When we set out on our big summer trip last year, Mesa Verde National Park was actually on our list. It was in the general direction we had planned to go, and it was actually one of the few places we visited that was on the original itinerary.
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado, west of Durango. For us, it was the perfect stop in between northwestern New Mexico, and a little campground outside of Dolores, Colorado, called Priest Gulch Campground. We planned to just spend a few hours at the park in between these two campgrounds, and for us, that was all the time we needed.
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Mesa Verde National Park was created to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, and to educate the general population on the lives of these incredible cliff dwelling tribes. The park contains 600 cliff dwellings that date from 600-1300 AD, and are located near the top of Mesa Verde, aptly named for being a lush (relatively speaking) table rock formation in an otherwise dry area.
We arrived before lunchtime and stopped at the visitors center. We knew we weren’t going to have time for a guided bus tour, but we still wanted to see what we could see. Trailers and towed vehicles are not allowed past the Morefield Campground (which isn’t too far from the visitors center), and we noticed several people with campers unhooking in the main parking lot. However, we decided to ask a park ranger about unhooking, and what our options were. He told us that while a lot of people just unhook in the main parking lot (thus clogging up the parking lot, or worse–leaving your trailer there to get blocked in by someone on a bus tour), there is a parking lot just beyond the visitors center that is specifically set aside for trailers and towed vehicles to unhook and stay while visitors use their tow vehicles to explore the park. Done! We were so glad we asked! Not only was the parking lot ideal, but we had it all to ourselves.
Once unhooked, we drove ourselves along the main road, stopping at all the lookouts to see the cliff dwellings from a distance. We eventually arrived at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, that has a bookstore, a museum (as the name implies) complete with a video about the park, and where our kids completed their Junior Ranger requirements for their badges. We walked to the lookout that features the Spruce Tree House, took some photos, had lunch at the restaurant, and continued the loop, again stopping at the lookouts.
When you don’t take the official tour, sometimes you find yourself making up your own stories about the area. For instance, to the left of one of the large dwellings, there was a smaller dwelling. We were saying things like, “those are the people who had a problem with the Mesa Verde Community HOA and decided to move away and build West Mesa Verde Community. And it was gated.” (By the way, this is also how we narrate animal shows, such as Planet Earth.)
The elevations in the park range from 6,900 to 8,572 feet, and quite windy at the top of the mesa. Even in June, you’ll want a light jacket, but this weather can be really deceitful. While it was cool and windy, the sun and dry air had us grabbing our water bottles and even filling them up at the restaurant.
If we are ever in the area again, I’m not sure if we’d go back to do a guided tour. They were really crowded, but I know they are amazing (which of course is why they are so popular). However, if you want to do a similar tour, there is also Bandelier National Monument, not far away just outside of White Rock, New Mexico, so you’ve got options.
Having said that, though, if you are ever in the area, perhaps on your way from New Mexico to Utah, I’d definitely recommend visiting Mesa Verde National Park. Even if you don’t do a tour, you’ll be awed by the landscape, the views, and the cliff dwellings. Contemplating the fact that people literally carved their communities out of rock faces gives fresh perspective to the lives we live today.
Have you ever been to Mesa Verde National Park? Did you take a tour? How was it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!