An Overview of Mesa Verde National Park: Part 1

Each year our family drives through Cortez, Colorado, on our way back and forth to Albuquerque, and every year we talk about wanting to stop to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. This winter while I was dreaming up travel plans for 2016, I put Mesa Verde at the top of the list. We went, we learned so much, and we loved it! Let me share with you some helpful information about visiting the park...

The Entrance
I don't always find it's that important to give driving directions to places that are fairly well known, but Mesa Verde deserves to be an exception. While it is very easy to find off the main highway, and the signs are well placed, I heard many times while we were there from people who had no idea the distance they would be covering. 

The fee booth is approximately 1 mile from the highway, and then for the next 21 miles you will be ascending up the side of the mesa, driving 35-45 mph.  A tunnel takes you through part of the mountain and then back-and-forth switchbacks will keep you alert. Don't panic. The road is not scary. At all. The views over the valleys in all directions are breathtaking. Nonetheless, be prepared. The drive from the entrance to the primary area of the park at a slow speed can take up to 45 minutes.

Mesa Verde National Park
View as you approach the switchbacks, driving in to Mesa Verde National Park
The Visitor Center(s)
Officially, Mesa Verde has one visitor center and it is at the very entrance to the park. It is actually located before the fee booth, so you can stop in to look at the displays without having to pay to get into the park. The rangers here can answer any questions you have, and this also is where you can buy tickets for the ranger-guided tours and activities. There is a gift shop inside and we have it on good authority (a cranky employee at the museum) that this gift shop gets sweatshirts and other items that the other park shops don't get. 

Observations about this visitor center? The outdoor sculptures are beautiful. The bathrooms are clean. The displays are interesting, but be prepared that the native people are portrayed scantily clothed in life-size form. While care was taken to appropriately cover parts that ought to be covered, we still had to answer awkward questions from our boys about why nobody was wearing clothing.

At the far opposite end of the park from the visitor center is the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. You will want to stop here. Most of the Mesa Verde Junior Ranger activities can be completed inside and around the museum. There are intricate dioramas to look at and several rooms of artifacts which have been discovered in the local area. I don't want to spoil the surprise for you, but will give you a heads up that a very important, very well-photographed installation in the park is literally right outside the door of the museum. My brother-in-law didn't know, and almost hopped back into the car without noticing what was right there peeking through the trees.

Visiting Mesa Verde

There are national parks I think are worthy of the expense to stay in them. I'm not convinced Mesa Verde is one of them. The views from the one hotel in the park are breathtaking (we could see 40 miles south to Ship Rock). And since it is located 15 miles in to that 21 miles drive, you would be able to get a head start on all the tourists coming to join you later in the day. Cortez, however, is such a close distance from the park, with dozens of hotel and cabin options at an affordable price, I think it is a luxury you can pass on.

There is also camping available at the park, located only 4 miles from the highway turnoff. The scenery from the campground is of the green valleys surrounding the park, so please don't expect to see cliff dwellings while snuggled up warm in your sleeping bag. There are, however, plenty of amenities nearby with a grocery store, gas station, and laundry located in the campground village.

Colorado landscapes
View near Mesa Verde's Far View Lodge

We have picnic packing deeply engraved within us, and so I was pleased to find a good number of picnic areas sprinkled throughout Mesa Verde. Most of them, of course, are located near major attractions (like the museum), but I'm confident saying it will not be hard for you to pull off and let the family out to stretch their legs and partake of some home-prepared goodness. 

If you prefer to let someone else make and clean up the cooking mess, there are 4 options inside the park ranging from cafe and grill to a nationally recognized fine dining restaurant. I imagine in the height of the summer, any of these will get quite crowded, so be prepared for a line and a wait. 

Picnic in the park
Picnic in the Park
When Should We Go?
This is the question giving me the greatest heartache. You know I am a fan of traveling when nobody else is, avoiding the crowds and peak travel seasons. That's what we did for this trip, traveling to Mesa Verde the first weekend of April, and in many ways it was the perfect time to go. The temperatures were perfect (though they did have snow fall and melt three days before we got there). The sun was shining and the skies were blue. Even better, the crowds were small and we had no problem finding parking or waiting in lines to see what we wanted to see.

That being said, a huge reason we discovered NOT to visit Mesa Verde in the off-season were the tours. None of the ranger-led hikes that take you into the cliff dwellings begin operating until at least the middle of April, and several not until late in May. Also, several of the driving loops also stay closed until later in the spring. While there was plenty to see and explore without the tours and extra driving, I absolutely believe exploring first-hand inside of a cliff dwelling is what will make this park come alive. We will be going back specifically to do that, I guarantee.

The good news is that even in the peak of summer, Mesa Verde is not an over-populated park. Of the 59 parks, it routinely ranks in the bottom third lowest for attendance numbers. My advice still would be to watch for less popular times, but maybe instead of going before and after everybody is there, look up the tour open and close dates and plan a trip for close to the beginning and end of those.

Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde
We had the park to ourselves, but try to visit when the tours are open so you can get closer than we did.
Do you think I'm forgetting?
If you don't know what Mesa Verde is famous for, this post is probably really confusing. If you do, you must be wondering what I'm thinking not telling you about the part of Mesa Verde National Park that everybody comes to see. Let me promise you the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings are as stunning in person as you'd expect them to be. What surprised me is that the cliff dwellings are not the only thing in the park to see. There are remarkably well preserved structures that tell the story of a people who thrived in the area for generations. 

In my next post I will share about the landscape atop the mesa, the pueblos and kivas, more details about the tours, and yes, the cliff dwellings. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below or on our Facebook page, and I'll share what I know!

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