Mesa Verde National Park – Southwestern Colorado

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Mesa Verde first time visitor tips

If you’re in the southwestern Colorado area and have the time, take a detour to on Highway 160 and between the towns of Mancos and Cortez, you’ll see the exit for Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a short drive from Durango, and if you’re into amazing views, interesting history, and climbing ladders on the side of a cliff, then Mesa Verde National Park is a must see.

Mesa Verde National Park

  Mesa Verde National Park Visitors Center

Mesa Verde National Park

When you approach the park, you’ll immediately see the visitor’s center. It’s a beautiful building in the middle of nowhere. Here you can get your National Parks Passport stamped, purchase tickets for the ranger-led tours, and learn more about the history of the park and the people who once lived there. And of course, you can pick up a souvenir or two.

After talking to a ranger about the different tours available. we decided on the Balcony House and Cliff Palace tours. Each was an hour long, and we could get them accomplished in one afternoon. The other tour (Spruce Tree House was closed) was Long House, and once we heard it was 2 hours long, we made a unanimous decision to skip it. My suggestion is to get their early, so you can take the tours in the morning before the afternoon sun starts beating down. We arrived around 10am and the first tour available for us was at 1:30pm. Tickets are only $5 each, so very affordable, even for larger groups.

Mesa Verde National Park - Soda Canyon

Mesa Verde - Balcony House

Balcony House

Our first tour was Balcony House, located in Soda Canyon. I’m kicking myself for not remembering our rangers name, but she was energetic, knowledgeable, and a great tour guide! Before we began the tour, she went over the rules (no touching, sitting, leaning on anything, no food, no sugary drinks), the safety items, and the physical exertion that one would need to complete the tour. To complete this tour, we’d have to climb a 30 foot ladder, two 15 foot ladders, and craw through a passageway about 16″ wide. For me, this was almost a deal breaker. I’m not a fan of heights, and climbing a 30 foot ladder on the side of a cliff didn’t sound enjoyable to me.

Mesa Verde National Park - Balcony House

Mesa Verde National Park - Balcony House kiva

However stressful it was to climb those ladders, the views and seeing the cliff dwelling up close and personal made up for it. It’s not known why the Ancestral Puebloans lived in this area for several hundred years, and then seemed to vanish, but it is apparent they were an intellectual tribe who were able to subsist on very little water. Our ranger stated each person lived off approximately a half gallon of water each day collected from seep streams! I waste that much brushing my teeth in the morning…

Cliff Palace

Next we toured Cliff Palace located in Cliff Canyon. Our tour took place at 3:30 pm. The cliff dwelling was in direct sun, and it honestly made for an uncomfortable situation. The ranger on this tour was soft spoken, so it was hard to hear him over a crowd of 25+ people. That, combined with the heat, and already learning quite a bit about the people who used to inhabit the dwellings, made us wish we only book one tour and spent more time stopping at overlooks on the drive up. One the plus side, the ladders were only 15 feet, and much less intimidating.

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Palace 2

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Palace kiva

Cliff Palace contained over 150 rooms, 23 kivas, and thought to house about 100 people. Since the Ancestral Pueblans did not have a written language, there are several unknowns surrounding their departure from the area. Most of what has been learned comes from analyzing their garbage (apparently they just pitched it over the side of the cliff) and from talking with present day Puebloans.

Note: Due to repairs that need to be made to the site, Cliff Palace continues to be closed in the fall. For 2017, it will close on September 25th. Make sure to check the schedule with the visitor’s center to verify dates.

Suggestions

If plan to spend some time in Mesa Verde Park, here are a few suggestions I have to make your visit more enjoyable:

  1. Go early. Be there when the doors open and buy your tickets for the early tour. You’ll have less worries about the afternoon sun and possible rain showers.
  2. Bring water. If you’re a flatlander like me, then you should be drinking water all the time when at the higher elevations. No one wants to experience altitude sickness with all the beautiful sites to see.
  3. Bring snacks. You can’t take them with you on the tour, but you can eat them in your car as you’re waiting between tours.
  4. Wear proper shoes. Flip flops probably aren’t the best choice. If you can’t/won’t wear tennis shoes, wear sandals that have have an ankle strap so you don’t lose a shoe climbing or crawling.
  5. Lather on the sunscreen. Remember that altitude? The sun is pretty intense and even if you don’t burn, you don’t want exposure to the UV rays. And use one that has zinc oxide! You know how I feel about that…
  6. Know your physical limits. If heights really bother you, then Balcony House might not be your first choice with it’s 30 foot ladder. Cliff Palace may be better suited for you.
  7. Stop at the lookouts. The drive to these tours in breathtaking. There are several points along the road to pull over and take in the view. Let me know if you see the Hemenway House.

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Palace

Kids will also enjoy the tours. Brecken was 7 and 11/12th when we went. Of course being a kid, the ladders weren’t a big deal and were fun! But aside from that, she enjoyed learning about the people who once called this place home.

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Canyon

Mesa Verde National Park was interesting, educational, and well worth the drive and park entry fees. It’s one of those parks that I think you go to one time, maybe two if you have friends/family who have never been there. While there are campgrounds and hiking trails, overall the area isn’t that “pretty.” Lightening strikes have caused fires that made the soil sterile, so there are some barren areas that will take hundreds of years for vegetation to regrow. Regardless, the spectacular views, heart-raising drive, and history will make you glad you visited.

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About Sarah

Mom. Blogger. Runner. Hiker. Insomniac. Not necessarily in that order.

Comments

  1. I would love to visit Mesa Verde with the family. I love the history of that area, and exploring those ruins would be amazing.

  2. What an amazing place to have a family adventure! I would love to explore that area with my family.

  3. Pam Wattenbarger says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post! Our bucket list item is to see all the National Parks in the US so I am always on the lookout for tips from others who have visited. Thanks for letting us know about the heights too.

  4. We’ve been trying to hit up as many parks with our family as possible, but have yet to do Mesa Verde. It definitely looks like it has so much beauty and history to explore, I can’t wait to see it in person some day!

  5. Now this would be an amazing place to visit. I need to take a road trip with family out there. Your advice will be really helpful!

  6. I’ve never visited this place before and it’s definitely a great place to go to, there’s plenty to learn about its history. I think this post is really helpful for first timers like me! I hope I get to see it soon!

  7. Wow! This looks like a great place to visit with the family. My family will surely love this!

  8. This looks incredible. My whole family would love to do something like this and visit such a gorgeous park!

  9. Wow, what a gorgeous place. I have no doubt the kids would love it!

  10. Our Family World
    Twitter:
    says:

    Those cliff dwellers of ages ago sure knew how to build!. Wow. That is definitely a site to visit. Love the views and even if I am a little scared of heights, I won’t mind climbing that ladder.

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