Image: Mesa Verde National Park
Michael Sitzman
Kids charge ahead up the 32-foot ladder to check out the amazing cliff dwellings in southwest Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 9/3/2010 6:21:47 PM ET 2010-09-03T22:21:47

There's no time to be nervous. The kids charge ahead up the 32-foot ladder, squeezing through a narrow, 12-foot tunnel, walking in toeholds carved into dusty sandstone.

Imagine if you could only get into your office or house via toeholds carved into rock. Imagine cooking by tossing a hot rock into a waterproofed basket filled with stew fixings and grinding corn with a rock. Imagine living with your family in small stone rooms. Imagine no TV or video games to entertain the kids — just stories passed down from generation to generation.

We're all trying to get our heads around what family life must have been like for the Ancient Puebloan families who lived in these amazing cliff dwellings in southwest Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, the nation's largest archeological preserve offering some 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.

"This is a different kind of national park," Ranger Allison Langston tells our group. "Many national parks preserve national resources. Here we're preserving cultural resources."

Who says ancient history is boring? Our gang, which includes kids from kindergartners to college sophomores and grandparents, is fascinated to learn that this ancient culture continues today through modern-day Pueblo nations who return here several times a year for special ceremonies.

Image: Mesa Verde
Aramark Parks and Destinations
Vistors climb up to the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, which was created in 1906 to preserve them.

Local ranchers first discovered these cliff dwellings in the late 1800s and Mesa Verde National Park was created in 1906 to preserve them. The Ancient Puebloans made this place home from about 550 AD to 1300 AD when they abandoned the area, archeologists believe, after years of drought and because the land that had supported them for so long could no longer sustain enough crops for their growing numbers. The dwellings are spectacularly well preserved.

Sadly, most of the 400,000 tourists who visit don't spend enough time here to really appreciate all this park has to offer — a hands-on introduction to this ancient culture, hiking a petroglyph trail, the chance to teach kids about modern Native American life nearby and a first-rate restaurant, the Metate Room, where ingredients the ancient Puebloans used, like beans, squash, corn and wild game, are given a decidedly modern and delicious twist (http://www.visitmesaverde.com).

We'd been exploring southwestern Colorado in an RV when we pulled into the Morefield Campground here — our favorite yet — where my two young cousins, 5-year-old Hannah Sitzman and her 7-year-old brother, Ethan, were out playing baseball within five minutes of our arrival with some of our "neighbors," who were visiting from Massachusetts.

They stop in their tracks when they see a mama deer and her fawn race by into the woods. Incidentally, you can arrange for a campsite with a steel-framed tent and cots so you can have the camping experience without lugging all the gear. Rangers offer evening programs at the campground, as well as at Far View Lodge where some of our gang is happily ensconced in rooms designed to highlight Native American culture.

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We're inadvertently a trendy group, I discover. Camping and RV vacations are growing in popularity. Aramark Parks and Destinations, the concessionaire at this park, reports that bookings here at Morefield Campground are up 22 percent this year, as are multigenerational trips everywhere, according to the newly released YPartnership/Harrison Group survey entitled "2010 Portrait of American Travelers." Twenty percent of today's family travelers are grandparents and two-thirds say they took at least one vacation with their grandchildren last year.

Anyone who has ever tried to arrange a multi-generation trip knows it isn't always easy to satisfy everyone at the same time, but I'm pleased that Mesa Verde does the job. The Park Service has partnered with Aramark and the nonprofit Mesa Verde Institute for a range of programs to suit all ages and physical abilities from ranger-guided tours of the cliff dwellings (you must purchase $3 tickets) bus tours, rigorous ranger-led hiking tours and even a twilight hike to Cliff Palace, the park's most famous cliff dwelling where historic characters in costume give their own perspective of Mesa Verde.

Because there are 14 of us, we've arranged for a private tour with retired National Park Service veteran Alan Whalon who takes us to two of the cliff dwellings that kids like to most explore the most — Balcony House and Long House — because there are ladders to climb, toeholds to try and the opportunity to "grind" corn and peer into the ancient ceremonial Kivas. "We're on an adventure!" declares Hannah Sitzman, as she holds Whalon's hand.

There are also plenty of self-guided activities. You can drive the Wetherill Mesa Road or hike the Badger House Community Trail, which will take you through four mesa top sites. You can see Spruce Tree House (130 tiny rooms!) or tour the Chapin Mesa Museum, which depicts ancestral Puebloan life.

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National Parks Service educational specialist Sandy Groves is working hard to make the park even more interesting for families with a newly designed Junior Ranger booklet that introduces a girl named Gentle Rain who lived here with her family 750 years ago. You can borrow a discovery pack complete with kids' field guide, binoculars and hand lens and those kids staying in the campground can become Junior Naturalists. (Stop and listen, the kids are encouraged. Close your eyes. What do you hear? What do you think you would have heard 800 years ago?) Look for more children's activities next year, suggests Aramark spokesman Judi Swain.

Groves' Tip: Allow yourselves enough time. It can take an hour just to get from the park entrance to the visitor's center.

It's hot and no food is permitted in the cliff dwellings but amazingly, none of the kids complain. They are too interested in traveling back in time and imagining what their lives would have been like all those centuries ago. (No school! Parents by the time they are young teens! Building houses from mud and stone!)

We finish our day with dinner in the award-winning Metate Room where the kids chow down on mac and cheese and chicken fingers, while I eat one of the best meals I've ever had in a national park — prickly pear shrimp, red chile polenta and cinnamon chile pork tenderloin.

I try to imagine special family dinners all those centuries ago. I bet the kids didn't want to sit still with the relatives then either.

We toast to a successful vacation day — that rare occasion when everyone is still smiling at dinner.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2010 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: America's lesser-known national parks

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  1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

    In this case, the name does not say it all. Sure, Great Sand Dunes features 30 square miles of flowing sand — Star Dune, the highest, is 750 feet — but within its 150,000 acres, you’ll also find forested trails, alpine lakes and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The biggest “crowds” come in late spring to swim in Medano Creek, a short-lived snowmelt stream that flows across the sand. Come summer and fall, those with a taste for adventure (and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle) can enjoy high-country hikes and fall foliage via the primitive Medano Pass Road. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

    With famous neighbors including Bryce, Zion and Arches national parks, it’s not surprising that some visitors to southern Utah completely miss Capitol Reef. That’s too bad because within its 400 square miles stand the white reef-like domes that give the park its name, the monoliths of Cathedral Valley and the 100-mile-long geological wrinkle known as Waterpocket Fold. The park is also home to the largest fruit orchard (2,600 trees) in the National Park system, so after a day in the outdoors, head to the Gifford Historic Farmhouse in the Fruita Historic District for fresh-baked pies of peach, pear, cherry, apple and apricot. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

    Mt. Rainier may be more imposing, but if you want to get a sense of the explosive energy beneath your feet, Lassen’s the place. (It also gets one-third as many visitors.) From the main park road, you can view the results of the 1915 eruption in the aptly named Devastated Area, experience ongoing hydrothermal activity amid the bubbling mud pots of Bumpass Hell or make the 2,000-foot climb to the summit for the big-picture view. For a more remote experience, head to the northeast corner of the park, where the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone rises above a moonscape of lava beds and painted dunes. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

    Talk about a water park: With just a few short roads that barely pierce its borders, this park in northern Minnesota is a boater’s paradise of bays, islands and passages. Those without their own watercraft can rent canoes to paddle to remote islands and campsites, visit historic sites via a pair of large tour boats or recall the days of the 17th-century voyageurs by joining a 26-foot North Canoe voyage. This year, the park is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a variety of special events, including several nighttime Starwatch Cruises on Rainy Lake on board the Voyageur tour boat. (QT Luong / terragalleria.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

    The “Big,” of course, refers to the sweeping arc the Rio Grande makes along this park’s southern border, but it also applies to the park’s approach to diversity. At 800,000 acres, Big Bend is home to more species of birds (450), butterflies (180) and cacti (60) than any unit in the National Park system. It’d take years to see it all, but for a quick trip, hike the high-country trails of the Chisos Basin, float the Rio Grande between the sheer walls of Santa Elena Canyon and bone up on local history along the new Dorgan-Sublett Trail near Castolon. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Channel Islands National Park, California

    The five islands of this park — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and solitary Santa Barbara — are just a boat ride or scenic flight from the sprawl of Southern California, yet feel worlds away. In fact, while 350,000 people visited the park’s visitor centers on the mainland last year, only one quarter of them actually made it to the islands themselves. Add in 125,000 acres of protected waters and you’ve got a park that’s part American Galapagos (145 species are found here and nowhere else) and part playground for hikers, divers, boaters and whale watchers. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    With its cliff dwellings and stone villages, this park in southwest Colorado features some of the best-preserved remnants of the Anasazi people, who lived here from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. Unfortunately, many visitors zip in and out, driving the Mesa Top Loop Road or visiting well-trod ruins like Balcony House and Cliff Palace. This summer, however, the park is offering three new ranger-guided tours, including a two-hour, three-mile hike to Mug House; a six-mile, six-hour tour of the Wetherill Mesa area, and an eight-hour, eight-mile hike to several remote dwellings hidden in the recesses of Navajo and Wickiup canyons. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Biscayne National Park, Florida

    Although Biscayne lies on the doorstep of Miami, it’s actually part of the Florida Keys, a 172,000-acre expanse of crystalline water dotted with sea-grass shallows, patches of coral and 30 keys and islets. In summer, when winds are calm and the bugs are bad, stay on the water with a guided snorkel trip to the natural aquaria around Shark Reef or Bache Shoal; when fall winds pick up (dispelling the mosquitoes), take a three-hour tour to Boca Chita Key where you can climb the 65-foot ornamental lighthouse for panoramic views of the park, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    No roads, no visitor facilities and no designated trails — if it’s solitude you seek, this 13,000-square-mile park above the Arctic Circle has your number. (Total number of visitors last year: 9,975.) Some visitors arrive by bush plane; others hike in via Anaktuvuk Pass, but all would be advised to plan ahead, either by using a guide service or being appropriately self-sufficient and wilderness-savvy. The rewards? Endless days under the midnight sun in summer, caribou migrations in spring and fall and panoramas of wild rivers, glacier-carved valleys and the craggy peaks of the Brooks Range year-round. (Lee Foster / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Great Basin, Nevada

    Given Great Basin’s location — just off U.S. 50, aka The Loneliest Road in America — it’s hardly surprising that the park accounted for a measly .03 percent of visits (85,000) to the National Park System. Most visitors come to tour the limestone wonderland of Lehman Caves or hike amid the gnarled, 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines on Wheeler Peak. It’s also popular (relatively speaking) with stargazers who come to the park because it boasts some of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48. Consider joining them August 6–8, when the park will hold its first-ever Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

    Seventy miles west of Key West and surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas saw just 52,000 visitors last year — probably because you have to take a ferry, seaplane or private boat to get there. Once on site, visitors can tour the hulking Civil War–era Fort Jefferson, stroll the beach of Garden Key (most of the other islands are closed to the public) and snorkel amid conchs, corals and kaleidoscopic fish. (Park personnel are monitoring the local waters for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but are currently reporting no evidence of contamination.) (Eddie Brady / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    The largest park in the National Park system spans 13.2 million acres, features nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country and boasts the continent’s greatest assemblage of glaciers, yet received less than 60,000 people last year. Crowds? Not a problem. Most visitors drive the 60-mile McCarthy Road to visit the rustic town of the same name, tour the Kennecott Mill site or hike up to the toe of Root Glacier. If that sounds too busy, opt instead for the lesser-traveled Nabesna Road, which offers equally stunning scenery and more chances to see wildlife. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

    Rocky Mountain National Park got 2.8 million visitors last year. Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Less than 175,000. Cut steep and deep by the thundering Gunny, the canyon’s near-vertical walls rise as high as 2,700 feet above the water and provide a vivid (and vertiginous) view of 2 billion years of geology. Most visitors stick to the more-developed, easier-accessed South Rim, so consider the more primitive North Rim for equally impressive views with even fewer people. “There’s only a quarter of a mile between them,” says Chief of Interpretation Sandy Snell-Dobert, “but it’s so much quieter.” (Jim Wark / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

    Let’s face it, without Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. would probably have far less protected space than it does, so a visit to his one-time homestead is more than appropriate. (Besides, it gets half as many visitors as the better-known Badlands.) Most visitors hit the South Unit, snapping pictures of T. Roo’s cabin and the Painted Canyon, while others venture to the North Unit to see prairie dogs and river views. Only a handful make it to the remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which Chief of Interpretation Eileen Andes says features “the best view of the Little Missouri and maybe the best view in North Dakota.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    Closer to Ontario than Michigan, this island park in Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane, which probably explains why it saw only 15,000 visitors last year. For day trippers, easy trails around Windigo and the lodging and tour services at Rock Harbor offer scenic views and glimpses of island history; for canoers, kayakers and backpackers, the bays, interior lakes and backcountry trails are as wild as they come. Ferries and water taxis can transport you to remote docks scattered along the 45-mile-long island; after that, you’re on your own. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

    Heading to Carlsbad Caverns? If so, consider adding a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which sits just an hour away, sees less than half as many visitors and offers some of the Southwest’s most surprising topography. Check out the unexpectedly lush vegetation in McKittrick Canyon, the 265-million-year-old marine fossils along the Permian Reef Trail and the backcountry trails off the park’s remote Dog Canyon entrance. Prefer some company? This summer, the park is offering its first Hike with a Ranger program, which will offer full-day backcountry hikes with a ranger on the last Sunday of the month. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa

    They don’t come much more remote — or more scenic — than this little beauty, which is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, spread across four islands and blessed with tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and gin-clear waters teeming with fish. Start your visit with a scenic drive to Vatia on the main island of Tutuila, then hop a flight to Ofu or Olosega for beachcombing and snorkeling. More intrepid visitors should also visit Ta’u, the fourth island, which is considered the birthplace of the Polynesian people. “Access is difficult,” says Park Ranger Sarah Bone, “but the reward will pay for itself several times over.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks
  2. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (28) America's national parks

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