Mesa Verde almost didn’t make the list. When Karen and I were devising our Southwestern itinerary, Mesa Verde fell outside our planned national park loop, and anyway, Karen had been there before. However, once she started describing the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, I added it to the lineup.

As much as I love the sweeping vistas of the western landscape, I’m a city guy at heart. Mesa Verde is the perfect combo of human and natural history for me. Around 1190 AD, humans began building their homes and ceremonial rooms into the openings of Mesa Verde’s rock formations. They built them well: square and round buildings with ventilation shafts, windows, and great views of the surrounding valleys are surprisingly intact today.

After a quick visit to Spruce Tree House (easily accessible from the road), I signed up for two ranger-led tours. We had a great guide and a small group at Balcony House, a well-preserved complex perched in a high opening. Cliff Palace was more crowded (memo to myself: book the early morning tours, before the stragglers arrive in the park), but no less impressive. After I reunited with Karen, we hiked to see some petroglyphs, another perfect pursuit for me: human artifacts in a natural setting.

Mesa Verde offers campsites inside the park, so we’re back to sleeping in the van, with Karen-cooked meals and a campfire for s’mores. To think we almost missed all this by skipping Mesa Verde.