Mesa Verde National Park tips:
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwestern section of Colorado, one hour from the town of Cortez, off I-160. With so much to see, families can easily plan to spend 2-3 days exploring this park!
Why it’s worth the drive: Mesa Verde is home to the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. The park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites (including a staggering 600 cliff dwellings), most of which are open for viewing (and exploring) by the public. These sites are not hands-off experiences: 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. (General Tip: don’t let the high desert landscape fool you; Mesa Verde is at high elevation. Be sure to bring jackets and watch for altitude sickness when spending the day out in the elements.)
Where to Stay: The town of Cortez is too far away for most families to consider lodging there (although it does offer a variety of motels). Instead, we stayed in Mesa Verde National Park at their Morefield Campground. You can camp in an RV or tent, or rent sites already equipped with 10″x12″ canvas pole tents complete with cots (which is what we did!). Even with over 400 sites, the campground (the only one in the park) fills up fast in summer, so reserve early. If camping is not for you, The Far View Lodge offers deluxe accommodations, and is located closer to the cliff dwelling sites.
What to see: A good place to start is the Far View Visitor’s Center on the mesa top, where you’ll learn the history of Mesa Verde (and can purchase tickets for group tours…the only way to view the major dwellings). You don’t want to miss Cliff Palace and Balcony House where rangers lead small groups through the cliff-side ruins. (Be adviced that extensive climbing and even some crawling is required…if you’re active people, it won’t be a problem: our four-year-old did fine, as did our set of grandparents.) If you have time, walk the short trail to the self-guided Spruce Tree House, where kids can get an up-close view of the ancient people’s kivas and other religious artifacts. Tip the adjacent Spruce Tree House Museum is a good place to find needed Junior Ranger trivia answers!
Date last visited: July 2009
Distance off the interstate: 1 hour.
Hours and Admission Prices: The National Parks charge $10 per vehicle. Hours vary by season.
Food Services: Several restaurants are available within the national park, but we did the majority of our grocery shopping in Cortez before entering the Mesa Verde area, and made our own meals. A camp store is available in the Morefield Campground.