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Mesa Verde National Park, the land of Ancient Aliens. We arrived at Mesa Verde around 6:00 one evening, tired after a long day of driving and talking and generally being overexcited. I reserved a campsite for us a week or two in advance, so we drove into the park, checked into our site, purchased some firewood, and then signed up for two different cliff-dwelling tours the following day.

That evening Katie and I made a fire, drank red wine and ate the most delicious instant mashed potatoes we’ve ever tasted, and stargazed for hours and hours. The sky was so dark we were able to see the Milky Way; the universe appeared to unfold before us.

For most of the next day we hiked through two different cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. I just about peed myself when I saw Cliff Palace, the iconic Mesa Verde cliff dwelling, for the first time, casually below an overlook I had been standing on for 10 minutes prior to noticing the dwelling. It’s bigger and more intricate than it seems in pictures, and there’s really no way to describe the way it feels to see a home of Ancestral Pueblos from so long ago in a place so  desolate. The dwellings were abandoned around 1300, and although drought is suspected to be the reason, no one really knows. There are over 600 dwellings in the park, but visitors can only explore a small handful of them. They are all incredible.

It was at this park that Katie and I learned about the Junior Ranger program. At every national park site there is an opportunity to become a Junior Ranger of that particular park. There is a short guidebook of questions and activities to complete, and then the Junior Ranger takes an oath to protect national parks, pick up litter, etc., and she or he receives the Junior Ranger badge for that park (there’s a unique badge for every park). What started as a joke became one of our favorite parts of visiting the parks. The activity books facilitated learning and interacting with the park, including asking the rangers questions, looking around for different types of plants and animals, and remembering historical facts we learned along the way. The Rangers of the parks have huge enthusiasm that was endearing and infectious, and Katie and I were both so proud to earn our badges at Mesa Verde and Arches. You can also collect park stamps in a passport book, which we both bought at Mesa Verde, so the whole situation made me want to visit every national park site in the country to earn my stamps and Junior Ranger badges.

*Katie and I camped at Morefield Campground, which was really nice and a convenient spot for the tours the following day.