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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

 

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

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Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado is cited by National Geographic as one of the top cultural spots in the United States. And there's a reason. Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, is home to one of the largest and best preserved Anasazi ruins in America. Cliff dwellings, elaborate stone communities built in sheltered alcoves, are the main attraction at this U.S. National Park. But they aren't the only. The ruins at Mesa Verde follow the Anasazi Indians from pithouse to pueblo and, in addition to weaving a story 700 years in the making, speak to a life both above and below the mesa top. So why take the kids? Mystery, ladders and intrigue.

Spread over 52,000 acres, Mesa Verde protects 4,000 known archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. Yet a trip to this U.S. national park need not be overwhelming. The vast majority of sites are concentrated in two distinct areas: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. If you plan your visit with care you'll avoid driving from end to end repeatedly. The Far View Visitor Center offers more than an update on park weather and roads. Unless you are staying at Morefield Campground, it is the only place to purchase tickets for ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours and learn about other programs and special events. Don't forget to pick up a Junior Ranger activity sheet, geared to kids aged 4 to 12, and engage the kids from start to finish. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and self-guided Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling are a great place to begin an adventure with kids. Not only do they provide an introduction to Anasazi life, they allow families to tour at their own pace. When planning the remainder of your visit consider the availability of ranger-guided tours as well as the age and interest of the tots, tweens and teens. Cliff Palace and Balcony House are the most popular ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours at Mesa Verde. Both are situated on Chapin Mesa and both require a good deal of climbing. The self-drive Mesa Top Loop Road, also on Chapin Mesa, follows the Anasazi from pithouse to pueblo. Wetherill Mesa is Mesa Verde in a nutshell. In addition to Long House, Mesa Verde's second largest cliff dwelling, this corner of the park boasts mesa top sites of note. And apart from getting there and getting away you don't need the car to get around.
Getting There
 
Mesa Verde National Park is a 1-hour drive from Cortez, Colorado and a 1.5-hour drive from Durango, Colorado. The park is accessible from Highway 160. The Visitor Center, the first point of access within the park, is a 30-minute drive from the entrance. The nearest airports are located in Cortez (Colorado), Durango (Colorado) and Farmington (New Mexico).
Getting Around
 
Mesa Verde is 52,000 acres (21,043 hectares) in size and there is no public transport within the park. Access to several Mesa Verde cliff dwellings - Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House - is limited to ranger-guided tours. Hiking is permitted on designated trails only. The museum and ruins are miles from the entrance and a great distance from one another. To avoid driving from end to end repeatedly (or spend your entire day hiking to just one site) you'll need a plan. Make the Far View Visitor Center the first stop on your family tour. Apart from Morefield Campground, it is the only place to purchase tickets for ranger-guided, cliff dwelling tours and learn about other programs and special events. Tickets in hand, plot a route that considers both distance and drive time. The Chapin Mesa sites are 5-8 miles (8-13 km) from the Far View Visitor Center and 20-25 miles (32-37km) from the main entrance of Mesa Verde National Park. The driving time is 15 minutes and 45 minutes respectively. Wetherill Mesa is situated 12 miles (19km) from the Far View Visitor Center and roughly 27 miles (44km) from the main entrance of Mesa Verde National Park. It takes roughly 45 minutes to reach Wetherill Mesa from Far View Center. Visiting Mesa Verde for the day? Half-day, ranger-guided bus tours are ideal for families with limited time. A footnote for hikers and cyclists: Trails range in length from the 1.2-mile (1.9km) Soda Canyon Overlook to the 7.8-mile (12.6km) Prater Ridge Trail. Registration is required at Petroglygh Point Loop and Spruce Canyon Trails. The moderately high altitude makes all hikes strenuous. Biking on the narrow park roads is not recommended. Off road biking is not permitted.
When to Travel
 
The climate at Mesa Verde is semi-arid climate and the elevation ranges from 7,000 (2100) to 8,500 feet (2600m). In summer (June - September) the daytime temperature can exceed 90°F (32°C). Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. While the weather in winter (November - March) is generally mild snowstorms can occur as late as May and as early as October. Evening and early morning temperatures are significantly lower than the daytime high throughout the year. Plan to dress in layers whether you visit in June or December.
Health & Safety
 
Heat exhaustion, dehydration and improper footwear are the principal health risks at Mesa Verde National Park. Wear sturdy shoes, a light, long-sleeved shirt and broad-brimmed hat. Apply high factor sunscreen to all exposed areas - including nose, ears, and toes - before you set out and repeat applications throughout the day. Carry plenty of water (4 liters per person per day is recommended when hiking in summer). Select trails and ranger-guided, cliff dwelling tours that are commensurate with the age and ability of the least skilled walker. The moderately high altitude makes even short hikes demanding. Cliff dwelling tours all require some climbing.
Hours & Seasons
 
Mesa Verde National Park is open year-around. Wetherill Mesa (Long House, Step House and Badger House Community) is open from late May to early September only. Spruce Tree House is the only Mesa Verde cliff dwelling open throughout the year. Ranger-guided tours and programs are seasonal. Ranger-led tours of Balcony House are offered from late April to mid-October. Ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace House are offered from early April to mid-November. Half-day, ranger-guided bus tours begin at the earliest pithouses and include a tour of Cliff Palace. (Tours depart daily from Far View Terrace at 8:00 and 13:00.) The Mesa Verde Museum Association offers twilight tours of Cliff Palace at 19:00 in summer. Ranger-led evening programs, free of charge, are held at the Morefield Amphitheater (Morefield Campground) from late May to early September.
Admission & Fees
 
A day use fee, valid for 7 consecutive days, is charged per vehicle unless you are traveling by motorcycle or non-commercial bus in which case the fee is per person. Tickets are required for Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House tours. Tickets can be purchased at the Far View Visitor Center 8:00 -17:00 from mid-April to mid-October or the Morefield Ranger Station 17:00 - 20:30 from late May through mid-August only. In October and April, Cliff Palace tickets can be purchased at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. Evening programs (summer only) offered at the Morefield Amphitheater are free of charge. Tickets for Mesa Verde Museum Association's Cliff Palace Summer Twilight tours are available for purchase at the Far View Visitor Center bookstore only. Tickets for half-day, ranger-led tours can be purchased at Far View Visitor Center, Far View Lodge, Far View Terrace and Morefield Campground.
Things to Keep in Mind
 
Junior Ranger activity sheets, geared to children aged 4 to 12, are available at the Far View Visitor Center, Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and Morefield Ranger Station. Be sure to purchase tickets to ranger-guided tours before venturing out to the ruins. It is a long trip back to the Far View Visitor Center. Mesa Verde is in black bear country. Do not take food on hikes. Eat at designated picnic and camping areas only and clean the area thoroughly after each meal.
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