If visiting the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde National Park is not on your bucket list, I suggest you reconsider. The mysterious and photogenic Anasazi cliff dwellings preserved there are perhaps the most impressive archaeological sites in the United States. We visited during the month of October. The weather was perfect and the park was not crowded.
Visiting Mesa Verde had been steadily rising on my “Places to Visit” list for several years, and seeing the sites that make it famous was even more special than I expected. Mesa Verde is best suited for families with school-age children – ladder climbing is required to get the most from your visit – but there are many stroller and wheelchair accessible walkways and viewpoints for all visitors.
To see the best of Mesa Verde up close, schedule ranger-led tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House at the Far View Visitor Center. Tours of Long House on Wetherill Mesa are also available during the summer months. These tours were the highlights of our visit to Mesa Verde.
Tours cost $3 per person and are worth every penny. If you are visiting on a busy day, get on the tour schedule early because space is limited. The hikes to the cliff dwellings are labeled “strenuous”, but that’s not because they are long. Neither Cliff Palace nor Balcony House is much more than a quarter-mile, round trip. However, the elevation is approximately 7,000 feet above sea level, and most visitors are going to feel it. Drinking water is one of the best ways to combat the effects of elevation and my kids’ water bottle slings were especially handy on these tours.
Expect to climb up sturdy ladders and down uneven steps, with plenty of stops along the way. If that sounds like something you can handle, you’ll probably be fine. At Balcony House, where the ladders are longer and the steps steeper, you’ll also need to do a little crawling. My husband and I nearly skipped the Balcony House tour when we saw the practice crawl space at the Far View Visitor Center, but are glad we did it. We would happily take the tour again. The Balcony House tour was the favorite of my husband and children.
At ages 8 and 5, ladders and crawl spaces are everyday things for my playground-seasoned children, and they had no problems at all. There are places at both cliff dwellings where visitors could fall into deep kivas or off the cliff, but it was easy enough to stay clear of those areas. These tours were a good choice for our family, but you are the best judge of whether they are right for yours.
The park rangers who gave our tours were knowledgeable and attentive. They spoke with emotion and it was clear that they love these special places. The rangers were patient with our children and respectfully answered all of their questions. The ranger at Balcony House learned my children’s names (they were the only kids on the tour) and asked them to bring his hat and gear through the tight crawl space near the end.
Half-day guided bus tours are also available from April through October. Aramark sponsored our family on one of these tours and it is a good way to see many of the park’s highlights with the aid of an informative guide and driver. Here is my review of that tour for families.
On your own
I was surprised to learn that:
(a) the Anasazi lived on top of the mesa for centuries before building the cliff dwellings in the alcoves below and,
(b) More people, perhaps tens of thousands more, lived in this part of Colorado in 1200 A.D. than live there now.
The result is that there are many ruins to be seen throughout Mesa Verde National Park. Though you can only get inside a few of the cliff dwellings, many more can be seen and photographed from a distance. There are also remains of earlier Mesa Top dwellings where visitors can learn and explore. Wandering the remains of Coyote Village was another of the highlights of our trip.
The Spruce Tree House is one cliff dwelling that visitors can explore independently during warm weather months. This ruin is accessed by a trail and is not on a cliff. There is an underground room that can be reached by ladder, but that is the only ladder at this ruin and it is optional. Rangers are on hand to answer questions and ensure that visitors respect the ruin.
A museum, cafe, gift shop, rest rooms and research library surround the Spruce Tree House parking lot. It’s a nice place to spend some time. Junior Ranger booklets can be found in the museum, and our kids added another gold badge to their collection there.
Good to Know
Where: Enter Mesa Verde from Highway 160, just outside of Cortez, Colorado. Most of what you came to see is in the middle and far end of the park and can only be reached by a winding, two-lane road.
Expect to spend 30 minutes or more driving from the park entrance to the Far View Visitor Center, which is the jumping-off point for the park’s main attractions.
When: Year-round, weather permitting. Some park roads, tours and facilities are closed during winter months. Summer is the only time everything is open, but that will also be the most crowded time of year. Visit the park website for details.
- Summer: $15 per car (good for 7 days)
- Spring and Fall: $10 per car (good for 7 days)
- Winter (Jan-Feb): no charge
- Cliff Dwelling Tours: $3 per person
How Long: Plan for one full day (8:00 a.m – 6:00 p.m.) to see all of the major stops and take the tours at Cliff House and Balcony House. Plan a second day if you would like to see everything more slowly, hike some nature trails or visit Wetherill Mesa. Wetherill Mesa is only open during the summer.
Amenities: Lodging, camping, dining, gift shops, museums and restrooms are available inside the park. You cannot buy fuel for your vehicle, so fill up before you enter.
We stayed at the Far View Lodge inside the park. Its location cannot be beat. A variety of budget-friendly motels and hotels can also be found in Cortez, Colorado.
The park is home to three restaurants. Metate is a five-star restaurant located at the Far View Lodge. The Spruce Tree Terrace and Far View Terrace offer casual, cafeteria-style dining. The Spruce Tree Terrace is the only one that is open year-round. There, we enjoyed a cheeseburger, grilled cheese sandwich and Navajo tacos. Expect to spend at least $7-$10 per person at the cafes.
Our family loved the history and adventure at Mesa Verde National Park. We skipped a day of school for this Fall Break trip. When my children tell me what they learned (including “Don’t touch ancient stuff”), while they had fun climbing and crawling and hiking, I know that it was well spent.