Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, and Aztec National Monument are all within a couple of hours drive of each other. And they each offer a unique perspective. So if you are visiting one, you might consider visiting them all.
The ruins all share a similary history, culture and time period. But each of the parks itself is different. At Chaco, you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the ruins, walking through them and exploring them. Chaco’s ruins are huge in scale and grandeur and most are very well-preserved.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument, situated right between Mesa Verde to the north and Chaco to the south, provides a different experience. First of all, it’s very small, probably under a half mile square, where Chaco and Mesa Verde both cover enormous areas. Second, the largest kiva at Aztec has been restored, so visitors can experience what the Native Americans likely would have.
The place was named ‘Aztec ruins’ by the first explorers to the area, but all of the ruins are Puebloan, just like the other ruins in the area. I was confused when I first read about it, so I thought I’d clarify that for you.
Here are photographs of the reconstructed kiva at Aztec National Monument.
These ruins surround the reconstructed kiva.
My kids enjoyed exploring the interiors (so dark and small — how on earth did they live like this?) and using tools, like this metate for grinding corn.
Aztec Ruins National Monument was interesting and enjoyable. We spent about an hour exploring it. It is the smallest (obviously) of the parks we visited, but it was still worth visiting. Mesa Verde, our next stop, took two entire days to explore!
Mesa Verde, in southwest Colorado, adds adventure and excitement to the tours of the ruins. Because most of the ruins in this park were built in crags in the cliff face, below the surface of the mesa, they are hard to get to. Thus, the tours are much more adventurous than in the other parks we visited. All the tours at Mesa Verde are ranger-guided instead of self-guided, so you can’t get up close and personal with the ruins. The park rangers ask that you not touch the ruins at all.
We all (except Kendel) loved climbing the ladders, squeezing through tunnels and climbing cliffs. Of course, it’s all completely safe!
You’ll need to purchase tickets for your tours at the Visitors Center near the park’s entrance. Tickets are currently $5 each, and there are three tours that require tickets: Balcony House, Cliff House and Long House.
Balcony House Tour
We started our Mesa Verde adventure at Balcony House. It ended up our very favorite tour because it was so much fun to climb all the ladders and squeeze through the tunnel at the end.
The very first member of our tour to climb the ladder wore sweatpants and put his water bottle in the pocket, which pulled his pants down as he climbed. Not kidding. He was a really big guy, and I felt so embarrassed for him. The park ranger waiting at the top kept yelling for people to keep climbing, but nobody wanted to see his large behind, so we all hung back and waited for that guy to get to the top and make necessary outfit adjustments.
Moral of this story: don’t wear sweatpants or any elastic-waisted pants when climbing a ladder that requires both hands, and certainly don’t put a heavy water bottle in your pocket. Enough said!
Here are a few pictures of our Balcony House tour:
The exit tunnel made me sweat a bit. I think they said it was 16′ long, and the middle had a large boulder rising up from the floor that you had to crawl over. The last picture above is my 13-year-old, who is about 5’7″ and 90 lbs. I was right behind her and she was literally shaking that she would get stuck. I’m twice her size! Luckily, it was no problem!
Kendel was right behind me, and at 6’9″ and 300 lbs, he literally couldn’t crawl and just had to scoot. I couldn’t help laughing as he scooted out — it was like a stone wall giving birth to a grown man. He didn’t find any portion of it even remotely funny. Can you see his expression?
The final portion of the tour was climbing up the rock face. Luckily, some juvenile delinquents carved footholds, plus they’ve put in poles and fencing, so you really couldn’t fall if you wanted to. It was a lot of adventure-filled fun, and that’s why it was our favorite tour!
Cliff House Tour
Cliff house wasn’t nearly so adventurous, but it was still fun. It also involved several ladders in order to drop into the cliff and then climb out again. Cliff house is the one you always see on brochures — it’s very picturesque.
Notice the little crack across the bottom of the overhang, where you can see little rocks stacked. That was where the puebloan people stored food against years of drought and famine. Can you imagine climbing up there daily to retrieve dried corn, then having to grind it yourself, by hand, before making tortillas, also by hand? I’m betting there were no overweight Puebloans.
We had to leave every single tour early for potty breaks, so here’s a tip for those with several young children: take them to use the restroom before the tour. How did we forget that multiple times?
Mesa Verde Campground
We camped in the campground at Mesa Verde. It was actually very nice. There are two loops and lots of trees and shrubbery, so each campsite is pretty private. And hallelujah! They allowed fires!
Our tent works a little better here than the previous night at Chaco Canyon, since there’s a bigger space. Too bad we didn’t sleep any better! Why do people like camping? I imagine the only ones who do have really nice trailers. I just pray all night for morning to come, so I can get up off the ground.
The bathrooms at this campground are nice and clean! There is also a large store, with an ice-cream machine, yay! Here are the showers. Notice the graphics on the far wall. There is a crossed-out graphic of a woman squatting in the shower to go potty. Does that really happen?
I mean, we’ve been to China. We primarily stayed in western-style hotels and ate at western-style restaurants, but we did come across, and use, the porcelain-hole-in-the-floor style toilet. But when you’re in a foreign country you do as they do (unless accommodated otherwise) and don’t go potty in the showers!
Moral of the story: bring flip-flops for the shower! Because who knows what’s going on in there!?!
Our last tour was of Long House, then we drove the loop of the mesa top and stopped several places to see things. The walk to Long House is flat and mostly paved, but is probably at least a couple of miles in and back out.
You can see pretty much everything at Mesa Verde in two full days, especially if you’re staying at the campground so you don’t have to commute back and forth to outside of the park.
Mesa Verde consists of two mesa’s, with Balcony House and Cliff House on one mesa, and Long House on the other mesa. Both mesas also have other places to stop. There are small cliff dwellings in addition to the three big ones, and they are best viewed from the pullouts on the opposite side of the canyon, so be sure to drive both mesas and stop at all of the viewing spots. Don’t forget to bring a pair of binoculars!
There are life-sized dioramas of the old pit houses along the way, too. We thought they were dumb, but some people might find them interesting.
And here we have Kendel leaving the tour early to find a bathroom for Lizzy. I followed him ten minutes later with the next two children. Only the older kids got to complete the tour. So be sure to take your little ones to the bathroom before the tours!
The view from inside cliff house at Mesa Verde. I imagine the moms were constantly worried about the toddlers falling over the edge of the cliff into the canyon below! I’m grateful for my own safe and comfortable home!
We planned to stay one more day, but decided to cut our trip short. We were all ready to get back home to our beds, plus we’d seen everything. Oh, and Lizzy threw up in the suburban. We disposed of all affected clothing and a blanket in a dumpster, and I bathed Lizzy in the sink in the bathroom at Long House, while the kids scrubbed the suburban with hand sanitizer, but there is still the ick factor. None of us was very happy about spending any more time in the suburban.
Have lots of fun planning your own trip to Mesa Verde! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!
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