Mesa Verde National Park
How can you not have fun exploring nearly thousand-year-old cliff dwellings that make up the United States’ largest archaeological preserve?! Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is amazing and gives you an awesome glimpse into an ancient culture that thrived for hundreds of years in Southwest Colorado. The scenic beauty of the canyons combined with the history makes for a fun and educational visit to a true national treasure.
Driving into Mesa Verde we made our first stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. We spoke a park ranger about how the amount of time we planned to be at the park and what they recommended for us to see and do. We planned on being at the park for a half day, so we purchased tickets to tour the Cliff House Site and the Balcony House Site. If you are planning to visit longer you can also purchase tickets for the Long House tour, hike and explore on your own, or checkout any special tours that might be offered depending on the season. Tickets are inexpensive ($5 per per person for each tour) and there is a $20 park entrance fee per vehicle that is good for 7 days. They only allow visitors to enter certain cliff dwellings (Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House) when accompanied by a Park Ranger, so you will need to purchase tickets to tour those 3 dwellings. This helps protect the dwellings and provides you with the general history of the dwellings and the Pueblo people who once lived there.
We stayed in the charming town of Dolores, Colorado which is about a 30 minute drive from the park entrance. The Dolores River runs through the town where you can go tubing, swim, or head just out of town to enjoy time on the McPhee reservoir. In town, there is a great grocery store with organic vegetables, local fruit, or anything else you might need for a meal or picnic. The bed and breakfast where we stayed was clean, comfortable, and the kids had a blast playing some pool at the pool table. We met another family traveling from Mexico and their kids were similar in age to ours. The kids had a blast playing pool and goofing off while we visited. Visiting with their family in a small town, sharing food, wine, and hearing the kids laugh made the experience memorable and something the kids still talk about.
We were out the door early in the morning to make it to our first tour at the Cliff Palace by 9 AM. The drive to the Cliff Palace site is another 45 minutes to an hour from the park entrance, so it took just under an hour and half to get from our hotel to the site. As you are waiting for the tour to start, you have stunning views of the Cliff Palace and surrounding canyon. The group of kivas and other buildings which make up the largest of the dwellings are in remarkable condition. The combination of the amazing canyon back drop and seeing the dwellings for the first time is a remarkable experience. When you see the intricate design and work that went into building these structures, you gain a new level of respect for the people that lived and thrived here for nearly 700 years dating back to around 650 AD. The park ranger guiding the tour did an excellent job of engaging everyone while sharing the history of the area and explaining what archeologists know about the dwellings and the Pueblo people that built them. My kids really liked the tour, they found the kivas to be the most interesting because of intricacies and level of thought that went into the design of these homes. They also enjoyed learning about the Pueblo culture and how they survived off the land.
* To access this dwelling, visitors must be able to climb down stairs and climb a few short ladders to exit the dwelling.
Visiting the Balcony House site is more adventurous and was our favorite of the two cliff dwellings that we visited. My kids were super excited when the ranger told them they would be climbing up a 32 foot ladder and crawling through tunnels while exploring this site. Overall, Balcony House is smaller than the Cliff Palace but was designed with protection in mind. We will never know exactly what the people who lived here were protecting, but it was important because the dwelling was constructed to have one way in and one way out while also having a wall built along the edge of the cliff. The wall at the edge is a unique feature to the Balcony House, other dwellings in Mesa Verde do not have the edge walls. The restricted entrance would have made this site easy to defend by just a few people because the only access requires crawling through a narrow passage way. We had fun thinking about different reasons the people would have for protecting this area. There is a water source at this location so it could be as simple as that, but we also discussed that it could have been a religious site, a place to store food, a place to protect the sick or weak members of the group, or a place for women and children to stay when others went out to hunt, trade, or to battle.
Tip: If you plan on visiting both Cliff Palace and Balcony House with your kids I suggest doing Cliff Palace first. I think my kids would have been less interested in the Cliff Palace experience after visiting Balcony House simply because there is less adventure involved in Cliff Palace. Both are definitely worthy of your time, Balcony House is just a little more exciting to the kids because of the climbing.
I really cannot express how fun and spiritually inspiring it was to visit Mesa Verde National Park. I have always wanted to go but never made the trip, thinking it was always too far out of the way. After a little research, I realized that the park is only about 45 minutes from Durango, Colorado or less than 2 hours from Telluride, Colorado. It is a beautiful area with such a rich history, learning about the people that developed this area left me in awe of the effort and dedication it took to live and thrive here over 1,300 years ago. I would strongly encourage anybody planning a trip to the Southern Colorado area to consider at least making a day trip to visit Mesa Verde. You could also combine the trip with visits to other nearby National Parks in Southern Utah or even the Grand Canyon. Please reach out to us if you questions about Mesa Verde or the nearby area!!