After Moab, we drove a few hours to Cortex, Colorado for a visit to Mesa Verde National Park.
Have you heard of Mesa Verde? This is a stop that our oldest son discovered in a book while researching where to visit and we are so glad we made it part of the itinerary.
Mesa Verde is in Montezuma County and is an archeologic site filled with Ancestral Puebloan homes from around 1200 AD.
We began our time at the park at the visitors center to watch a 20 minute film giving us the background of this area and what we were about to explore.
Next, we took advantage of the Junior Ranger Program that each National Park offers and the kids filled out their workbooks.
This was our first time completing the Junior Ranger activities and was a great way for the kids to feel engaged with the history and culture of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Once the kids finished their workbooks, we presented them to the Ranger and she talked through a bunch of the answers before giving them Junior Ranger badges and leading them through a pledge.
A quick note about the National Park Rangers: we have been so impressed. Each of the Rangers we have met have been so kind, knowledgable about the Park they work in and passionate about the work they do. They truly make the National Park experience so much richer.
Just outside the visitor center is the first example of an Ancestral Puebloan home called a cliff dwelling.
They literally built homes in the cleft of the cliff using handmade sandstone bricks.
Here’s a pulled back shot so you can see the scale:
The cliffs go straight down and are topped with a mesa. Those who lived in the houses climbed up and down from the mesa top into the cliff houses using carved out footholds in the stone to hunt, farm, trade. Archeologists are not completely sure what led the Ancestral Puebloans to move their homes from the traditional Pit Houses to Cliff Dwellings, but most believe it was for protection from the elements (shade from the hot desert sun and tucked away from winter snowfall) and possibly for security from neighboring tribes.
To get a better look, we booked a $3 per person tour with a park ranger to visit The Balcony House.
There are three available cliff dwelling tours and we chose the most adventurous tour – with a 35 foot ladder to climb and a 12 foot tunnel to crawl through – because kids like adventure, right?!
We lined up for our tour with a group of about 50 and met our guide, Ranger Paul, who was like a walking history book. He was engaging, a fabulous speaker and shared so many details about the Ancestral Puebloans. What they ate. How they lived. Why they mysteriously left the houses around 1270.
The kids were all very interested and each one took the opportunity to ask Ranger Paul questions. “How did they brush their teeth?” was the most notable one :)
To get up in The Balcony House, you climb a tall, 32 foot ladder. Up a cliff. Without nets to catch you. It’s a bit thrilling and really not as difficult or scary as it sounds; Audrey girl made it up and was quite proud.
Once up the ladder, you stand right there in the middle of the home, built over 700 years ago. It’s the craziest thing! You can touch the stones, peek into the rooms, climb the stairs. We were so amazed that they let groups walk through these ancient sites!
Lest you think we were alone, here is what our group really looked like:
We just hung back at the end of the group so we could snap photos once all the people cleared out.
The Balcony House likely housed 15-30 people (probably two families) along with their pet turkeys (there are turkey footprints in the stone!).
At some point after the house was complete, a stone tunnel was added at the exit, perhaps as a means of extra security. It is about 12 feet long and 18 inches wide. You crawl through on your hands and knees and hope you squeeze through.
We left the tour and our whole Mesa Verde park experience with such a deep appreciation and fascination with these ingenious Ancestral Puebloan people. Their innovation, resourcefulness and tradition is incredibly inspiring and so worthy to remember and honor.
Of all the National Parks we’ve visited so far, I think this was my favorite. I just loved the history.
Should you find yourself in the Four Corners region, we highly recommend a day stop in Mesa Verde.