Mesa Verde National Park is filled with tons of family-friendly activities. Here is a easy-to-follow guide for visiting Mesa Verde with kids.
Mesa Verde tells the Colorado story of early life on the land. Established as a national park on June 29th, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt, the main goal behind the designation was to protect the rich history of the Ancestral Puebloans and the Freemont people who called the land within the park home from 550 to 1300 CE.
The park is home to more than 5,000 archaeological sites- farming structures, mesa top sites, and cliff dwellings. Visitors may get an up-close experience of sites built into the Cliff House Sandstone while also exploring what remains of the earlier style pueblo homes. The park has four main areas, each bringing its own look to life during the Common Era. The areas of Chapin Mesa, Far View, Wetherill Mesa, and Morefield Campground all contain different but important perspectives of the history of the era, including the park itself.
Four Corners Region
The Four Corners region attracts thousands of visitors a year. The annual visitor numbers for Mesa Verde NP fluctuate yearly between 500,000 to 600,000 a year, according to nps.gov. Meaning green table in Spanish, the park is over 54,000 acres along the Colorado Plateau. In 1978, it received the designation as a World Heritage Site offering it further protection.
Best Time of Year to Visit
Being a high desert, the best times to visit the park are spring, early summer, and fall. Most of the trails are exposed and offer very little shade. Temperatures can reach the upper 80s, and late afternoon thunderstorms are common. Summer brings larger crowds, especially in July and August. Winter is a magical time to visit if you aren’t interested in booking a tour. Only some facilities are open in the winter, and road conditions may close the park.
I recommend visiting the park in May or early June for smaller tours and visitor numbers. Only one main artery takes you to the four main areas within the park, and traffic can back up or be slow, especially during the summer months.
Native American Connection
When visiting Mesa Verde with kids you’ll find a wealth of information about its Native American history. Mesa Verde National Park has one of the richest Native American connections of any national park. The land was inhabited for thousands of years by two groups of Archaic Indians- the Ancestral Puebloans and the Freemont people for more than 700 years. The park contains evidence of their way of life, including shards of pottery, petroglyphs, and homes built into the rock walls. Formerly nomadic, they came to the land most notedly looking for food.
The Ancestral Puebloans built pueblos after success in gathering, trade, subsistence crop farming, and hunting. They continued to work the land creating safer and more permanent structures in the alcoves of the cliff walls around the end of the 12th century.
No true explanation has been found to explain why the Puebloans moved south to land in New Mexico and Arizona. Many theorists say prolonged droughts are most likely the cause. Pre 550 CE, nomadic Paleo-Indians, Mesa Verde Archaic, and Basketmakers lived for short periods on the land within the national park.
See a magnificent petroglyph panel.
Many petroglyphs in the park are not open to the public or easily accessible. Find a superb panel of storytelling along the Petroglyph Panel trail. We recommend taking the 2.4-mile route from the Spruce Canyon Trail and then up across the mesa top with views of Spruce House and back to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. The 35-foot panel contains handprints, spirals, and animal and human figures.
Visit the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum before or after hiking the Petroglyph Panel trail. The museum is one of the oldest in the park system, built between 1922 and 1925. Using the same stone the Puebloans used to create the cliff dwellings, the museum was constructed to house a collection of pottery, sandals, and jewelry found in and around the park’s boundaries. The Museum is part of the Mesa Verde Administrative District National Historic Landmark.
The original park road is now a scenic trail.
When visiting Mesa Verde with kids, consider hiking the original road park road for views of Montezuma Valley. The 2 miles out and back Knife Edge Trail shows the true ecology of the park. Grab an interpretive brochure at the beginning of the trail. The trail is numbered with information about the flowers, trees, and animal life along the hike. Situated on a bluff, you can still see asphalt remnants of the park road that was built in 1914. We meandered on this hike, truly taking in and enjoying the views of Sleeping Ute Mountain, the La Sals, and the Point Lookout Sandstone over the layers of Mancos Shale.
Star gaze at one of the newest designated International Dark Sky Parks
Take in the night sky in the park for a real treat. MVNP was named an International Dark Sky Park in 2021. Note that some park roads close at sunset, so we recommend Morefield Campground as an excellent place to spend some time in the park after dark. My daughter and I took in the Perseids Meteor Shower in August by lying on the grass surrounding the Far View Lodge, where we were staying in the park. We saw a few dozen meteors streak across the dark sky.
Get up close with the sites
Book a tour of the cliff dwellings. The schedule runs seasonally and varies based on construction and safety within the park. Tours are held from early May to mid to late October and can be booked 14 days in advance through recreation.gov. There are two categories of tours available- ranger-assisted and ranger-guided. Ranger-assisted tours, including Long House and Cliff Palace, are timed-entry. Rangers are on hand to answer questions. Ranger-guided tours are more in-depth in smaller groups, where rangers guide you through the sites, including Mug House, Balcony House, and Square Tower. These tours are more rigorous. Prepare for exposure, to climb ladders, and scramble rocks. Our tour recommendations are Square Tower, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House early season or in the fall, when tours aren’t full for a more intimate experience.
Dine on local fare
Even if you aren’t staying within the park, enjoy dinner at the Metate Room Restaurant next to the Far View Lodge. Local ingredients and sustainable fare are always on the menu. You can also take in a clear view of the sunset from the patio or most tables within the restaurant. The Metate Room Restaurant is open seasonally from the end of May to the beginning of September. We recommend stopping here after a day of exploring the park.
Walk your way through history
Do a personal walking tour of Wetherill Mesa from May to October. Visit Step House for a self tour of a cliff dwelling along with petroglyphs. Rangers are on hand at Step House to answer questions. View Long House, Nordenskiold Site 16 and Kodak House from viewpoints. Take the Badger Trail to view four mesa sites-pithouses and pueblos. There is no shade on this walk, so plan to start early. This route is open to bikes. Dogs are allowed on some trails. The whole loop is 5.2 miles long, although you can hike shorter segments. Plan for fewer crowds as you stroll through the past.
One loop takes you through 700 years of history
When visiting Mesa Verde with kids, especially if they’re little, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop to take in 700 years of history. Pullouts and short paved walks offer views of the sites, including pithouses, pueblos, Square Tower, and even Cliff Palace from Sun Point. Listen with an audio accompaniment for a more detailed look into the life of the Basketmakers, Puebloans, and Freemont People.
Ranger programs are free and educational
Attend a free evening ranger program over the summer at the Morefield Amphitheater. In 1907, archeologist Jesse Fewkes began giving campfire talks at the park. Today, rangers continue those talks with a weather-permitting 45-60 minute presentation about the park. Additional cultural programs run through the summer, including dance performances.
Light up the holidays at this special event.
Spend an evening attending the Holiday Open House and Luminaria event held annually on a Thursday evening in early December. Luminarias light trails and pathways. while select cliff dwellings will be lit for a magical experience. Hot chocolate, cookies, and chili will be served, and music plays at Far View Terrace. Admission to the park after 4 p.m. is free for this event that runs until 9 p.m.
Leave No Trace
The concept of Leave No Trace and respecting archeological sites and artifacts cannot be stressed more than while visiting Mesa Verde. Following these tips gives you a good start as a responsible visitor to our great national parks and monuments. These steps will help the parks remain open to future generations.
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
One of the best ways to begin to understand the ways of the Ancestral Puebloans and Freemont People is to view what remains of their life along the Colorado Plateau from 550 to 1300 CE. Visiting Mesa Verde with kids is like walking through the past. It is hard not to appreciate the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and hard work of the Native Americans who once called the land within the park home.
More National Park Guides
Looking for more family-friendly guides to America’s national parks? See the complete list here.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.