Mesa Verde National Park
Updated: May 7
Why Mesa Verde is great for kids
Rich in historical significance and they can feel the people who once lived here
Who doesn't want to live high on a cliff as a kid
Easy hikes to spectacular viewpoints
Quick stops to stroller accessible ground sites
There are photo opportunities at every turn and stop
Mesa Verde National Park was established by Congress and Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Located in the Southwest Corner of Colorado near Cortez it is at elevations ranging between 6,000 and 8,500 feet above sea level. The area is known for the cliff dwellers that inhabited the area for 700 years until the late 1,200s. What is not as widely know is that people have been living in the area since 7,500 BC and have developed many sites over time. There are more than 5,000 sites including 600 cliff dwellings in the park. We had one day to tour Mesa Verde so we did as much as we could, fast.
Mesa Verde includes a lot of driving. It is an hour drive from the visitor's center to Step House. From Balcony House to Step House is a 45 minute drive. We only had time to go to the Balcony House, Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House section of the park. It is 45 minutes from the visitor's center to Balcony House or a 23 mile drive including many hills, turns and switchbacks. We were surprised to see Class A Motorhomes make the ascent. Like any place, parking is limited for the big rigs. As you drive through the park you will be notified of different forest fires by signs on the side of the road. Pay attention to how these areas are starting to flourish again. Be on the lookout for wildlife. Our second son saw this mom and kid below on our trip. He has a good eye.
Far View Sites is a group of dwellings on the ground that is accessible with a brief walk from the parking area. Many of the sites, like Far View Sites, have limited parking so beware you may have challenges when going during peak times. There is a main dwelling here and also a nice hike through the trees to Far View Tower and Far View Reservoir, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark site. The trail ends with Megalithic House. The treasure of these sites are that they are on the ground and easily accessible, with paved trails and a peaceful walk.
Soda Canyon Overlook trail is a 1.2 mile easy trail with a 100ft elevation gain. The footing is solid with small stone and rock and can be navigated with a jogging stroller and a little lifting. The hike provides natural views along the way. Trees and brush, line the trail, and provide depth to explore, while walking to the viewpoints. The trail leads you to three overlooks to view Balcony House and Soda Canyon.
Sun Temple is a quick stop. The parking is again limited, however there is parallel parking for big RVs and trailers. The temple sits on the edge of the canyon and is thought to be an astronomical observatory. A picture of the temple overlooking the canyon is below.
We had a special encounter. Our oldest, for his fifth grade project, made a kiva out of clay. We took the kiva from Michigan to Utah and carried it with us to the visitor's center. As we walked up one of the rangers, who we discovered later was half native, approached us. I'm sure it was due to his project. We talked about the project and why we were excited to see Mesa Verde. He judged us, to make sure his next comments were safe, and spent the next twenty minutes discussing stories of his ancestor's past. We discussed the creator, and the purpose of the kiva and sipapu. At the time we talked, I expected to see a few kivas. Every location had kivas. It was their main focal point and so important they took time to build one at every location. We will cherish this conversation, and our time at Mesa Verde.
There is a little more parking at Spruce Tree Canyon Trail where you can get wonderful views of Spruce Tree House. Also located here, you will find museums, ranger's office, and a cafe. The trail is 2.4 miles with 675 ft of elevation gain.
The pictures and words are a small sample of Mesa Verde. As you drive, there are viewpoints everywhere. The Park has many canyons and you can only see a few. Each dwelling is unique in its own way. Through the architectural details, you can see their construction methods develop over time. In person, we were more amazed and clueless as to how they lived in the cliffs. The vertical feet from the cliff to the canyon floor or to the cliff top is only understood in person. Mesa Verde is a magical place.
In summary, there is more to see at Mesa Verde than expected. The pit houses were a complete surprise. To be able to walk around kivas and residences and see the details well preserved was unexpected and worth the trip. At every site, we wondered and dreamed about what life was like for these people. Why did they move to the cliffs? Why did they leave? We were, again, left wanting more. Hopefully, on our trip to the Grand Canyon, we will make another stop at Mesa Verde and explore some of what we missed. Let us know what questions you have as you plan your trip to Mesa Verde.
Here are a few helpful links:
I found Haunted Mesa by Louis LaMour on Amazon. It is a present day mystery centered around the cliff dwellers. Its not his typical western and is a great read. I linked to the search results because it is out of print. There are some used copies and a kindle version available.
Here is the link to Mesa Verde to help you learn more details and continue to plan your trip. https://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm