I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about Mesa Verde National Park before I visited two years ago. I knew there were some preserved ruins; I knew it was a World Heritage Site. Beyond that, it had never stuck out in my mind like other “showier” parks, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. But our southwest itinerary that summer had us driving from the Grand Canyon though Monument Valley and up to Arches National Park, so stopping at Mesa Verde just made sense. I figured we’d drop in just long enough to say we’d done it–check it off our National Parks list.
What I didn’t expect was to fall in love.
This little gem of a park grabbed hold of our hearts and didn’t let go.
We got into Cortez, CO a little after 4:30 pm and raced against the clock from the park entrance to the Visitor Center, trying to get there before it closed. I’d read online that the only way to enter the cliff dwellings was through a ranger-led tour, and having just come off the Disneyland length lines at Grand Canyon the day before, I was worried about not being able to get tickets. The ranger actually laughed a little when I expressed my concerns. Turns out we were the first family to secure tickets for the Cliff Palace tour the next morning! We picked up Junior Ranger booklets for the kids and called it a night.
With tickets in hand, we arrived at the fenced overlook for the Cliff Palace tour the next morning.
Words can’t describe the sense of awe and reverence I felt in seeing Cliff Palace for the first time. It was so much larger and more intricate than I’d imagined. We watched as other tour participants from different countries caught their first glimpse of the cliff dwellings and gasped or exclaimed in excitement. We all exchanged smiles that required no translation to understand: this tour was going to be amazing.
Our knowledgeable ranger, Sharon, guided us down a set of wooden ladders into the dwelling. Prior to the tour, I’d worried that the whole experience might be too educational to sustain the kids’ interest for an hour, but I needn’t have worried. The kids were just as fascinated as I was with how the ancient Puebloans conceived and built such amazing structures that seemed to have defied time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Sharon shared that their preferred liquid for mixing mortar was urine! Sharon shared so many interesting stories, facts, and theories about Cliff Palace that the ninety minute tour flew by in a flash. I was amazed at how close we were able to get to the kivas; in certain areas, we were even allowed to touch and walk through structures.
One memory that sticks out in my mind was the colorful art we saw painted inside a tall tower structure. Sharon said that this was a clear measure of the vitality of the Puebloan civilization; art only exists in societies where all other basic needs have already been met. All I know is, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to the ancient Puebloans who’d lived and thrived there so long ago.
After a quick lunch, we walked through Spruce Tree House, which is the only cliff dwelling visitors are allowed to enter without joining a ranger-guided tour. The kids had a great time descending a long ladder into a kiva-like structure that once served as a gathering place. The two rangers posted at Spruce Tree House went out of their way to engage visitors and share knowledge. We had a wonderful chat with one ranger, who upon learning we were from Hawaii, reminisced with us about his stint as a park ranger at Volcanoes National Park a few years earlier. Unfortunately, it seems that visitors are no longer able to tour Spruce Tree House; the NPS website says there are safety concerns due to falling rocks. It’s such a shame as as this dwelling was a real highlight for us.
We were looking for a good afternoon hike, and the lovely ranger we chatted with suggested Petroglyph Point Trail, an easy to moderate 2.4 mile hike. The kids had a blast scrambling over rocks along the way.
What I recall the most was not the petroglyphs (impressive though they were); instead, I remember not passing a single person the entire 2 hours we were on the trail! We found such peaceful solitude on that trail and the kind of stillness and quiet that allowed us to fully connect with the essence of the park. Along the way, we came across many ruins that were not as well-preserved as Spruce Tree House–not even close–but these ruins felt special to us because it almost felt as though we’d discovered them. Having the trail to ourselves only heightened that feeling. The view was extraordinary as well. We were so high up that the kids took to jumping and cheering, “We’re on top of the world!” I couldn’t have agreed with them more.
After our hike, we completed the kids’ junior ranger badges and spent an hour or two driving around Sun Temple and other points of interest along the Chapin Mesa loop. Our itinerary called for us to return to Cortez by late afternoon, but none of us could bring ourselves to leave this beautiful park just yet. We decided to stay for dinner at Far View Cafe inside the park. We enjoyed the casual cafeteria-style fare and especially loved the incredible view (or perhaps I should say “far view”–clearly, the lodge was aptly named!) from the tall picture windows lining the wall. Determined to make the most of our final stolen moments at Mesa Verde, we drove to Park Point, the highest point in the park with an elevation of over 8,000 feet, and watched the sun sink behind the mountains. It was a memorable end to an incredible day.
True, there are probably grander parks in the National Park System than Mesa Verde. And certainly, there are showier parks than Mesa Verde. But I’d argue that it’s precisely the quieter nature of the park that serves as its biggest draw. It beckons you with the kind of intimacy that can be harder to find at larger parks. This little park won our hearts and became an all-time favorite of our family’s because of the experiences we shared there–experiences woven into the collective tapestry of our hearts and minds. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t budget enough time here. Given the chance, we could have easily spent 2-3 days (or more) exploring the other cliff dwellings, mesas, and trails. Don’t let my mistake be yours! Explore Mesa Verde to the fullest, and I think you just might find that same quiet magic there that we did.