24h in Key West with Friends!

I’ve heard of travelers who only make a day trip to Key West from their Miami vacation, and I’m here to prove them wrong: Key West absolutely needs 24 hours, and I would have rather stayed longer! We rented a car from Miami with Iiro and Elina and drove across the breathtaking Florida Keys bridges to enjoy this cute little town on a paradise island.

Highway 1 to Key West
The longest bridge on the Florida Keys, Seven Mile Bridge, leads from Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key, and despite its name is only 6.8 miles (10.9km) long.

11 a.m. Drive to Key West – reserve time for this!

I’d recommend setting out to Key West early in the morning, but because of flight schedules, this wasn’t an option for us. Good thing was we missed Miami’s morning traffic; bad thing was Miami has traffic no matter time of the day, so it felt like an eternity before we got to the first of the Keys, Key Largo. It’s not worth taking a “short drive” to the Keys to check out the views, because the best views are towards the end of the trip several hours away.

Drive to Key West

We got hungry on the way and stopped by Lu Lu’s Garden Grill (7435 Overseas Hwy) on Marathon Key for a quick lunch. The seafood sandwiches were excellent, and we enjoyed them on a shady garden patio. It took still more than an hour to get to Key West from here, and including the short lunch break, we were on the road for over 5 hours, which is the biggest reason why I don’t recommend Key West as a day trip.

Key West

5 p.m. Snorkeling at Key West’s gorgeous coral reef

If there’s one thing I’d recommend for anyone visiting Key West, it’s this: go snorkeling! Key West is close to Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and it’s amazing. We saw porkfish, blue striped grunts, banded butterflyfish, groupers – even a medusa! Elina, who’s snorkeled also in Thailand and Colombia, said that this was her best snorkeling experience ever, and as a first-timer to coral reefs, I was completely sold.

Snorkeling in Key West

The catamaran took around 45min to get to the reef, after which we had a bit more than an hour in the water. The ocean was pleasantly warm, but sun was shining low enough that we weren’t afraid of sunburns.

Coral Reef at Key West

8 p.m. Key West Sunset

Our snorkeling trip was a combined sunset sail, and on the way back we were relaxing on the deck of the catamaran, sipping on rum drinks and marveling the sunset. Key West, as its name signifies, faces west, so the sun will set into the sea with no obstacles on its way no matter where you stop to observe it. Sunset times of course vary according to seasons, and you can check out the exact time here.

Key West Sunset
View half an hour after sunset. Usually the best colors pop up only after the sun has set, so don’t turn your back on the sunset too hastily.

If we hadn’t been on the sunset cruise, we’d have probably been at Sunset Celebration, as recommended to us by our water at Marathon. This is a nightly art fest at Mallory Square Dock that starts up a couple hours before sunset.

9 p.m. Key West Dinner

At Key West, you won’t have to worry about restaurants closing their doors too early. After sunset, we headed to Hog’s Breath Saloon (400 Front St)… not because of a recommendation, but because Iiro had spotted a tourist wearing their T-shirt at Amsterdam Airport, and the name and especially slogan – Hog’s Breath is better than no breath at all! – sounded so hilarious we wouldn’t miss it. Luckily for us, it wasn’t just the slogan that was good. Shrimp skewers and BBQed pork were our favorites, and the beer and drinks were good too!

Hog's Breath Saloon, Key West

After dinner, we headed out to Duval Street, Key West’s nightlife hub, with bars on every corner. The most famous of them is Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St), Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, but instead, we sat down at a window table at Bull’s Whistle Bar (224 Duval St) for some people watching. It wasn’t quite New Orleans, but not far from it.

9 a.m. Morning at a Key West hotel: NYAH

We’d picked NYAH – Not Your Average Hotel for our accommodation, and the choice couldn’t have been more spot on! I wouldn’t recommend this place for older couples or families with children – you have to be at least 18 to stay here – but for a young-in-spirit group of friends, this was the perfect fit: we all fit into the same room, the rooms were spotlessly clean with an en-suite bathroom, beds were comfy and each one of them had their usb charging stations to fuel up our electronics during the night, towels were given freely for use both on-site and off-site, and of course it’s a short walking distance from downtown but far enough from the noise for a good night’s sleep. A simple but good continental breakfast was part of the price, so we started our morning lounging on one of the many terraces, sipping our coffees.

NYAH - Not Your Average Hotel - Key West
The architecture of the place is typical Key West villa style. Four houses share the same secluded pool area with palms and vegetation, and the judging by the many stairs, terraces and walkways, no room is like. The rooms are for groups of 2-6 guests.

The only drawback that came to my mind while I was sunbathing by the pool and reading a book was that we hadn’t had time to come earlier to enjoy the hotel already the previous day – because this place would have been really worth it. On top of everything else, the hotel has a daily happy hour at 4.20pm, which we had missed this time. I’m saying “this time”, because if I return to Key West with friends, returning to NYAH is a no-brainer.

Key West Hotel - Not Your Average Hotel - NYAH
There’s three pools and two jacuzzis, so you won’t run out of space.

12.00 Key West Downtown

We hanged out at the hotel as long as we could, but everything good must come to an end. By checkout time, we were walking back Downtown to check it out in daylight – that is, scorching sunlight!

Key West Downtown

We noticed soon that the touristy downtown was dividing opinions: I liked it and would have loved to tour the small shops and boutiques for a while longer, but Elina and Iiro thought it was too touristy. Key West’s famous villas were mostly East of Simonton Street in the neighborhood of our hotel, while Duval and Whitehead Streets were full of cafes and restaurants catering to an out-of-town audience, as well as kiosks selling this trip and that tour. We have Cold Beer was a sign we saw on almost every corner.

Key West Downtown
Midrow on the left: Shipwreck Treasures Museum tower that you can climb on to see the city.

I had a couple complimentary tickets for the local museums, so we split up for a moment. Elina checked out the Key West Aquarium, which she wouldn’t recommend to anyone who cares about animals: in the aquarium, fish were picked out of the tanks and even petted, which is obviously no way to treat a fish. Iiro checked out the Shipwreck Treasures Museum, which seemed interesting and is recommended for anyone interested in the pirate history of Key West. Just make sure you have enough time, because it’s a guided tour with reenacting and Iiro had to quit the tour half way to make it to our preagreed meeting spot.

Key West

Me? I toured the city with my camera. Truman’s Little White House, president Truman’s winter home, sounded tempting, but instead I stayed out to photograph the streets, houses, boutiques and of course the Caribbean sea. After spending a couple years inland, you wouldn’t believe how much I miss the sea.

Caribbean Ocean from Key West's Mallory Square

13.00 Trolley Tour

We wanted to see much of Key West in limited time, so we jumped on board the Old Town Trolley Tours, which goes all around the island. The relaxed tour guide narrated the sights we passed as well as told tales of Key West history. Ticket prices (around $30) felt a bit steep, but only because we were doing this on our last day: the tickets are valid for two days and it’s a hop-on hop-off tour, so this would have been perfect as the first thing to do in Key West, after which you can use it as a form of transportation.

Key West Conch Train
This isn’t the trolley but a Conch Train, a slower and shorter tour by the same company
Conch Republic Seafood Company, Key West
Conch Republic Seafood Company, where a torturing scene from James Bond & License to Kill was filmed. Now it’s a seafood restaurant.
Conches in Key West
Bottom row is Key West’s symbolic seashell, the conch (pronounced ‘konk’). Key West natives are known as conches, and if you live here for more than ten years, you’re a freshwater conch. In 1982, Key West declared itself an independent Conch Republic, because it wasn’t satisfied with the roadblocks set up on Route 1 by Border Patrol to check cars for drugs and illegal immigrants, as they slowed down traffic and diminished tourism. In a famous media stunt, the mayor of Key West climbed a Coast Guard ship, declared the city independent, declared war to the US, and then surrendered after a minute, requesting one billion dollars in foreign aid. The stunt worked, and humiliated by the media attention, Border Patrol closed down its roadblocks. Conch Republic still has its own passports, navy and national anthem.
Key West Villas
There’s only one rule for Key West villas: they must have tin roofs to prevent fires. Many houses are from the 1920s, because the last direct hit from a hurricane in Key West was in 1919.
Key West Southernmost Point & End of Route 1
On the left: USA’s southernmost point, which of course isn’t really the southernmost, because that’s on Hawaii’s Big Island. Neverthless, tourists queue to take their photo here. On the right: US Route 1 ends here. The other end is at Maine, almost 4000 kilometers away.

14.00 Lunch at Two Friends Patio & Key Lime Pie!

We spent a moment looking for a lunch restaurant that wouldn’t be too touristy and finally found one at the end of Front Street: Two Friends Patio Restaurant served us decent-priced oysters, creamy lobster bisque and tasty fried seafood. While there, we asked the waiter about roosters and hens walking around Key West. They just are here. They can’t fly away anywhere, now can they? But does someone own them? No, they just are here until the next hurricane sweeps them away.

Two Friends Patio Restaurant, Key West
You don’t often hear “cock-a-doodle-doo” while having lunch…

Our waiter promised us they served excellent key lime pie, and he surely didn’t lie. In fact, it was so excellent I completely forgot to take a photo. You don’t want to miss this while in Key West!

Miami Beach: Joe's Stone Crab - Joe's Original Key Lime Pie
This is what it looked like. A little like a very sour lemon-flavored cheesecake. Whipped cream is not optional! [Photo: Wally Gobetz]

3 p.m. On the shores of Key West: Smathers Beach

Our time in Key West was coming to an end, because we wanted to make it to Miami before evening, but we still made one more detour… by the beach!

Smathers Beach, Key West

On our Trolley Tour, we’d spotted an opening to Smathers Beach in its Eastern end that didn’t prohibit vehicles, so we hit the beach with four wheels! Next time I need to plan on bringing a towel – and maybe also plan on spending another night in Key West. I have a feeling it would be worth it!

Jeep Wrangler on a Beach, Key West
When our rental car company said they didn’t have our reserved Full Size (“Chevy Impala or similar”) in stock, but would we care for a Jeep Wrangler? …we didn’t complain.

Sponsored by NYAH

Road Trip to South Dakota and Nebraska in numbers

  • A little over 2300 kilometers (1435 miles), around 330 km per day.  This was a decent amount of driving for us without being too exhausting.
  • 2 new states. Only 11 left!
  • 6 National Park Service sites: 2 national parks, 1 national monument, 1 national memorial and 2 national historic sites. All of them worth visiting and some completely mindblowing. How can any government agency be this fantastic?
  • 2 nights in a tent, first one on a campground, the second in the middle of nowhere far from any trails. The latter night was more noisy thanks to the howling coyotes and chirping grasshoppers.
  • 13 liters of water in our backpacks, a couple liters too much. Better safe than sorry. A faint cloud cover cooled the day, which the park ranger told us was actually smoke from the wild fires in Canada.
  • 2 nights in motels that looked pretty run down from outside but surprised us positively. In the other motel, I think we were the only guests who didn’t sport tattoos.
  • Countless deer, bison, prairie dogs and big horn sheep. I didn’t think I’d ever end up saying of animals spotted by the road: “Let’s not bother to stop if it’s only bison.”
  • 4 long hour caving. Apparently a fear of tight places and a 25cm high slit that we had to crawl through are in fact compatible.
  • Around 100 kilometers of Oregon Trail. 19th century pioneers took four days to walk their wagons through this stretch of the route; for us, it took an hour.
  • 728 photos which will take time going through. Here’s a couple tasters:
Road in Wyoming
When sun set the first night, we were still on the road in Wyoming.
Custer State Park - Cathedral Needles
Custer State Park’s Needles Highway in South Dakota had a hiking trail lead to these views.
Baby Chipmunk
Baby chipmunks were running around the parking lots of scenic viewpoints.
Custer, South Dakota
Custer, South Dakota
Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
The presidents aren’t the only ones who’ve had their faces carved on mountains in South Dakota. This memorial for Lakota chief Crazy Horse has been in the making for already 67 years.
Hard rain in a car
On Sunday evening, it poured so hard we turned our car’s hazard flashers on while driving veeerryy slowly along winding mountain roads. Cooking at the campground in Badlands would be out of the question in this kind of weather, so we stopped for dinner at Rapid City and contemplated on staying the night in a motel. Finally the rain stopped close to midnight so we pitched our tent up in pitch black darkness…
Sunrise at Badlands
…and woke up to a sunrise at the Badlands. Totally worth it.

Iiro at Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Thistle at Badlands National Park

Walking at Badlands National Park

Big Horn Sheep at Badlands National Park praerie
Big horn sheep were among the most interesting wildlife in Badlands National Park

Backpacking at Badlands National Park

Camping at Badlands National Park
Found the perfect camping spot at Badlands National Park’s Deer Haven after a little climb and trek across the prairie.
Wall Food Center
The only grocery store in the town of Wall: “Food Center” – “Cold Bud” – “Cold Bud Lt” – “We have Bison Meat”
Inside Delta-01 Command Center, Minuteman Missile
Besides Badlands, the prairie of South Dakota has also some old Minuteman nuclear missile silos. We got to visit the decommissioned command center.
B-1B bomber at South Dakota Air & Space Museum
We also stopped to check out the airplanes at South Dakota Air & Space Museum, and… well, I’ve seen more impressive collections. Too bad we didn’t have more time, though, because they offered tours of the nearby Air Force Base, which would have been interesting.

Nebraska - the good life

Scotts Bluff National Monument with an Oregon trail wagon
“Oregon Trail” was one of my favorite computer games in the 90s, so I was thrilled to follow the real Oregon Trail in Nebraska.

Now a relaxing weekend at home before getting back to normal routines on Monday.

Happy Independence Day!

Our fourth independence day AKA July 4th in this country in a row is tomorrow. Unbelievable to think that it’s more than three years since I left Finland. “Only for two years”, I said then. Yeah right, I say now.

July 4th, 2012 was our first July 4th here. Some Finnish friends invited us over then, which was great, because I don’t know what we would have done without them. (Probably nothing.) Instead, we got to experience a big neighborhood community party, complete with fireworks.

July 4th, 2012

July 4th, 2013 we had some family visiting. Our BBQ plans were ruined by extreme rain that broke several records that summer in the Southeast, so instead we headed to the rollerskating rink – very American, right? – and then spent the rest of the evening inside munching on appropriately decorated cupcakes.

July 4th, 2013

July 4th, 2014 we had planned to return from Yellowstone, so no plans for a party. However, we got tired of sleeping the freezing nights in a tent a little earlier than we thought and instead headed back already the previous day, arriving home at 2am. I have no photos from the next day, but if I recall correctly, we spent it by the pool, making note of the higher-than-usual ratio of US flag bikinis.

Taco John's in Wyoming
On July 3rd, we stopped in Wyoming for dinner at sunset. Taco John’s is a surprisingly good tex-mex fast food chain.

July 4th, 2015… that is, tomorrow! We’re almost done packing for next week, which will again be spent on the road. Tomorrow we’ll be celebrating in possibly the most patriotic spot in this country.

Mount Rushmore
Hello, Founding Fathers, Teddy and Abe! [Photo: Liz Lawley / mamamusings]

I’ll be updating Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat from the road, so feel free to follow along. Happy July 4th everyone!

5+1 tips for Miami nightlife

June in Miami is hot and humid, and not even sunset cools the evenings down. We didn’t let that bother us last weekend, as we first had a girls’ night out with Elina on Thursday in Downtown Miami, and then on Saturday headed out together with Iiro at Miami Beach.

Miami Downtown

Miami Downtown

Miami Downtown equals skyscrapers and bright lights. The easiest way to get around is with the free People Mover, which speeds along a couple floors above the streets. After dark, you’ll see homeless people sleeping on the streets, and I wouldn’t feel too safe walking by myself, but this is where Uber comes in: it’s cheap and convenient in Miami. If you’re not familiar with Uber, get first ride free using this invite link.

Conrad Hotel LVL25 bar

1. Happy Hour at Conrad’s skyscraper bar

Do you have a rooftop bar here? I asked the reception at Conrad hotel. No, but we have a bar with a view! the receptionist replied with a wink and pointed us towards the elevators. The quizzical answer came clear soon: Conrad’s got 36 floors, and the LVL25 bar is “only” on 25th floor. This wasn’t a problem for us as we sat down with Elina to admire the fantastic view over Biscayne Bay. The smallish terrace had no free tables left at 6pm, but we asked nicely to share one with a business man who continued reading his book in Spanish while we chatted way in Finnish – relative privacy thanks to foreign languages.

Conrad LVL25 baari
On the left, you can see the outline of Key Biscayne

LVL25 has Happy Hour from 4 to 7, which means wine and beer at $5 and well drinks at $7. The address is
1395 Brickell Avenue, across the street from People Mover’s Financial District stop.

EPIC Hotel, Miami
View to Dock Island from the EPIC hotel pool deck

2. Drinks on the 16th floor of EPIC hotel with a view of the city lights

In Miami, it seems to be a fashion to turn indoors into freezers with the help of A/C, which we really weren’t that into. Instead, we headed for the terrace of Area 31 bar at EPIC hotel. On Fridays, they have a Happy Hour that lasts the whole night, but on a Thursday evening it was already over by the time we arrived. (Happy Hour on Mon-Fri from 5 to 8.) The views turned out to be well worth the more expensive drink prices.

Area 31 bar, EPIC hotel Miami
Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai IPA for me, a Hummingbird for Elina.

The terrace is right next to the stunning pool deck that has great views both East to Dock Island and South towards the Brickell highrises. EPIC hotel is at 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way, and the closest People Mover stop Knight Center is a short but slightly cumbersome walk away: these streets were not made for walking.

CVI.CHE 105 Miami
CVI.CHE 105, Miami

3. A Peruvian dinner at CVI.CHE 105

Yelp told us that CVI.CHE 105 would close its doors at ten, but an inquiry about the state of the kitchen at five to ten was answered with a statement of of course we’re open! The list’s also got meat and veggies, but most of the almost full restaurant’s patrons seemed to be after the ceviche – as was I. I had no clue about the different ceviche styles, so the waiter asked me a couple questions on my tastes and then recommended one. Elina got a recommendation of an octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu, and it turned out to be fantastic.

Ceviche at CVI.CHE 105 Miami
Ceviche Anconero Mixto: raw fish and seafood with sweet potato and corn on the side. Heavenly, but the red paste is hellishly spicy. You’ve been warned.

The closest People Mover stop is First Street and the address is 105 NE 3rd Ave. The kitchen seemed to close around 10.30pm. Elina complained it was expensive, but she just spent 6 months in Colombia; I thought it was very decent for the high quality. Be prepared to wait if you don’t have a reservation.

Miami Beach

Miami Beach

Miami Beach is its own city on its own island next to Miami, and it seems to be the place to be for the glamour crowds. We spent one night on South Beach and were glad we had a hotel there, because the post-sunset rush hour on Ocean Drive was really something, and I wouldn’t count on parking. The beach area was full of pedestrians on all hours of the day, and in the evening, Lummus Park becames a parking space for police cars, so besides pickpockets, it felt like a safe area.

Miami Ocean Drive Art Deco District

4. Art Deco District by Night

Miami Beach Art Deco District was built along Ocean Drive in the 20s and 30s, and it’s at its best after sunset when the old neon signs are lit up. If you’re interested in the history of the buildings, check out National Geographic Walking Tour, but if not, people-watching in the area is already a good reason to come here.

Clevelander, Miami Beach
Clevelander with the most Art Deco font ever

The most popular drinks in the Miami Beach bars seem to be corona-ritas, giant margaritas, or giant corona-ritas. Corona-ritas are margaritas with an upside-down Corona. Giant margaritas are around 1,6 liters. Mix those two and it looks pretty impressive.

Corona Rita
Coronarita [Photo: tyle_r]

Juomassa jättimargaritaa
Many people were having giant margaritas by themselves, but we figured sharing would be the saner choice.

The restaurants on Ocean Drive seemed pretty touristy, so if you’re looking for good food, it’s worthwhile to head a couple blocks West. We had the most delicious sushi at Toni’s Sushi Bar (1208 Washington Ave), which took us in after midnight, but where I’d recommend going earlier than that, if you’re looking for good service: the staff seemed to be mostly concerned with getting home at that hour.

Miami Beach at night

5. Stars at Miami Beach

The actual beach at Miami Beach is not illuminated at night, and this means two things:

  1. The starry sky and blinking lights from ships moored on the ocean and crashing waves in the dark are a sight to savoir, and the city high rises are silhouetted behind you.
  2. I wouldn’t have had the guts to go there alone, and even with friends, it took a moment to get used to the idea.

The beach is officially closed to public from midnight to 5am, which means that police will order you to leave if they catch you there. However, with a smaller group in a more quiet area of the beach (say, between 1st and 4th Streets), there doesn’t seem to be any patrolling. And this is not a recommendation for you to break any rules, okay?

Blanc Kara, Miami

+1. Hotel Blanc Kara on South Beach

If you’re looking for a terrace with a sea view, Blanc Kara’s not for you. However, if you’d like a boutique hotel with studios that have full-size kitchens, situated close to the beach and the shops but far enough from the nightlife to have issues with noise, then I can warmly recommend Blanc Kara. If you dig Ferraris or Lamborghinis, have an hour or two free in your schedule (and around a hundred dollars extra) and go on a test drive on one of the hotel’s two luxury sports convertibles.

Blanc Kara, Miami

Do you have any tips on restaurants or bars in Miami? If so, leave them in the comment box!

5 good things this week

This week’s been a busy one for me: together with a couple other Finnish bloggers, we started #matkachat, the first ever Finnish travel-themed Twitter Chat! The premiere session on Monday went so well I’m still all smiles, and I’m already looking forward to next Monday’s chat. But that’s not all…

We quit our cable service a couple months ago due to the outrageous fees, so I’m mostly working from the Community Center pool. The Nalgene’s filled with home made ice tea, my new favorite drink for a hot day.

…I also finally launched a much larger project: translating this blog into English! It’s been a lot of work and you wouldn’t believe the amount of technicalities that were involved, both on WordPress and server level, but now the system’s finally set up, and in the future, I’ll publish most of my posts bilingually. If you spot any weird stuff (like some Finnish on the English site), please let me know! Looking forward to your comments…

Globe Called Home
In case you’re wondering, “Suomi” means “Finnish” in Finnish.

…and moving on to more personal highlights: last Saturday I finished second in a triathlon! It sounds fancier than it really is – my group only had five athletes – but I’m still proud… and slightly perplexed, since my feelings during the event were more along the lines of “I’m so going to lose”. The bike path’s altitude changes were a bit too much for my gears, but in hindsight, a mountain triathlon must have been hard for everyone…

At least I had the energy to cheer a bit at the finish line.
Bison in Colorado
Afterwords we stopped by to check out the bison and especially their calves next to the I-70 interstate in Colorado. Cute, huh?

…and next day it was just the right moment for a little hike to help me recover from the tri. We’d been up Green Mountain once before in winter, and we knew it afforded great views over both Boulder, our city, as well as to the other direction to Indian Peaks Wilderness. (And this all from a city park!!) Last time we’d been tredging through snow, and despite the scorching heat, the route felt easier this time. Check out the difference in the photos below…

Indian Peaks viewed from Green Mountain, Boulder
This is summer. Ignore the snow on the mountains.
Jenni on Green Mountain Summit in winter
Same view in February. I did have the same ballcap on, though.
Green Mountain, Boulder, in winter
Also from February. Green Mountain (2090m) doesn’t have snow in June.
Indian Peaks from Green Mountain, Boulder
The range in the horizon is Indian Peaks, of which I’m able to identify only Mount Audubon, thank to climbing it a year ago. Longs Peak is a little North (right) of the Indian Peaks and clearly visible as the highest mountain in the area.

…and then to the last good thing: I’m going to catch a red-eye flight tonight! Well no, the sleepless night’s not the good thing, but the destination is: Miami!! It’s been hot enough in Colorado too, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to spend a couple days by the ocean: beaches, snorkeling, boating… The reason for the trip is Elina, my friend whom I met in Luxembourg, and who’s spent the last six months in South America. She’s now on her way home to Finland, and I’m meeting her up in Florida for a couple of days. Iiro’s also coming, and besides Miami, we’ll visit Key West. Any restaurant tips are greatly appreciated!

Miami Beach
[Photo: Corey Balazowich]
Like always, you can follow my trip live on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and I’m also learning my way around Snapchat, because the neighbors’ preteen girl told me it’s the coolest thing around, and I think she knows what she’s talking about. If you’re on Snapchat, you can follow my Story by searching @globecalledhome.

Mesa Verde National Park: Cliff Houses and Canyons

Mesa Verden National Park is located in South-West Colorado near the border of New Mexico. It’s the only national park in the United States designated to protect works of humans instead of Mother Nature, and it’s also an UNESCO world heritage site. If you’re roadtripping in the area, there’s no excuse to pass by these magnificent American Indian ruins that the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited centuries ago. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the park – we spent a full 24 hours there – but even a short visit is worth it, as long as you take a little time to plan it.

First: Visitor Center & which tour to take?

It’s always a good idea to start off a national park visit by stopping at the Visitor Center – and especially so at Mesa Verde. This is because Mesa Verde Visitor Center sells tickets to the ranger-led cliff house tours, and this should be the highlight of your trip. You can purchase tickets for the tours up to two days in advance, so if you’re arriving to the area already the night before, it makes sense to drop by the Visitor Center to get tickets fo the next day’s tour. Alternatively, you can purchase tour tickets from Colorado Welcome Center in the town of Cortez.

By the time we arrived at around noon, the two most popular tours had already almost sold out for the day. We managed to snatch tickets for the Balcony House Tour at 4.30 pm (first available slot) and left Cliff Palace Tour for the next morning. These basic tours are $4 per person and can be only bought in person. Specialty tours are sold also at recreation.gov, which I recommend to check out well in advance. I would have personally wanted to visit Cliff Palace at sunset for a special photography tour, but it had already sold out a month before!

Mesa Verde National Park Ranger
Tours are led by national park rangers, whose uniforms include a rain cover for their hat. Nice!

Balcony House Tour

Balcony House is the more challenging of the two basic tours: you’ll have to climb several ladders as well as crawl through a narrow corridor that gave me the jitters beforehand. In the end, though, it was my favorite of the two thanks to its active hands-on nature – or rather, hands-off, touching the ruins is not allowed! There are replicas of the ladders and corridor at the Visitor Center, so you can decide for yourself whether the tour’s the right fit for you. The ladders were exactly the same as on the tour, but the corridor was far more accommodating on the tour, which was VERY nice.

Ladders, Balcony House, Mesa Verde
The ladders were so wide they could be climbed in pairs.
Route to Balcony House, Mesa Verde
The views are excellent, if you can spare to look around
Climbing the ladders, Balcony House, Mesa Verde
It didn’t even cross my mind that climbing ladders could be hard, but some of the visitors really had trouble coordinating their limbs. I guess they haven’t been jumping from ladders as kids!
Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Hundreds of years old walls are not made for leaning, so Iiro kept his hands up in the air.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Ancestral pueblo apartment building: two doors, and the upstairs unit has a nice balcony.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde, narrow corridor
The tour requires you to crawl through a tiny house, no way around this. In the end, it was much easier than I had thought, because there’s a wider space in the middle that eliminated my claustrophobia.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde, narrow corridor
A little narrow at the shoulders. Guessing the Ancestral Pueblo weren’t too sturdy.

Balcony House has around forty rooms, which makes it average in terms of size for Mesa Verde cliff houses. The ranger on the tour told us tales of Mesa Verde history, pointed out details in Balcony House (murals, kivas), and explained in detail the art of dendrochronology, also known as tree-ring dating, which helped the scientists place the cliff houses on a timeline. With the lack of written history from the Ancestral Pueblo people, anthropologists have resorted to studying their descendants, the Pueblo and the Hopi people, to make educated guesses on centuries-old traditions, and the ranger went on to explain a bit about the rites of passage of the Pueblo.

Mesa Verde Mano & Metate
Dried corn kernels are ground with a round stone called mano on top of a stone slab called metate.

Corn was and still is a staple in the Pueblo diet. It’s a hard day’s work grinding dried corn, and this work is traditionally done by the women. The Hopi Indians’ female rite of passage centered on this practice: girls are locked in small groups in a dark room to grind corn four days in a row. Talking, sleeping and food breaks are allowed, but light is not, and no outsider can lay their eyes on the girls. After four days, the older women wash the girls’ hairs ceremoniously and style them on two buns above their ears, after which the girls can enter the society as women of marrying age. To me, the buns hold an odd resemblance…

Two peas in a pod: princess Leia and a Hopi girl
Two peas in a pod: princess Leia and a Hopi girl
Climbing out of Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Towards the end of the tour there was a spot where I felt it was better not to look down. Overall, however, can’t say my claustro- and acrophobias did not bother me.

Cliff Palace Tour

Cliff Palace was the administrative center of Mesa Verde: 150 rooms, 23 ceremonial kivas, but only around a hundred residents. Not that administrative centers tend to have that many residents… In any case, it’s the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, and the route is easier than the one to Balcony House with only a couple short ladders and no standing on high cliffs.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace
Ranger, leading a moment of silence

Our Cliff Palace Tour really brought out the differences between rangers. The ranger at Balcony House was informative, shooting out facts one after another with so many details you had to keep focused constantly on the talk. The Cliff Palace ranger, on the other hand, let the sights speak for themselves, kept moments of silence to “enjoy the views” and philosophically pondered the Ancestral Pueblo way of life. I’m guessing this was due to the fact that the Balcony House ranger was working her 10th summer at Mesa Verde, wheres the Cliff Palace ranger had just started.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace is impressive already from the lookout point, but if you’ve got the time, I sincerely recommend taking a closer look.

Spruce Tree House

If you don’t have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House. In fact, even if you do have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House anyway: Mesa Verde isn’t Mesa Verde with a Spruce Tree House visit. It’s the only cliff dwelling in the area, where you don’t have to take a tour to get up close, and you even have a chance to climb down a restored kiva.

Mesa Verde - Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House from above. The route down isn’t long.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

We also thought about hiking Petroglyph Point Trail (4km) that leaves from close to Spruce Tree House, but the rainy weather made us think again. Instead, we popped by Chapin Mesa Archelogical Museum, which I don’t recommend if you’re short on time: you’re here to look at the buildings, not at stuff in vitrines.

Mesa Top Loop

This one-way road can take anywhere from half an hour to two, depending on how much you stop to take a look around. As wannabe-archaeologists, we stopped everywhere we could to marvel at the more-than-millennia-old dwellings, the oldest in the area, which would have looked like holes in the ground without the interpretive signs. This is a good tour to do on a rainy day, since most of the sights are indoors or at least under cover. If you go here, pick up a guide leaflet from the Visitor Center for $0.50.

If you’re too busy to stop everywhere, at least stop at the lookout at Sun Point View, where you have a great view of several cliff dwellings at once.

Mesa Verde pit houses and villages
A couple thousand years old pit house. How did they not die of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Far View Village Pueblos

Just when we thought we had already seen everything, here comes Far View. This is the place for Mesa Verde’s largest mesa top ruins, whole village pueblos right next to each other, and many of them were only abandoned at the same time as the cliff dwellings. At this point, we were already a little tired of all the ruins and in a hurry to make it to the next stop on our trip, but we stopped briefly enough to figure out that if we ever come here again, the short walking trail here is a must-do. Highly recommended you leave some time for this.

Mesa Verde Far View Sites
Even a thousand years ago they knew how to decorate their walls

Mesa Verde Far View Sites

Best Views: Park Point Overlook

Although Mesa Verde is known for its historical significance, you can’t ignore the nature and the strikingly beautiful mesas. The best place to take these in is Park Point Overlook, the highest point in the park, with 360-degree views to every direction. Because of this, the park’s fire ranger station is situated here, and during dry season there’s a 24/7 guard here to watch out for wildfires. Several large wildfires have scorched the area in the past couple of decades, and long-ago burned trees line the roads.

Mesa Verde Landscape
View to the South toward the mesa tops
Mesa Verde Mountains
View to the East, where rain was approaching
Eat: Far View Terrace in the park is a good cafeteria-style lunch restaurant with a selection of burgers, hot dogs, and… navajo tacos! Try these out if you haven’t. Spruce Tree Terrace probably has the same selection, but the views aren’t as good.

Sleep: We slept at the Morefield Campground inside the park, where we had reserved a spot – a good choice, because thanks to Memorial Day weekend, the “almost never full” campground was indeed full. Even with the reservation, you’ll need to pick out the spot by yourself in a first-come-first-serve style, so go early if you have a strong preference for it. The campground has decent free showers, and the General Store stocks firewood, food, and other essentials.

The night before we stayed an hour’s drive away at Purgatory Ski Resort’s Village Condos, a real steal outside the high winter season: an excellent studio with a fireplace and a kitchenette cost only $70 a night. Highly recommended if you’re passing by.