THE BLOG
04/26/2011 02:44 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2011

At Mesa Verde National Park -- Who Says Learning Can't Be Fun?

The kids are climbing up a 32 foot ladder, squeezing through a tunnel, walking in toe holds carved into the sandstone.

They're having a blast and learning a little archeology, Native American culture and ancient history as they go. Who says learning can't be fun?

We're at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the nation's largest archeological preserve with some 4,000 known archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings where the Ancestral Pueblo people lived some 700 years ago. "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."

After the cliff dwellings were discovered by local ranchers in the late 1800s, Mesa Verde National Park was created in 1906 and today draws some 700,000 visitors a year to this corner of Colorado.

Today their culture continues through the 21 modern day Pueblo nations, our guide Alan Whalon explains, with the Utes still living on three sides of this park that at its highest point is over 8500 feet above sea level.

Seven year old Ethan Sitzman pronounced the cliff dwellings as much fun as the all you can eat pancake breakfast he'd enjoyed that morning at the campground.

"I like how you can see how they lived then and that it's so interactive," said 16-year-old Erica Petty as she squeezed through a tunnel at Balcony House, one of the Cliff Dwellings we're touring.

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Exploring Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings (Eileen Ogintz photo)

We're traveling with a big multi-generational group that includes grandparents, college students, teens and the little kids. Anyone who has traveled with multi generations and kids knows how hard it is to find activities that will satisfy everyone but this is one place that works, even allowing us to opt for different kinds of places to stay. Some are in the campground in a rented Winnebago, others in their tent. The seniors and some of the kids stay about 10 miles further into the park at Far View Lodge, where efforts have been made to showcase Native American Culture. One group stays about an hour away at a motel in Durango.

The kids see it as an adventure; parents and grandparents are thrilled to not only be sharing the experience but that the kids are learning something about the people who made this place home from about 550 AD to 1300 AD when they left, archeologists believe, because the land could no longer support them.

We join forces in the morning to explore together. Mesa Verde National Park has partnered with park concessioner Aramark and the nonprofit Mesa Verde Institute for a range of programs that include ranger-guided tours of the cliff dwellings (you must purchase $3 tickets), various bus tours, strenuous hiking tours led by rangers of the park and even an evening Twilight in Cliff Palace, the park's most popular cliff dwelling. Here, 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 Whalon, who leads tours for Aramark and knows so much about the park that he isn't stymied by a single one of our questions. Within an hour, he and five year old Hannah Sitzman are best buddies, holding hands as they explore the ancient dwellings.

There are also self-guided activities. You can drive the Wetherill Mesa Road, hike the Badger House Community Trail that will take you through four mesa top sites, see Spruce Tree House which contains some 130 rooms or tour the Chapin Mesa Museum that depicts Ancestral Pueblo life. Take the kids to see Petro glyphs on Petro glyph Point Loop Trail.

Unfortunately, visiting families often don't realize how much there is to see here -- and how long it can take to get around the 52,000-plus acre park (just to get to the visitor's center 15 miles from the park entrance can take more than an hour) -- a lament I've heard at national parks around the country.

We start our day at Balcony House which Sandy Groves, the park's' education coordinator, tells me is the most popular with kids because they get to climb five ladders and squeeze through tunnels just as the Ancestral Puebloans did, learning about kids' lives as they go. (They would have been married by early teen years and would have "played" by imitating their parents -- farming, grinding, using the hand and toe holds to climb up on the cliff face to reach the fields. Kids help the women gather wild plants, like nuts from the pinion pine trees and yucca leaves to pound into fibers to make rope and sandals.

No TV or computers obviously. In the ceremonial kiva rooms, the children would hear the stories passed down from generation to generation -- stories that are told today on the Pueblos. How did those kids manage, we joke with the kids.

Kids visiting can become Junior Rangers by completing activities in the booklet that will help them comprehend what they are seeing. They also can check out activity packs that include binoculars, a hand lens and kids' nature guide and if they are staying in the campground as we are, 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?)

It is amazing that we are standing in stone rooms where families flourished so many centuries ago. Balcony House is one of the best preserved sites in the park and offers a spectacular view down into Soda Canyon. There are some 38 small stone rooms and two ceremonial kivas here with plazas and even some of the original wood poles that formed a balcony. We climb up a ladder that has been here since the 1930s but the families that lived here then would have used hand and toe holds notched into the cliff and then through the 12-foot tunnel. It's fantastic that 85 per cent of this is original.

We learn that in the 13th century some 40 people would have lived here. They were small people -- men were only about 5-feet-four and women 5-feet and they died by their mid thirties. The little girls in the group take a turn practicing what it would have been like to grind corn on a stone. Each family occupied several rooms and would build more as the family grew. Five-year-old Hannah is delighted to learn that their clans were matrilineal, meaning the girls would inherit the property.

We learn these were a very resourceful people, growing beans, squash and corn on small plots on the mesas while living below in more sheltered environs in these amazing cliff dwellings. We look down at Cliff House which we learn might have been an ancient convention center.

"Be glad you have grocery stores," Ranger Adrienne tells the kids. They seem amazed kids would have literally had to rock climb to get into their houses -- grandparents too! They farmed using "digging sticks."

Couldn't have been easy, we agree. We try to imagine looking across the canyon in the 1200s to see a bustling village with children playing, women cooking, men tilling the fields above, dogs and turkeys.

It's hot but none of the kids are complaining. They think it's funny that before these ancient people had pottery, they cooked in baskets that they'd waterproofed by throwing a hot stone in the stew -- adding more stones as the first one cooled.

The Ranger explains the experts believe the Ancestral Puebloans were forced to decamp after a drought that followed centuries of farming the same land. The lesson: we must preserve our environment or it will quit on us just like it did for them, Langston says.

We finish our day with dinner in the award-winning Metate Room where we eat one of the best meals I've ever had in a national park -- prickly pear shrimp salad with chipotle buttermilk dressing, herb crusted salmon with red chile polenta, cinnamon chile pork tenderloin. The kids are happy with mac and cheese and chicken strips from the kids menu.

We toast our good fortune -- a successful vacation day. No one is crying. No one is sick. We learned something. We had a good time.

Eileen Ogintz interviews families and experts around the world for her widely syndicated column "Taking the Kids™" and is the creator of www.takingthekids.com. She's written seven family travel books, most recently The Kid's Guide; NYC and The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. For more "Taking the Kids," visit www.takingthekids.com.