Three Must Do Activities at Mesa Verde National Park

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.

Mesa Verde National Park Photo Journal

Mesa Verde National Park is not only one of the first National Parks in the US, it’s also a World Heritage Site. I can see why. Exploring the ancient homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people was like stepping back in time. This was a great stop on our National Park to Park Highway tour.
It’s called Mesa Verde for a good reason. Look at all that green.
Little G explores Balcony House

High steppin’

Cliff Palace

Wetherill Mesa

Sometimes you have to stop and look at a bug


What to Do With Kids at Great Sand Dunes National Park

On this National Park to Park Highway adventure, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was a welcome respite after the crowds at Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone National Parks. This park is more remote and less developed than most National Parks we’ve visited which meant that we found some of the solitude we’ve come to associate with being in the outdoors.
Great Sand Dunes has fewer developed trails and roads because the main attraction is the field of giant sand dunes the park was established to protect, including the tallest sand dune in North America. You wouldn’t think a mountain of sand would appear between the plains and mountains of Colorado, without a drop of ocean in sight, but they’re there and lots of fun to play in.

If you’re planning a trip to Great Sand Dunes be sure to bring bug spray. The mosquitoes were nasty in the campground and on the hike to the dunes. Once on the dunes the breeze and lack of vegetation kept the blood sucking beasts away.
In addition to climbing dunes, sand sledding and castle building, enjoy these activities at Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve.
Sled Down a Sand Mountain Missing the winter? Try sliding down a mountain of sand on a sled or sand board. Rent one at the private campground just outside of the park entrance or bring your own. Be sure to get out in the early morning or evening – the afternoon sand can reach temperatures of 150 degrees.

Splash in Medano Creek – Flowing from the mountains down past the sand dunes is a shallow crreek that is a blast to play in. When the water is high you can float on intertubes, but that’s only during spring runoff in May and June. Even if the water is only a few inches deep it’s worth splashing in.
Camp at Pinon Flats Campground The only developed campground at this park has 88 sites, flush toilets, dishwashing sinks, paths down to the sand dunes and the dune overlook and wildlife aplenty. Deer wandered through the campground along with rabbits, birds and unfortunately a million and a half mosquitos.

Enjoy the Interactive Exhibits at the Visitor Center – I’ve been to several National Park visitor centers and this one was definitely my favorite. The interactive exhibits were great for both kids and adults and they offer a junior ranger backpack you can use to explore the park.

Hike Past the Point of No Return Most visitors explore the sand dunes after a short half mile hike near the visitors center. We drove up to the Point of No Return parking area and hiked to the Sand Pit picnic area. For three hours we had the place to ourselves with plenty of room to climb, slide, dig and build in the sand dunes and creek. Watch out for hot sand both on the dunes and hiking out – our toes did not appreciate the burning on the walk out.

Zapata Falls About 10 miles south of the park is a rough gravel road leading to a hidden water fall. Zapata Falls was a rocky half mile hike round trip to a beautiful but freezing cold water fall. It felt great on a hot summer day, except that the water was so cold my toes took 20 minutes to thaw completely.
Have a 4WD adventure on the Primitive Road The road between the Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a primitive sand and gravel road that requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle and lowered tire pressure. I would’ve loved to have our UTV to explore this bit of wilderness but unfortunately off road vehicles aren’t allowed in National Parks. If you have a jeep or other 4WD truck this would be a fun drive.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Photo Journal

Our National Park to Park Highway tour visits more than the twelve National Parks the 1920s group visited. This one, Great Sand Dunes National Park was like going to the beach, only without the ocean. Enjoy scenes from this unique park that protects the largest sand dune in North America. Just be glad you weren’t there to get attacked by mosquitoes. I counted 25 bites on my calf alone by the time we left.
Medano Creek
Moon over the Dunes
Sand and El Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Tots in the distance
Little G

Footprints in the sand
Sand castles and creek crawling
Zapata Falls just outside of the Park
The tots explore
Baby L
Mountain Dad in the freezing water