Three Must Do Activities at Mesa Verde National Park

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In 1917 Horace Albright described the road to Mesa Verde as “…one of the most disrreputable, dangerous, fearsome bits of slippery, rutted miseries I ever had the misfortune to travel.” Thankfully the quality of the road has improved since that time.
On this update of our National Park toPark Highway tour I will focus on my top three activities to do with kids. Other National Park posts list our top ten picks, but I really wanted to focus on these three things because they were so awesome. They require a bit more time and effort, but are totally worth it.

First some information – Mesa Verde is a World Heritage Site, meaning it’s so cool, interesting and important to human history that people have banded together to protect it. Part of that protection is that no food or drinks other than water are allowed in any cliff dwelling.

Also, most of the Native American cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde require a ranger guide to explore close up. You can purchase tickets for a ranger led tour a day or so in advance at the Visitor Center when you first enter the park or online through the Mesa Verde website. Tickets are $4 per person. The tours require some physical ability – you must be able to climb a ladder and fit through some tight spaces for a few tours such as Balcony House. Baby carriers are not recommended.

Balcony House – Touring this cliff dwelling was like exploring an ancient jungle gym. Before the tour started our ranger described the thirty-two foot tall ladder, eighteen by twenty four inch wide tunnel and steps carved in the rock by the Ancestral Puebloan people that we would be expected to climb.

I was nervous that Big E and Little G would have trouble on the route but I should’ve been worried about myself. Some of the spaces were so tight, I had to take Baby L out of her carrier and squeeze us through. I would not suggest taking a baby carrier on this tour. Seeing the ancient Puebloan homes was really cool, not to mention a great lesson in history. The shade in the cliff dwelling felt great on a hot summer day.

Cliff Palace – The overlook to Cliff Palace does not require a tour ticket, but to really experience it you should take a ranger tour here. This tour had fewer physical demands than Balcony House (no tiny tunnels thank you). If you bring young children here be sure they stay away from the edge – there are a few sections where the trail got close. Cliff Palace is a huge ancient site with kivas, towers and rock walls built from meticulously shaped rocks. It was fascinating to see up close.

Whetherill Mesa – My favorite part of our Mesa Verde visit was the bike ride on Whetherill Mesa. More remote than the other areas of the park, this adventure required an hour and fifteen minute drive from the campground just to get there, but once we were there we had the place almost totally to ourselves. We rode our bikes on the five mile, paved, multi-use trail, stopping at various places to see some of the ancient architecture close up.

Little G rode her Woom 3 with the pedals removed so she could use it like a balance bike. She loved the downhill sections, but without pedals she was by far the slowest one on the trail, requiring bucket loads of patience as Mountain Dad and I helped keep her moving. Despite protests before hand, she biked a full mile on her own before we locked her bike and put her in the Burley trailer.
Big E rode amazingly well. I’m still shocked that just this spring he transitioned off of training wheels. He can ride like a beast and I credit that to the Woom 4. It’s the perfect size for him and the easy gear change lets him be in control.
We finished our visit to Whetherill Mesa with a self guided tour of Step House. This cliff dwelling is near the parking lot and does not require a ticket, although a ranger is on site to answer questions. After a morning bike ride I was especially surprised that none of our kids complained on the one mile round trip hike, even with the sun bright on our backs.

Mountain Dad’s Corner – As I was writing this post, Mountain Dad said he wanted to share his Pros and Cons of visiting Mesa Verde. Here’s his takeaway.

  • Ridiculously cool native american ruins.
  • Huge laundromat, free showers and a general store within walking distance of our campsite.
  • Balcony House Tour was a cool historic jungle gym.

  • There was a lot of driving to just get to the Native American sites.
  • Weird camping reservation system – you can reserve a spot but you have to choose it once you get there.
  • Long line for tour tickets at the Visitors Center. Why was there only one ranger for all those people?
  • Hot, Hot, Hot Even though the temperatures never went over 85 degrees the combination of high elevation and direct sunlight made it feel hot.

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Author: Mountain Mom

Hi! I'm Mountain Mom. I live with my husband and three young kids in the mountains near Sundance, Utah. When we're not hiking, biking, skiing and camping, I spend my time doing Mom stuff and reading. Summer of 2016 we traveled over 7,000 miles along the US National Park to Park Highway.

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