Mesa Verde National Park is a unique national park sure to capture the imagination of your kids. Kids have a chance to get up close and personal with the ancestral Pueblo people’s cliffside dwellings, including clambering down ladders and walking cliffside trails.
Mesa Verde National Park is in Colorado, but near enough to Utah to include in a Mighty 5 or Grand Circle road trip.
Mesa Verde National Park has a different feel than the other national parks in the Four Corners region. Instead of unique natural features, it is the unique dwellings nestled in the cliffs that draw you in.
Learning more about the ancestral Pueblo cultures also reminded us that they didn’t disappear. Their descendants are thriving in the modern Pueblo tribes of today such as Hopi and Zuni.
2021 Closures! Cliff Palace Loop road is closed. You cannot tour Cliff Palace or Balcony House. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is also closed for renovations.
Planning a Trip to Mesa Verde with Kids
Know Before You Go
Mesa Verde is divided into two regions – Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. If you only have one day, focus on Chapin Mesa. Add a second day to visit Wetherill Mesa.
The main sites are a long drive from the park entrance and visitor center. Chapin Mesa is a 45-60 minute drive. Wetherill Mesa is a 75 minute drive.
Book cliff dwelling tours in advance. Free tickets are released 14 days in advance on recreation.gov.
Start your visit at the Vistor and Research Center just inside the park entrance. You can pick up maps and junior rangers books. The exhibits here are worth a short visit.
High altitude and sunny weather quickly lead to dehydration. Wear sunprotection and drink lots of water.
RV and trailer restrictions. Non-campers must leave all towed vehicles at the trailer overflow lot near the park entrance. No vehicles over 25 feet (8 m) are allowed on the road to Wetherill Mesa.
Fill up the car before you enter the park! The only (expensive!) gas is at Morefield Campground and you will drive at least 50 miles inside the park.
When to Visit
Mesa Verde National Park is open year-round. However, the cliff-dwellings tours are closed from late September to late May. We highly recommend visiting during the months when all the facilities are open.
We visited in early September and had beautiful daytime weather and no crowds! You can see details on park opening hours here.
Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park with Kids
If you only have one day in Mesa Verde, focus on Chapin Mesa. You can see all the main sights, including a cliff dwelling tour, in one day. With a second day, you can add on Wetherill Mesa activities.
Tour a Cliff Dwelling on Chapin Mesa
Carved into sheer cliffs, cliff dwellings are the star of the show at Mesa Verde National Park. No trip to Mesa Verde with kids would feel complete without a cliff dwelling tour. Wait until your kids find out they can go inside!
You can only visit the cliff dwellings on a ranger-led tour. Free ranger-led tours can be booked on recreation.gov, up to 14 days in advance.
With younger kids, I recommend one cliff dwelling tour. With teens, you may want to consider two. If you add an extra day for Wetherill Mesa, one at each location would work for any age group.
Tickets online or in-person? You may have read elsewhere that tickets are available in-person at the visitor center. That’s old info. Tickets used to be available in-person only 2 days in advance. Now they are online only 14 days in advance. Plan accordingly.
Our favorite cliff dwelling tour is Balcony House on Chapin Mesa. This tour is described as an “adventurous cliff dwelling tour” and we like an adventure! The adventure comes primarily in the form of the two long ladders on an open rock face and crawling through a 12-foot long tunnel. We had an excellent ranger guide – informative and dry-witted.
Cliff Palace is the most popular cliff dwelling. Over 100 people used to live in this dwelling, the largest known one in North America.
Other cliff dwellings you can visit are Square Tower House, Mug House, and Spring House. Check out the descriptions of the various cliff dwellings and the physical requirements of the tours to pick one that’s right for your family.
Drive the Mesa Top Loop to Far View Sites
The Mesa Top Loop features 10 stopping points. You can even listen to a National Parks audio-tour on the way. We recommend stopping at Far View Sites, Sun Point View, and Square Tower House Overlook.
One of the activities in the Junior Ranger book is a Mesa Top Loop scavenger hunt.
The Far View sites are completely different from the cliff dwellings. Ancestral Pueblo people lived in these cliff-top villages 200 years before some of them moved to the cliff alcoves.
The Far View sites are interesting, but depending on your kids, your mileage may vary. We visited Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients the day before as part of our Grand Circle road trip. The kids were more excited to go back to the campground and play hide and seek than look at more pit houses and tower houses.
Sun Point View is a stop on the Mesa Top Loop Road. The viewpoint has free telescopes for a great view across to Cliff Palace.
Catch a Glimpse of Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House is the best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Sadly, rock falls forced the dwelling to close to visitors. You can catch a good view from an overlook near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Earn a Junior Ranger Badge
Your kids can pick up their Mesa Verde Junior Ranger book at the Visitor and Research Center near the park entrance. Gentle Rain, a fictional girl who lived here 750 years ago, shares her life and culture through the book’s activities.
Aspiring Junior Rangers must complete the “Being a Good Steward” activity plus 3 additional activities. The Junior Ranger’s age will determine how deep they need to go in each activity.
Once you complete the activities, Junior Rangers can get sworn in at either the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum on Chapin Mesa or the Visitor and Research Center near the park entrance.
If you aren’t familiar with the National Park’s Junior Ranger program, you can read our complete guide.
Mail a Postcard
Mailing a postcard is a small, but cool act. Mesa Verde National Park has its own zip code and post office. In fact, it’s the second smallest post office in the USA.
The Mesa Verde postmaster was extremely friendly and even let the kids cancel the stamps “Mesa Verde NP” on the postcards they sent.
In case you’re wondering, the smallest post office is in Ochopee, FL, and does not even have a bathroom for the postmaster!
You will need to stay inside the park to enjoy this one. If you do, let the kids stay up late for some old-fashion star gazing. No telescope needed!
Once our flash monsoon storm cleared, we enjoyed clear skies and, at 8500 feet (2600 meters), amazing views of the Milky Way, Mars, and more stars than you can imagine.
People say that Bryce is the best park in that area for astronomy. Bryce was great, but we thought Mesa Verde was better.
A Few Words on Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
We stopped at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and watched the introductory video. Normally, we like the overview videos at the national parks. This one felt like an outdated recap of what we already learned on the Balcony House tour. The museum exhibits themselves were underwhelming, other than the large dioramas of the technological progression of the ancestral Puebloans.
I would only stop here if you aren’t able to tour a Cliff Dwelling.
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is closed for renovations in 2021. I’m hoping it will be fresher and more interesting when it reopens.
Spend a Day at Wetherill Mesa
If you have a second day at Mesa Verde National Park, head to Wetherill Mesa. At Wetherill Mesa, you can:
Visit Step House cliff dwelling (the only cliff dwelling you can visit without a tour)
Hike or bike the 6 mile (10 km) Long House Loop trail to Badger House Community, and Nordenskiold #16 trail.
Where to Stay at Mesa Verde National Park with Kids
Camping at Morefield Campground
Morefield Campground, 4 miles inside the park, is a huge campground (267 sites!) open from early May to mid-October. Two of the loops are tent-only.
The campground has a store, coin-operated laundry, complimentary showers, and The Knife’s Edge Cafe. From Memorial Day to Labor Day there is also a Ranger station at the campground.
We camped in Morefield in early September. We felt like we had the huge campground to ourselves. Be forewarned, the first afternoon we had a thunderstorm and monsoon rain (yes, the desert rains in the southwest are officially called “monsoon”) that tested the waterproof-ness of our tent. Thankfully, it passed the test!
Far View Lodge
15 miles into the park is Far View lodge. We did not stay here, but it’s in your budget, it is the closest lodging to Chapin and Wetherill Mesa. Far View Lodge is open from mid-April to mid-October.
The “fancy” Metate Room restaurant is located here with a more casual Far View Lounge upstairs. Both are only open for dinner. We ate at the Far View Lounge and the view was, well, far…and incredible!
A short walk down the road is the cafeteria-style Far View Terrace, which serves some combination of breakfast, lunch, and dinner depending on the time of year. A coffee and ice cream bar is in the same building.
Outside the Park
Given the long drive to Chapin Mesa or Wetherill Mesa from the park entrance, I recommend staying in the park if you can. If that’s not possible, then try to stay in the nearby towns of Mancusco or Cortez.
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