With so many great national parks worth visiting, what makes Mesa Verde unique? Of the more than 300 national parks in the US system, Mesa Verde is the only one dedicated to archaeology. Like Easter Island, Mesa Verde tells the secrets of an ancient people whose families once inhabited the land, but leaves only a mystery behind as to why they left this site so long ago.
Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde
While the Mesa Verde National Park (www.nps.gov/meve) is open all year round, many of its most important sites are closed in winter, including the Far View Visitor Center, Cliff Palace Loop, Balcony House, and many park services. Winter does afford visitors the opportunity to cross-country ski and snowshoe, however, and the park does have its own magic when the tourist crowds fade away. For most people, however, April to September is the main season, with the majority of people coming in July and August. To beat the crowds, but still enjoy the wildflowers, visit from April to June or in September.
What to See in Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde (“Green Table” for its juniper and pine forests) is a 52,000-acre setting for some of the oldest dwellings in the United States. Inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan people (once called the Anasazi) between 550 AD and 1270 AD, today more than 4,000 archaeological sites have been identified, with about 600 of them being cliff dwellings.
These ancient people built intricate cliff dwellings of stone and adobe within canyon walls, which provided protection from the elements and ensured they would last far beyond the lives of the families who once inhabited them. By the 14tth century, the Ancestral Puebloans had disappeared, and the area went undiscovered until the 1870s.
Today, some of the Mesa Verde highlights include the 156-room Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House. Admission is only allowed in the company of a Mesa Verde park ranger, and some strenuous climbing is required. For family members less fit, the two Mesa Loop Roads (once called Ruins Road Drive) provide a journey that covers the park well, with many scenic overlooks.
Costs and Park Entrances
While families visiting Mesa Verde National Park should always verify prices, the current fee for a private vehicle entering the park is $15 for 7 days. (Prices can be checked online at www.nps.gov.) For those individuals arriving by bicycle, on foot, or via motorcycle, the cost is $8.
It’s important to note that when arriving by car, the Far View Visitor Center is in the northwest section of the park, 21 miles from the entrance
Mesa Verde is located 35 miles west of Durango, site of the local airport as well. As part of the Four Corners area (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), this mountainous region is visually stunning, and a visit to Durango is like stepping back into the 1800s mining town it once was. Filled with Victorian-era saloons and welcoming old hotels, this town is the perfect match for a visit to Mesa Verde.
One of the most memorable activities for families staying in Durango is riding the steam-driven Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has been operating continuously for more than 120 years. (See www.durangotrain.com.)
Lodging in Durango or Mesa Verde
Inside the park, visitors are limited to only a few options, camping at Morefield Campgrounds (operating on a first-come, first-served basis) or staying at Far View Lodge..(See www.visitmesaverde.com.) The lodge has little to recommend it except for stunning views of the Four Corners area.
Better options are available for those choosing Durango, Colorado. Family budget accommodations (like Best Western and motor inns) abound. For those wishing a special treat, Strater Hotel (www.strater.com) is an of-the-era gem. Kids should look for the gold-plated Winchester in the lobby. Parents will enjoy the superior antique-filled rooms. Even more enchanting is the Tall Timber Resort (www.talltimberresort.com), a location virtually inaccessible and surrounded by stunning forestland.
Tips and Tricks
Mesa Verde is a high-intensity destination, perfect for active children who love exploring. In addition to hiking and ranger-led tours, the area requires a lot of physical energy to see all of Mesa Verde. Sections of the park require climbing ladders, hiking rough terrain, even crawling on hands and knees in one section. Families visiting the park should wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots, and a pair of binoculars (or several, depending on the size of the family) are essential to take it all in.
If possible, schedule the family visit to Mesa Verde to coincide with one of two big events yearly: the Intertribal Arts and Crafts Show (last weekend of July) or the Mesa Verde Country Indian Arts and Western Cultural Festival (over Memorial Day weekend).
No matter when your family chooses to visit Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the journey is sure to be a memorable experience. The beautiful canyon setting and amazing cliff dwellings (and the unsolved mysteries about the people who once lived here a thousand years ago) will surely make for some wonderful family memories.
National Geographic, National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks of the US (National Geographic)
Schultz, Patricia, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (Workman Publishing)