Everyone needs a vacation, but with a little Sprout and a shoestring budget, our family has about one reasonable option: camping! Good thing it’s something we love to do. Around the holidays, our New Mexico family expressed interest in joining us on a camping trip in the mid-summer somewhere in the Four-Corners region. We eventually settled on planning a four-night camping trip at Mesa Verde because, not only is it a geographically unique and naturally beautiful feature, but it is culturally significant, with over 600 ruins of cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans — including the Cliff Palace, the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.
We planned to meet our family on Wednesday afternoon, but because the campground at Mesa Verde does not allow patrons to reserve specific campsites, combined with the fact that large, shaded campsites are a commodity at Mesa Verde, we left Logan on Tuesday afternoon, hoping to arrive early Wednesday to scavenge empty sites. To our surprise, from Logan, we were able to drive all the way to Dolores, CO in one sitting — only 25 minutes from the N.P. entrance. We parked at the McPhee Recreational Area campground in San Juan National Forest for the night and arranged our Volvo’s cargo space for sleeping. We slipped Sprout from her car seat into her hammock-bed without fuss, and we slept in our bags with our feet in the space under her. Aaron was somewhat disappointed with the newest car-camping purchase — mesh window covers — which did not provide enough fresh air flow through the night and provoked undesired dreams of hungry animals popping in for a snack during the wee hours. (Jacqui felt there was sufficient air and the covers kept bugs out wonderfully. We have different natural thermostats.) Otherwise, the campground was quite clean and inexpensive — a great place if we find the need to stop nearby in the future.
We entered Mesa Verde by 8 am and quickly made our way to the campground. We staked out Zuni Loop for shaded sites, but were a little disappointed to find that the sites were spaced very close together, although there were plenty of Gambel oaks to provide some shade. Two large tents and three kiddos under age 8 would not fit easily on any of these sites. However, downhill from the Zuni Loop (on the Pueblo Loop), we found a more-than-adequate site with shade and plenty of space. We set up our tent and hammock, and chilled out until Sprout was ready to nap. After a failed attempt at a family snooze in the sun-warmed tent, we hopped in the car for a jaunt through the park, lulling her to sleep on the twisting road over the mesa top.
After nap, we met our family at the Visitor & Research Center just outside the park gate. This is where you can reserve spots on hikes to the ruins, which are mostly ranger-led in order to dissuade disrespectful behavior in the park’s cliff dwellings. We decided to buy tickets to hike to Long House on Thursday and Cliff Palace on Friday. We are very glad it worked out this way because Cliff Palace was quite impressive even after seeing Long House. Even though the dwellings are only a few miles from each other as the eagle flies, communication was limited between the two communities due to the rugged terrain.
Long House Cliff Dwelling
We were in time for our tour of the Long House on Wetherill Mesa after a leisurely breakfast of burritos for eight. The drive to the visitor’s pavilion was about 45 minutes from the camp. We had a small, early-lunch picnic, then started our tour with a guided walk through the fire-charred terrain. Despite it barren appearance, the ranger explained how the Ancestral Puebloans farmed the mesa and pointed out some of the hardy plants they would have used in their daily lives that still inhabit the area today. After about one mile in the sun on the mesa top, we started to descend into the canyon toward the cliff dwelling. There were a few places where the ranger pointed out finger and toe holds left from when the dwelling was inhabited. Now there are stairs for the modern visitor.
The dwelling was something to behold. We spent about 45 minutes walking through it, guided by the ranger. It was a bit challenging with the kids because all visitors are asked to refrain from touching any wall built by the original inhabitants — which means any wall that was not solid rock and part of the cliffside. Sprout definitely wanted to explore more freely than she was allowed. Our 8-year-old nephew was very interested, the discussion held his attention. The 5-year-old was between the 8-year-old and Sprout in her interest. We spun it to all of them that we were going to walk through an ancient castle, which all of them understood before we arrived. They were all awestruck in their own ways, and so were we. We would definitely go back again with young kids.
On Wetherill Mesa, there are a few other things to do, but on our hike out of the canyon, we noticed some ominous clouds, which reminded us that we had neglected to put the rainflies on our tents that morning. We scurried back, and fortunately didn’t have any soggy problems waiting when we returned. Our afternoon was relaxed with a friendly game of Crazy 8’s and kids marching near the perimeter of the campsite.
Cliff Palace Cliff Dwelling & Chapin Mesa
The next morning, our tour was scheduled a bit earlier, and we all slept a little later. However, the Cliff Palace on Chapin Mesa was a little faster to get to. We still arrived at our tour in time. The Cliff Palace tour starts immediately above the dwelling, so less effort is necessary to see this extraordinary construction. Also, after late morning, the palace is in the direct sun, and (according to the ranger) can reach temps well over 100 in the afternoon. Because we scheduled our tour in the morning, we felt fortunate that we could enjoy the tour in relative comfort. Despite the elevation, Mesa Verde still feels quite hot in late July (especially if you are in the direct sunlight).
The Cliff Palace itself was more impressive than the Long House, despite the restrictions about entering the Cliff Palace’s individual rooms. Basically, the tour remains in the central square (glorified patio) of the town. Like we said above, the two tours have their own distinctive feels. Of course, the Cliff Palace has an impressive tower and magnificent paintings that are well-preserved. Other areas of the Cliff Palace are not as well preserved, which is why walking through the inner parts of the dwelling is prohibited.
You could easily spend an entire day exploring Chapin Mesa, with unguided tours of ruins, hiking trails, and the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. We, however, knew that pushing the kids to do everything would likely lead to an unpleasant evening. So, we opted to have lunch and briefly visit the Archaeological Museum before heading back to camp. Sprout, who was already exhausted and ready for a nap, was most interested in the air conditioning vent and the preserved birds. Aaron and I would have happily spent more time in the museum if it weren’t for our sleepy child as the museum had a fascinating collection of artifacts.
We spent another pleasant evening enjoying the company of family and allowed the kids to stay up late to view the magnificent night sky. We planned to drive to Durango, Colorado after helping our NM family pack up their tent and equipment in the morning. Durango is a quick 45 minutes from the park entrance and has a free antique train museum adjacent to the Historic Train Depot.
Storms rolled in on our final night at Mesa Verde, allowing us to have a second test of Sprout’s car-hammock. Though she took some time to fall asleep, overall it was a success as she slept until nearly 10am the next morning, allowing our equipment plenty of time to dry before we packed it all up.