Exploring Mesa Verde

I’ve dreamed of visiting Mesa Verde ever since seeing Cliff Palace in a social studies book. These dwellings built into the sides of cliffs fascinated me in elementary school and still do today. My dream of seeing this finally came true during a trip to southern Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park (Spanish for green table) is in southwestern Colorado near CortezDurango.  Your first stop should be the visitors center near the entrance to the park where you’ll find glimpses into the richness of Ancestral Puebloan culture and daily life.  It was a wonderful way to see what living was like centuries ago in the pueblos.  When walking through the ruins later it was fun watching our kids imagine and connect what they’d learned.  This is also where you will need to buy tickets to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Long House. We showed up at 10 am on a summer week day and the tickets ($4/person) were almost sold out.  Since you can only purchase tickets in person, make sure you plan ahead during the busy season. (Tickets can also be purchased up to two days in advance.)  Call ahead and ask questions if you have any concerns. We had friends who drove 1200 miles to Mesa Verde and discovered in route that Cliff Palace would be closed the days they planned to visit.  They quickly had to adjust their entire trip!

While at the visitor center, grab a map and plan what you want to explore in this 8,500 acre wilderness.  The park is filled with cliffs/mesas and canyons.

Canyons & Mesas in Mesa Verde
Although some dwellings may appear to be close, a long drive around the canyon rim may be required to actually explore them.  Keep in mind, these sites are built into the sides of cliffs and sometimes are best viewed from the other side of the canyon.

Believed to be a storage area (uninhabited) across the canyon from Cliff Palace.

At the entrance to the park you will need to show or purchase your national park pass.  We have an annual one, but you can always purchase a day pass. As you climb up into the park stop and take in the beauty of the valley below.

Valley below Mesa Verde

The Chapin Mesa Archeological Center has a short film explaining the area’s historical culture and the museum is filled with dioramas illustrating the evolution of how the native people lived. My kids still talk about the artifacts, particularly some Puebloan sandals that looks like version of today’s flip-flops.

Jr. Park Ranger with his booklet on Mesa Verde

If you have kids along, sign them up for the Junior Ranger program.  They will receive a booklet designed to help them learn about the archeology of the park through fun, age-appropriate activities.  Once they are completed, each child will be sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive their very own badge. “Explore, Learn, Protect.”

Getting sworn in as a Junior Park Ranger.
Our family did a ranger-guided tour to Cliff Palace. At the beginning, you will gather with your group over-looking the area.

Here the park ranger will explain what to expect (climbing a few 8-10 feet ladders), address safety concerns, etc.  And then we were on our way!

First ladder into Cliff Palace.

The tour begins with sitting near the edge of the dwelling to hear a fascinating archeological talk by our park ranger.

Talk at the beginning Cliff Palace tour with park ranger.

Tour group ahead of us at Cliff Palace.

We learned that “About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away.”  It’s believed that a 25 year drought caused these people to abandon the area.

Cliff Palace contains 23 kivas (round sunken rooms of ceremonial importance) and 150 rooms and had a population of approximately 100 people. Learn more here.

Round 'kiva' at Cliff Palace

At the end of the tour is the Square Tower.  Inside are beautifully preserved murals from the 13th century.

Mural inside Square Tower, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

There are several dwellings to explore.  As stated earlier, it can be easier to view the ruins from across the canyon.  You can also see evidence of fires that have been common recently. Don’t worry, it’s a part of the life-cycle of a pinyon/juniper woodland.

Most importantly, Mesa Verde and a visit to the cliff dwellings is something your family will always remember!

Mesa Verde & Cliff Palace - great family vacation!

To plan your trip, visit these sites for more information:

Mesa Verde – National Park Service

Visit Mesa Verde