotels in Mesa Verde National Park.
Two restaurants are located within the national park. Open for breakfast and dinner, the Metate Room Restaurant is the most formal, with a contemporary menu (no kids menu) featuring regional flavors. The Spruce Tree Terrace Café has casual cafeteria dining with patio seating, so you can admire the scenic mountain views while eating.
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 (800/449-2288).
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