I love the diversity of our National Parks. Some parks, like Yosemite or Glacier, draw visitors because of their exquisite natural beauty. People visit these parks to hike, camp, and commune with nature. Mesa Verde National Park’s draws aren’t towering waterfalls or prime wildlife viewing; the park’s allure is the nearly thousand-year-old cliff dwellings that make up the United States’ largest archaeological preserve. Exploring Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park with kids is a great way to immerse them in the history of what once was one of the great civilizations of the Americas. The adventures include climbing ladders into cliff side apartments and discovering the first national park in the world created specifically to preserve the works of humankind.
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Know before you go: Mesa Verde is a seasonal park. Most of the big draws are closed during the cold season. Cliff dwelling tours are unavailable from late October through early April and most are only available late May through early September. This is a park that is best visited during the summer season. My family visited in late August and found the weather to be lovely and the crowds to be nonexistent.
Exploring Mesa Verde National Park with kids
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
Your first stop once inside the park should be the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, which is located just past the park’s entrance station. This is where visitors can purchase tickets to tour Balcony House, Cliff House, Long House, and any special tours that might be offered during the summer season. Tickets are inexpensive ($4 at time of publication) but required to tour these dwellings. Why? Quite simply, to protect the dwellings. Another bonus- small tour groups with knowledgeable rangers equal better experiences. The visitor center also features interesting museum exhibits about the Ancestral Pueblo people, a bookstore/gift shop, and is a great place to pick up Junior Ranger Booklets for your kids.
Far View Lodge
Photo of main lodge exterior by: Christopher Marona
Cortez may be only a short drive from the park entrance but all of the big attractions and cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park are over an hour away accessed via a winding road which climbs up the mesa. For this reason, I highly recommend staying inside the park. Camping is available at the Morefield Campground inside the park but even that is still a good 30 minutes from the main attractions. The only lodging within the park is the Far View Lodge which is located at the top of the mesa and a short drive from the cliff dwellings.
While it is called Far View Lodge, I think it is best to describe the rooms as nicely appointed motel rooms. I say this because the doors to the rooms face the parking lot and guests park in front of their rooms. The rooms assume a low profile as single-story sets of around 5 rooms tucked into the hillside, which results in some awesome views of the valley thousands of feet below. As a matter of fact, since Mesa Verde is close to the Four Corners, you can actually see into four different states! The main building of the Far View Lodge holds a gift shop, lounge (for the adults), and the Metate Room which is the only sit down dining establishment in Mesa Verde National Park. It is only open for dinner. My family didn’t eat at the Metate Room and instead opted to eat at the more economical and kid-friendly Far View Terrace Cafe just down the street (about 1-2 minutes by car or 5-10 by foot). The Terrace Cafe offers three meals a day, served cafeteria style. The building also houses a large gift shop and a coffee stand. The food at the Cafe is actually quite varied and really good. I highly recommend the Navajo taco.
Good to know: A herd of wild horses can often be seen in the fields near Far View Lodge at sunset. Keep your eyes peeled!
Chapin Mesa is about 20 miles (40 minutes) from the park entrance and is the main hub of activity. If you only have time to visit one region of the park, this is the place to go. Here are some of the highlights of this section of the park.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum
This museum serves as the visitor center for the Chapin Mesa area. You can book tours out of this museum, which was a nice option for my family since we arrived at Far View Lodge the night before and didn’t want to head all the way back down the mesa to book our tours the next morning. This is also a place to pick up or turn in Junior Ranger booklets and chat with park rangers. The museum has some nice exhibits on Ancestral Pueblo life and a nice orientation film which is worth watching before exploring Chapin Mesa. Across the street from the museum is the Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe, the only dining option in the Chapin Mesa area. Food is served cafeteria style and includes a variety of sandwiches served with superb house-made chips as well as the ever popular Navajo taco. A gift shop is connected to the cafe and the lollipops they sell are divine.
Spruce Tree House Dwelling
Photo by: Christopher Marona
Located behind the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, the Spruce Tree House is the third largest dwelling in the park and the only cliff dwelling in Chapin Mesa that can be toured without a guide. The trail from the museum to Spruce Tree House is paved and stroller/wheelchair friendly. It is a half mile in length and there is a 100 foot elevation change. Park rangers are on site to answer questions and ranger led tours are offered for free.
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Photo by: Bigstock/Milosk50
If you have ever dreamed of visiting Mesa Verde National Park, it is probably the stunning images of Cliff Palace that have fostered those dreams. This dwelling, the largest of them all, is in remarkable condition and can only be visited on a guided tour. Tickets ($4 per person at time of publication) can be purchased online via recreation.gov, at the visitor center near the park entrance or at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. My 8-year-old children and I found the tour of this dwelling to be fascinating. Our ranger did an excellent job of engaging all the kids on the tour by assigning them line leader duty (what kid doesn’t like that?) and gave them the important job of reminding adults not to lean on the ruins. The ranger also talked about things kids are most interested in such as poop, childhood life, and food.
Good to know: In order to access this dwelling, visitors must be able to climb down some stairs on a trail and climb a couple short ladders to exit the dwelling. The ladders are wide, slanted, and have large boulders on either side which encouraged any fear of heights I had. Our tour had children as young as 4 and 70-year-old seniors. If you are able-bodied and in reasonable shape, you should be fine.
Photo by: Sharlene Earnshaw
If you have children who love to climb, crawl, and explore, Balcony House might be their favorite cliff dwelling to explore. My children loved the adventure of hiking down a hill (a ranger appointed them leaders once again), scaling up a 32-foot ladder, and climbing through a 12-foot-long tunnel on their way out of the dwelling. Our ranger guide was engaging, passionate, and eager to interact with the children in our tour group. Just like Cliff Palace, this dwelling can only be accessed via a guided tour and tickets can be purchased online via recreation.gov, at the visitor center near the park entrance, or at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. An example of the tunnel you have to climb through as well as the type of ladders you will be using are available at the main park visitor center. The ladder may be a bit intimidating for those with a fear of heights or falling (like myself) but it really wasn’t too bad. There are some drop offs since this is a cliff dwelling, so be mindful of your children and keep them away from edges. This tour is best for children 6 and up as well as adults in reasonable shape.
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.
Mesa Top Loop Drive
Photo by: Bigstock/Milosk50
This 6-mile drive includes several stops and overlooks and pit houses, the precursors to cliff dwellings. Young children may not be as impressed with these archaeological sites but an activity in the Junior Ranger booklet focused on Mesa Top Loop will help hold their attention. The highlight of the drive for my family was our stop at Sun Temple which gave us an incredible view of Cliff Palace. I recommend heading to Sun Temple after your Cliff Palace Tour so that you can really appreciate the dwelling your just explored.
Hiking at Chapin Mesa
Photo by: National Park Service
Mesa Verde is not a National Park known for its world-class hiking but there are a few hikes which are nice options for families looking to get out and enjoy a trail. Beginning from the Spruce Tree House trail, the Petroglyph Point Trail is 2.4 miles in length, round trip, and leads to the only accessible viewing of petroglyphs within the park. Also beginning from the Spruce Tree House trail, the 2.4-mile-round-trip Spruce Canyon Trail follows the bottom of the canyon, allowing families the opportunity to discover the plants and animals that live in this ecosystem. Over at the Balcony House parking area families will find the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail which is 1.2 miles round-trip and is the best viewpoint for Balcony House and some of the other sites along Soda Canyon.
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Photo of Long House by: Christopher Marona
Located 12 miles from Far View, exploring Wetherhill Mesa is a great option or families spending two days in the park or returning visitors who have already explored Chapin Mesa. The winding road to Wetherhill Mesa is open late May through early September. The big highlight of this mesa is Long House, which is accessed via a ranger-led tour. This tour is more strenuous than Cliff House or Balcony House. It involves hiking 2.25 miles round-trip (130 foot elevation change) and climbing two 15-foot ladders. Due to the length of the tour (2 hours) and the hike involved, this tour is best suited for elementary aged children and up. Step House is a self-guided cliff dwelling at Wetherhill Mesa. It is accessed via a 3/4 mile trail and 100 foot descent. There are park rangers on duty to answer any questions you might have.
If you are looking to stretch your legs, consider hiking or biking the 5-mile Long House Loop which leads to some scenic overlooks and hiking trails such as the Badger House Community Trail- a 2.25 mile round-trip trail that visits four mesa top archaeological sites, and Nordenskiold Site No. 16 Trail which leads to an overlook. The landscape on this trail was burned by a fire in 2000 and there is no shade.
Read about exploring all of Colorado’s National Parks with kids.
Disclosure: I received two complimentary nights at the Far View Lodge for the purposes of writing an unbiased review of the property and to cover Mesa Verde’s family friendly offerings. I appreciate the hospitality but all opinions are my own.
Featured photo by: Shutterstock