Mesa Verde National Park is a series of mesas and canyons where the Ancestral Pueblo people lived for over 700 years. This park preserves the cultural heritage of 26 tribes that once lived in this area, tracing their path from pit houses to pueblos, to cliff dwellings. When exploring Mesa Verde with kids you’ll find lots of easy family-friendly activities. You can view cliff dwellings from overlooks, and take ranger-led tours through others. We visited Mesa Verde on our Epic Cross-Country Road Trip in July of 2021.
Please be aware that Mesa Verde is a sacred place to many people, so when you visit, please be respectful, and leave no trace!
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What is Mesa Verde Known For?
Mesa Verde is known for its preserved Ancestral Pueblo archeological sites including cliff-dwellings. The park includes over 4,500 archeological sites, about 600 of which are cliff dwellings.
It is fascinating to see how people lived on the steep slopes of the mesa. Rangers can point out hand holds the Ancestral Pueblo used to climb from one level of the dwellings to the next along the cliff face.
The cliff dwellings were inhabited for less than 100 years. By the year 1300, the area had become deserted, likely because of drought. Archeologists used to call the people who lived here Anasazi, a Navajo word that means “ancient foreigners”. The terminology has since been changed to Ancestral Pueblo to reflect their relation to the modern Pueblo tribes.
Mesa Verde was named a World Heritage site in 1978. Your family will learn about different styles of building- from pit houses to pueblos to cliff dwellings. The kids will become familiar with terms like kiva and sipapu.
Getting to Mesa Verde National Park with Kids
Mesa Verde is in southwestern Colorado, 45 minutes west of Durango, and abuts to the Ute Mountain Reservation. You will need a car to get to the park and to explore once you are inside the park.
We drove in from Santa Fe, NM, a drive time of 4 1/2 hours to the park entrance. Coming from Santa Fe, there were no stops of any size for the last hour before the park entrance, so plan your meals accordingly. There is only one park entrance, located ten miles from Cortez, CO.
If you are planning a road trip, check out Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for the Ultimate Road Trip in 2021 and 60+ Fun Road Trip Activities for Kids: How to Keep Kids Entertained on a Long Car Trip
The nearest airport is Durango, CO, although you may find cheaper flights into Santa Fe, NM, or Albuquerque, NM. You will need a car to explore the park.
When is the Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde National Park with Kids?
Mesa Verde’s peak season is during the summer months of June, July, and August. This is when you’ll find evening programs at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater, and also when you will find peak crowds.
You’ll want to visit “in-season” (May to September 30) to stay in the park. The Wetherill Mesa Road is only open May through September, depending on the weather. In the summer months the evening programs are on the weekends, so plan to spend a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night in the part to take advantage of these programs.
How Much Do I Need to Plan Ahead?
We advise booking a room at the Far View Lodge in advance. It is the only lodge in the park and can book up a year in advance, so the sooner you can reserve rooms in these parks, the better. If you would like to have dinner in the dining room in the lodge, you should make reservations ahead of time as well.
There are no reservations required to enter the park. If you are interested in a cliff-dwelling tour, you will need to book it in advance. Tickets for tours go on sale 14 days in advance, and in 2021, sold out in mere minutes. Many of the cliff-dwelling tours include climbing tall ladders and crawling through tight spaces, so read the details closely before booking.
Download maps and apps ahead of time. Do not count on wifi or cell service in the park.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips- you can check out the other tips at 21 Family Travel Tips for 2021: Best Tips for Travel with Kids.
How much does Mesa Verde National Park Cost?
The fee to enter Mesa Verde is $35- that is good for your full car and lasts for seven days (as of 2021). If you will be combining this visit with other National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass– this annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
4th graders (and 5th Graders in 2021) also get a free annual park pass for their families.
Look for Junior Ranger packets in the Visitor Center. The kids complete the packets, and return them to be sworn in as Junior Rangers complete with a wooden badge! You may also want to get a family National Park Passport Book to stamp at each park you visit.
What to bring to Mesa Verde National Park
Plan for changeable weather. Bring jackets and rain gear. In the summer, lightning storms can spring up quickly, often in the evenings. We visited in July and had several nights where we watched lightning storms in the distance, and one evening when it sprinkled on us.
A full tank of gas. You’ll be driving long distances, and don’t want to run out of gas. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from the park entrance, to the Far View Lodge, which is approximately in the center of the park.
The Best of Mesa Verde with Kids
Mesa Verde was one of our favorite parks as a family. With an elevation of just over 8000 feet at the Far View Area, even in mid-summer temperatures were warm but comfortable, with highs in the mid-80s.
Mesa Verde is not a huge park, you can see most kid-friendly parts of the park in two days. If you want to take longer hikes or more difficult cliff-dwelling tours, you may need more time. We spent a day and a half exploring the park, we stayed in the lodge for two nights.
Part 1: Driving in and Overlooks
Once you enter the park, you’ll be on a winding, climbing road until you hit the Far View Area. This drive takes about 30 minutes without stops. About 1/3 of the way in you’ll pass the Morefield Campground, then drive through a tunnel. Take your time enjoying the overlooks along this road, they have wonderful vistas of the valley below!
After a late start out of Santa Fe, we drove into the park close to dusk. We stopped at Park Point Overlook for a picnic dinner and to watch the sunset. The sunset in the west was stunning. At the same time, in the eastern sky, a thunderstorm raged in the distance, so we watched lighting strikes against a pink sky. There are two lookout points here, with a Fire Lookout in the middle. Rangers watch the skies here to locate any fires that result from the lightning.
Part 2: Chapin Mesa and Mesa Top Loop
Start by exploring Chapin Mesa which contains the Mesa Top Loop, Cliff House, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. If you get tickets to tour one of these cliff dwellings, you may spend the whole day here. Otherwise, head to Wetherill Mesa to do a self-guided tour of Step House.
Mesa Top Loop with Kids
Start your day with the Mesa Top Loop. Head south from the Far View Area to explore this six-mile, one-way loop with 11 stops. Some of these stops are overlooks, others are pit houses which are essentially excavations under a rooftop to preserve them.
This loop gives you a good overview of the history of living in this area- first pit houses on the top of the mesa, to early pueblos (more rectangular and above ground), and then cliff dwellings. More than 600 years separate some of these structures, and in some places, you can see where one was built over the remains of an older style.
Some of the stops on this loop will need some explaining for kids to understand, and a bit of patience on their part, but build up an understanding of what they will see later. The signage along these stops is decent and will help explain what you are looking at. Look for a booklet called “Mesa Top Loop” outside the loop stops, for a dollar donation it includes a lot of additional information.
One of the most exciting stops along this loop is the view of Square Tower House. When we visited we could see a tour group down below. Look back along the mesa wall to track their trail- it’s a steep one! Square Tower House includes the tallest standing structure in the park, a four-story tower. The site is 90% original and includes painted murals and rock art.
I am a big believer in doing the most exciting parts of the park last, rather than hitting the highlights first and then being disappointed by the less dramatic parts. After seeing the archeological sites on the Mesa Loop, they’ll be thrilled to get up close to cliff dwellings.
Cliff Palace and Balcony House
After the Mesa Top Loop, you can head north to the turn-off for Cliff Palace and Balcony House. This would be a great time to take a ranger-led tour of either cliff dwelling if you can get tickets. When we visited the Cliff Palace Loop was closed for construction, with no published opening date.
Spruce Tree House
Just north of the Cliff Palace Loop turn-off is Spruce Tree Terrace and the Archeological Museum. The museum is closed for 2021. Spruce Tree House is closed for the foreseeable future after a rockfall caused safety concerns. You can see Spruce Tree House from behind the museum. The Spruce Canyon Trail leaves from here. We did the first part of this trail to see how close it got to the cliff dwelling, but the best views are from the flat rocks just below the museum.
If you are looking to add a hike, the Petroglyph Point Trail is a 2.4-mile loop, though much of it is in full sun, so bring lots of water. It descends into the canyon, with steep climbs coming back out.
You can take a break here and have a picnic lunch, get lunch at the Spruce Tree Terrace, or head to the Far View Terrace for a sandwich or iced coffee. In order to access the Wetherill Mesa part of the park, you’ll need to drive back through the Far View Area anyway.
Part 3: Wetherill Mesa
The Wetherill Mesa is accessed along a road west of the Far View Area. This road is only open May through September, and only to vehicles under 25 feet in length. This is the least visited part of the park, make sure not to miss it!
The road is about 12 miles long, you’ll cross the top of the mesa, with fields of flowers and grasses, before coming to the western edge with canyon views. Drive to the end of the road where you’ll find the parking area for Step House, as well as a ranger information area.
From the parking area, you’ll see the trail to Step House, the only cliff dwelling you can enter on a self-guided tour. You’ll enter through a gate, and proceed to hike switchbacks down along the mesa edge until you reach Step House.
Rangers will be on-site to answer questions- there is a reconstructed pit house, and a short ladder you can climb into Step House. If you look at the upper wall, you’ll see black soot from fires long ago, and even a handprint!
The hike down and back is a one-mile one-way loop, with some stairs, but it felt fairly safe, with handrails on the steeper parts. This was a highlight for our kids, they loved climbing the ladder (over and over), and the reconstructed pit house was great after seeing all the ruins along the Mesa Top Loop.
Long House Trail
The Long House Trail is a 6-mile loop that includes a viewpoint over the Long House, as well as a lookout over Kodak House. It leaves from the information center at Wetherill Mesa.
Family-Friendly Cliff Dwelling Tour Options
If you can get tickets in advance for a cliff-dwelling tour. Check the descriptions to see if the tour is appropriate for your family, as some involve tall ladders and difficult hikes. Other ranger-led hikes are available, but they require longer hikes, steep descents, and scrambling over rocks.
Cliff Palace Tour
Cliff Palace Tour is the most popular tour in Mesa Verde Park. This is the largest dwelling in the park with more than 150 rooms. The one-hour tour includes climbing 5 approximately ten-foot ladders, and a 1/4 mile hike. We would love to return to the park when this tour is running again! So far there is no timeline for the end of the road construction.
Balcony House Tour
Balcony House is a mid-sized cliff dwelling, with about 40 rooms. This tour is more appropriate for older children- it includes climbing a 32-foot ladder, and scrambling through a 12-foot long tunnel. This tour is a highlight for families with older kids as it feels adventurous.
Long House Tour
Long House is on the Wetherill Mesa, so plan time to get to the trailhead for your tour. The second-largest cliff dwelling in the park and includes an active spring on site. The tour lasts two hours and includes climbing 2 15-foot ladders and just over 2 miles of hiking round trip. This tour has become very hard to get with the closure of both Cliff Palace and Balcony House.
Cultural Progams at Mesa Verde with Kids
Mesa Verde held the first evening campfire talks in the national park system back in 1907 and is proud to continue that tradition. During the summer season, they host programs, generally on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at the amphitheater in Morefield Campground.
The weekend we visited they featured the Red Sky Drum Group on Thursday night and the Oak Canyon Dancers on Saturday night. These programs are free and open to the public.
Red Sky Drum Group
We attended the Red Sky Drum Group performance. It was a wonderful program. The members of the group are Ute and alternated between dancing and drums, and telling stories from their tradition. The kids loved the colorful costumes and the stories. The program lasted about an hour, then the performers took questions. At the end, the kids had a chance to examine their costumes and meet them in person if they wished. You can read more about the group and see videos of some of their performances on their Facebook page.
Where to Eat in Mesa Verde with Kids
There are five options for eating within the park, however, in 2021 many are serving limited menus with limited hours.
Metate Dining Room
The Metate Dining Room in the Far View Lodge is the main park dining room and the only one open for dinner when we visited. We made a reservation for a 5:00 pm dinner in order to finish in time to drive to the amphitheater for an evening program starting at 7 pm. The food was ok, but the service was extremely slow, we struggled to finish our meal by 6:30. There is no outdoor seating.
Far View Terrace Cafe
The Far View Terrace Cafe is open for breakfast (7-10 am) and lunch (11- am- 2 pm). They do have outdoor seating. We ate breakfast in our room and had a picnic lunch, so we didn’t try this cafe.
Far View Lounge
The lounge in the Far View Lodge is closed for 2021, but normally offers snacks and appetizers as well as drinks.
Spruce Tree Terrace
The Spruce Tree Terrace was closed for repairs when we visited, but it looks like it has since reopened from 11-2 pm with a limited menu.
Lodging Options in Mesa Verde Park
There is only one lodge in Mesa Verde Park- the Far View Lodge. The main lodge building has registration, a small gift shop, and the main dining lodge. The lodging rooms are in separate motel-style buildings up the hill from the main lodge. Each of the rooms has large windows and a balcony looking out over the park. The rooms are very comfortable, and although we have heard that wild horses can sometimes be seen grazing nearby, we didn’t see them in this part of the park.
Make sure to inquire about cultural programs when you check into the lodge. These programs often happen Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, though they are not always widely advertised.
If you prefer camping, you can stay at the Morefield Campground, closer to the park entrance. The amphitheater in the campground is where many of the cultural programs take place.
Lodging in Nearby Towns
For lodging outside the park, look at the town of Cortez, CO. You’ll have a 45-60 minute drive into the park each day, but these options should be more affordable than staying inside the park.
There You Have It!
Mesa Verde is a great family-friendly national park. Mesa Verde with kids is a great combination of amazing views, short hikes, and exploring cliff dwellings. It is easy to explore in a day or two and gives kids a great introduction to some Ancestral Pueblo practices and culture.
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