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When I was a kid, my parents took me to Mesa Verde for one day, and I loved it. We poked our heads into a few of the ancient cliff dwellings where ancestral Puebloans once lived, watched deer as they grazed outside our room, and my parents groused about the food, which was of the white bread, gravy and mayo variety.
Today, archeologists and forest fires have conspired to uncover more than 600 cliff dwellings and 4,700 archeological sites. Families are opting to spend at least two nights in the park, regional partners offer soft adventure options that are family friendly, and the award-winning Metate Room restaurant at the Far View Lodge delights the most discerning adult foodies.
The best way to have a full and satisfying Mesa Verde family experience is to drive into the park from Durango, Colo., stopping to observe wildlife and marvel at the green mesa that looms over the valley. Check into the Far View Lodge and walk to the Visitors Center to see artifacts that whet one’s appetite for the upcoming tours of the ruins. There’s no need to dress up for fine dining in the Metate Room. As parents sip wine and sample wild boar sliders ($13) and Nanescatha pizza ($9) appetizers, kids are given crayons and paper to accompany their white chili cheese fries ($11). While the adults savor turkey Napoleon, blue corn-dusted trout, cinnamon chili pork tenderloin or the mixed grill market (entree prices from $24 to $42), the little ones can opt for pasta, beef or salmon.
Early the next day, the four-hour 700 Years Tour progresses chronologically, from the earliest pit houses to the spectacular cliff dwellings ($45 adults; $34 for children ages 5-11; under 4 years old, free).
In the afternoon, it’s back to Durango for a two-hour economy rafting trip on the Lower Animas river ($31 for adults; 24 for youth). It’s for ages 4 to 84 and is the mildest of the rafting trips offered by Mild to Wild Rafting. (800-567-6745; mild2wildrafting.com)
Before sunset, it’s time to head back along the steep, winding road into the park for a cocktail and another dinner in the Metate Room or the simpler Far View Terrace Cafe. The following morning, families can drive around the park on their own, spotting and visiting ruins, walking the Petroglyph Trail and visiting the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
The next morning, Mild to Wild whisks visitors from Durango by shuttle to Silverton, Colo., where they board a Jeep and head into the scenic San Juan Mountains. The highlight is a walk through Animas Forks ghost town. The Narrow Gauge Train takes guests back to Durango, where they can spend the night before heading home. ($145 adults; children $115)
Ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House are $3 and can be purchased at the Far View Visitor Center.