Great American Road Trip with Kids (and on a budget): Exit 3 – Mesa Verde National Park

Welcome to Exit 3 of our Great American Road Trip with Kids (and on a budget)! Exit 3 is all about Mesa Verde National Park where we had a two-night stay at this incredible national park.

If you’ve been following along with us, much appreciated!

If you haven’t, please check out the following:
Exit 1 – Route 66
Exit 2 – Petroglyph and Aztec Ruins National Monuments

We know traveling is hard to do these days (Mesa Verde National Park is currently temporarily closed), but we hope that times to travel will return soon, and that you can use these recaps of our Great American Road Trip to help plan your next vacation to Mesa Verde National Park.

Want to follow along with us on this journey? Awesome! You can follow us through RSS feed, InstagramFacebook and Twitter, or just by subscribing to receive emails when posts are release. Much obliged!

As a reminder, we’re giving you our recommendations and non-recommendations (or highlights and lowlight), for a Great American Road Trip with kids (and on a budget). This will include tips and tricks, what there is to do, how kid friendly each place is, how you can do it on a family-friendly budget, and what you’ll need for that portion of the trip.

And remember, we seriously recommend this trip with a fourth grader. The National Park Services have a wonderful program called “Every Kid Outdoors” where every fourth grader, and their family, get into the parks for free.

We saved $30 on our trip to Mesa Verde National Park.

Why fourth graders? According to the Every Kid Outdoors site, “We chose fourth graders because research shows that kids ages nine to 11 are beginning to learn about the world around them…and they are likely to connect to nature and our history.”

I can vouch for that. My fourth grader and her second-grade brother loved being a part of Junior Ranger programs, and participating in the activities they provided.

Let’s get into Mesa Verde National Park, the Johnson Five’s top-ranked National Park.

Great American Road Trip: Exit 3 – Mesa Verde National Park

If you’re not familiar with Mesa Verde National Park, let’s get you acquainted.

The park was home to ancestral Pueblo people from about A.D. 550 to 1300. So, a long, long time ago. The park contains over 4,000 known archaeological sites including remarkable cliff dwellings, and the mesa top sites of pithouses, pueblos, and more.

There are three cliff dwelling tours – Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House – that you can take. All cost $7, which is not included with the Every Kid Outdoors pass.

We chose the more popular Cliff Palace tour. Why? We had an 8-year-old and this tour lasts one-hour, is a 1/4-mile hike, and included four, 8-10 foot ladders, and a 100-foot vertical climb.

Traveling with older children, the Balcony House sounds fun. It is also an hour, you’re climbing up a 60-foot open rock face, but also crawling through a 12-foot long tunnel.

You can find all of Mesa Verde National Park‘s tours here.

You’re not going to be disappointed with any of them. In fact, you’ll be left in awe that something like Cliff Palace was discovered in 1888, but built a thousand years before – by hand…in the rain…snow…heat. Incredible!

SIDE NOTE: I love traveling to the beach on vacation like the next person (in fact we’re doing it this year).

It’s nice to just sit and relax, and not have to worry about long trips in the car, windy roads, hikes in the heat, etc., but after this trip, I realized I prefer exploration, learning, understanding and teaching my kids about new cultures and our country’s history.

There’s a lot of chaos in the world today, and a lot of it is due to closed-mindedness. We don’t take time to learn about other people, in fact the majority of us – no matter your race or color – prefer to hang out with people of our like-mind or background.

Trips like these open your mind and your children’s mind. It helps them (and you) learn about the struggles the people that settled here had. Traveling across the open land of this great nation you’ll think about those that traveled the same path hundreds of years prior looking for opportunity.

A vacation like this is not just about taking photos you can share on Instagram (follow us here), in fact – and I’ll talk about this later – these pictures will never do justice. There’s a reason these places are national parks. After this trip I vowed I’d start to give to the preservation of these parks. You can too by visiting National Park Foundation.

My dad and brothers (1985) climbing the same route my family is climbing in 2019.

My apologies for the side note, I had visited Mesa Verde National Park when I was a kid. I just remember loving that trip so much that I vowed I’d come back when / if I had my own family. Well I do, and I returned and I loved being able to show my kids this amazing park and give them this Great American Road Trip experience. An experience I hope they pass down to their children.

Blah, blah, okay Kevin we get it, Mesa Verde National Park is amazing! Let’s get onto the fun stuff!

Not a lot of travel on Day 3 as we spent two nights at Morefield Campground. The map below will show you the proximity between the campground and the park.

Mesa Verde National Park (4.6 out of 5):

Age: All ages, but I think anyone over age 7 is going to really take in the full experience of the park.

Cost: $30 park entrance fee (unless you have that coveted fourth grader). $7 each person for the cliff dwelling tours. $36 a night for a tent site.

Tickets for the tours will need to be purchased a day in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Click here for more information.

Badges Earned: Junior Park Ranger Mesa Verde National Park

Mom’s Frugal Five Tip of the Day: As she mentioned in Exit 1, plan your meals. You’re in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but an overpriced campground store for food and supplies so remember to keep stocked up food and drinks, and have a plan for what you’re going to eat on the nights where it’s just the family and an open flame.

Word of the Day: Pithouse (noun) – a primitive habitation consisting of a pit dug in the earth and roofed over.

The Johnson Five Recommends: We talked already about doing the cliff dwelling tour. We also recommend the Mesa Top Loop Road, but will say that your kids will likely tire of jumping in and out of the van to look at another pithouse.

Our biggest recommendation is staying at the Morefield Campground. It’s four miles inside the park, it has decent showers, washer and dryer, the sites are nice and you’re surrounded by nature (you will be visited by deer). Morefield Campground also has a fun scavenger hunt that kept all the kids busy. That’s right all, including our 14-year-old. Honestly, can’t recommend this campground enough if you’re traveling to Mesa Verde National Park (see photos below), don’t mind camping, and are looking for an inexpensive place to stay. However …

The Johnson Five Doesn’t Recommend: Forgetting that Mesa Verde National Park is at an elevation of 8,500-feet, and Morefield Campground has an elevation of 7,775-feet, and that depending on where you live, it’s likely a large increase. We’re currently at an elevation of 715-feet. My eldest experienced something called altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness. He had a headache the first full day, where we did the tours, and he woke up the second night tossing chunks outside the tent, and with a continued headache (more on that in Exit 4). Heck, I even wondered why I was out of breath moving stuff in and out of the van while setting up the campsite.

Oh, and we also recommend planning accordingly for the temperature change because you’re at a higher altitude. Go ahead and laugh at us … we’ll wait … though the temperature was in the low-80s during the day, at night it would drop to the high-30s, low-40s. We had not planned for that. No extra blankets, no warm pajamas, nothing. We all wore cut-off sleeve shirts and shorts to bed, and were covered by fuzzy blanket each. It was uncomfortable sleep, and was the only downside of our trip to Mesa Verde National Park, though we can’t blame the park for that.

What You’ll Need – Get Them Here!
We’re not big campers, so if you’re looking for more in-depth knowledge on camping and camping materials, check out my buddy at We Live A Lot. These are some of items we used and recommend while camping.

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