The Colorado Plateau: Part 2 - Monument Valley & Mesa Verde National Park

Our trip to the Colorado Plateau began with a day at The Grand Canyon.

As we continued to drive northward into Utah we watched the landscape change. Our tour director began to talk to us a lot about Indian reservations and the practice of sending American Indians in the late 1800s and early 1900s to Indian Boarding Schools.

How had I missed this part of American history?

We watched a movie with Judy Garland - The Harvey Girls - and learned the history of the railroad coming through the west.

So many movies have been filmed in Monument Valley. My son said he felt like he was in the movie “Cars”.

I remarked to my husband that the kids were learning more on this trip than they ever could have sitting at home reading history books (even the best living history books). There is nothing like schooling on the road and traveling with an expert guide!

(Read Part I to hear about how we experienced the American Southwest this summer with Trafalgar’s Colorful Trails of the Southwest Tour.)

The Colorado Plateau: Part 2 - Monument Valley & Mesa Verde National Park — our itinerary and learning resources

Monument Valley

When we arrived in Monument Valley (in the heart of a Navajo reservation) it was late afternoon. The weather was getting cool and it was quite windy. Our director handed out bandanas, and (as you can see) my son used his to its full potential.

Learn About Monument Valley

I knew from our itinerary that we would be having a jeep tour of Monument Valley and then eating dinner prepared by the Navajo, with a little bit of music afterwards.

None of us were very familiar with Monument Valley, but quickly recognized it from so many iconic photographs we had seen over the years.

Monument Valley is like a national park, but it falls within the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation's 27,425-square-mile (71,000 square kilometers) territory in the Four Corners region of the United States. Of that 17 million acres, more than 91,000 acres are set aside as Monument Valley Tribal Park — a space larger than Arches National Park. - source

Taking a tour led by a Navajo was a wonderful experience. We were able to go down into Monument Valley, off of the paved roads, and learn the names of the different monuments and a more detailed history.

Learn About Monument Valley

I was, again, very thankful for our Trafalgar guide (Gordon), because he was well versed in the history of this area. It is part of our nation’s history that I think we could easily gloss over or even miss.

I was sitting in the front of our tour bus on this day and asked our guide a lot of questions. He gave me book recommendations and subject areas to further research with the kids when we got home.

(I was in homeschool mama heaven!)

White people recognize the valley from the movies, but that’s the extent of it,” says Martin Begaye, program manager for the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department. “They don’t know about its geology, or its history, or about the Navajo people. Their knowledge is very superficial.”
- The Smithsonian Magazine

I’m so thankful we could go deeper - beyond the “superficial” knowledge, and really talk about the problems the Indians have faced over the past centuries, and the problems they still face today. Our guide mentioned Jim Thorpe - the football player - who had attended an Indian School in Pennsylvania. It was little things like this that kept my children engaged throughout our trip. (In fact, we are reading this book aloud right now because we wanted to find out more about Jim Thorpe and the schools.)

We needed to pinch ourselves a few times as we were riding in a jeep through Monument Valley. The beauty was overwhelming, especially with the sunset on the horizon. I never knew rocks could have so many beautiful colors. The kids were quiet - just taking it all in. We had been transported to a bygone era.

Learn About Monument Valley

We ate dinner outdoors - prepared by the Navajos - and enjoyed some entertainment - then we were on our way again.

Our guide showed us a movie as we traveled - a documentary about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. I had NO IDEA! We will be reading about the Code Talkers later this summer!

After Monument Valley we traveled further north. Our tour bus pulled over and our director said, “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.”

None of us were sure what he meant, but it quickly became obvious that we were in the spot (Mexican Hat, Utah) where Forrest Gump decided to stop running and return home! There were cars pulled over on the side of the road, and people were standing in the middle of the road taking pictures.

Doesn’t it look familiar to you? Grant had to get out and run down the road. I’m a total dope because you know what I did? I cried. I loved that movie so much and it was overwhelming to me that we were in that spot and it was so very beautiful.

(Forrest Gump movie night is coming up soon!)

Mexican Hat, Utah - the site where Forrest Gump stopped running

We stayed that evening at the Desert Rose Inn (Bluff Utah) - but it was just a quick stop because we would be up and out the next morning at 7 a.m. and head to Mesa Verde National Park!

Mesa Verde National Park

Both of my children remembered reading many years ago (through some of the living books we had gotten in a Sonlight package) about the Anasazi cliff dwellings - those apartment style dwellings carved in the side of cliffs stick with a lot of people, I think!

Our guide pointed out that he would refer to this group of people as the Ancestral Puebloans.

Mesa Verde literally translates to “green table”, and as we were driving along the highway which borders one side of the park, you could see that long “green table” off to our side. We learned that these groups of Indians would scale the cliffs and create dwellings purely for self preservation. Farming was easier on the tops of the “tables” and enemies could be more easily spotted from a higher vantage point.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the intricacy and preservation of these cliff dwellings astounded all of us!

Learning Resources for Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Dwellings
Learn About Mesa Verde National Park

The above picture was our lunch view that day! We found a covered picnic spot (that our tour director staked out for us) and sat for an hour just listening to the birds and looking at these dwellings. It’s a lot to take in when you are sitting in front of it.

This particular area is called Cliff Palace. Building here began in roughly 1275 CE - and by the end of the 13th century these canyons were EMPTY. How and why the people disappeared is still a mystery. Another sobering fact: roughly 50% of the children born in this area died before the age of five.

And - wherever there is a bookstore I am sure to be. The gift shop had quite a good separate bookstore - I picked up a few books (I’ve listed them among the resources below.).

Learn about Mesa Verde National Park

There could have been a lot more to see and do in Mesa Verde, but we had approximately 4 hours in the park.

Our tour, Colorful Trails of the Southwest, was designed to highlight many of the sites on the Colorado Plateau. We got a wonderful overview of the area, and I would love to go back one day and focus specifically on just a couple of the parks we were only able to briefly see. The biggest gift we received was being able to steep ourselves in Native American culture. We gained knowledge, appreciation, and a reverence for this group of people who have historically been marginalized all in the name of “progress”.

Subjects to explore:

  • Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

  • Indian Boarding Schools

  • The Harvey Girls

  • Railroad Expansion

  • Anasazi Cliff Dwellings - What happened to the people there?

Resources for Learning More About Monument Valley and Mesa Verde

This is Part II in the Colorado Plateau Series. Other posts can be found here:

Part I: The Grand Canyon

I’d love to hear if you’ve been to either and/or both of these places.

Tell me about it in the comments below!

The Colorado Plateau - Part I: Learn About the Grand Canyon

We recently checked off an item near the top of our family bucket list.

People will tell you the feeling you have when you first see the Grand Canyon is indescribable. We heard things like “Pictures don’t do it justice.” and “It looks like you are standing in a painting.”

Yep. All of the above.

Truly - you really can’t understand until you have been there.

John Wesley Powell, one of the most famous explorers of the land west of the 100th meridian, named this area during his 1869 expedition.

The Colorado Plateau comprises a series of tablelands (plateaus or mesas) located within an immense basin surrounded by highlands. Stream valleys that are typically narrow and widely spaced dissect the region, as do larger valleys, including the most spectacular – the Grand Canyon. ~ The National Park Service

(Before we left for our trip I read Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the 100th Meridian - I highly recommend this to prepare yourself!)

These four states provide some of the most beautiful landscapes and rich learning opportunities of any concentrated area in the United States.

The Colorado Plateau - Part I: The Grand Canyon - itinerary and learning resources

Traveling the Colorado Plateau

When I was sharing pictures from our trip on Instagram, so many of my followers said - you MUST share your itinerary.

Our itinerary was simple because I didn’t have to plan a single thing.

We took a Trafalgar Tour - Colorful Trails of the Southwest. I knew we wanted to cover a lot of ground in approximately 8-10 days. I also knew that I didn’t want my husband to have to worry about a SINGLE THING - driving, deciding where to stay, what to eat, etc… After pricing some tours and then pricing our own airfare, vehicle rental, hotel prices, etc… a tour turned out to be a fabulous option.

Advantages of a tour experience:

  • you can truly RELAX - everything is decided for you

  • the itinerary keeps you MOVING - we did have some down time, but we were up and out early every morning and didn’t waste time

  • kids aren’t as free to complain or nag at each other because they are with other people

  • an EXPERT tour guide provides a wonderful educational experience - perfect for homeschoolers!

  • the best sights, hotels, restaurants, trails, picture spots, etc… are chosen for you

  • we met locals in several areas and felt we learned a lot more this way

  • you meet other people from all over the world and are enriched by spending a week with them

The first day we traveled from Phoenix to Scottsdale, to Sedona - and that evening found us at the Grand Canyon, staying at one of the lodges in the National Park.

We had some time to just STARE into the canyon. Truly - photos don’t do it justice.

The sun was beginning to set - which proved to be a perfect time to take pictures and watch the light and shadow play off of the rock formations. We never realized you could see so many colors of ROCK. The expansiveness of the canyon was breathtaking.

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.
- John Wesley Powell

Visit the Grand Canyon - resources for learning with homeschoolers

We heard from “Canyon Tim” while we sat overlooking the canyon. He taught us about the geology of the canyon and the many different types of rock found in the Grand Canyon. This was a spectacular science lesson!

That night, at dinner, my kids had some great conversations with the people at our table about the age of the earth. I found myself being conflicted and wondering about the actual age of our earth - and my beliefs about Creationism.

A very kind man (the age of my children’s grandparents) from Tennessee gave my daughter what I thought was the best answer - he told her not to be too concerned about the age of it all, but instead to marvel at God’s creation and do everything in her power to love and protect that creation - and to share the good news of Christ. These wonders are placed in our path by God and we them our respect and awe.

I tend to agree. It is hard to argue with good science, but then again with God all things are possible. Some things are supposed to remain a mystery to us. I appreciated that we could have this discussion - and that my kids were even thinking about this. (Please don’t leave me a comment with your opinion about this - I don’t want to debate you here - I’m just happy to have had the discussion with my children.)

A couple of resources if you want to know more:

Learn about the Grand Canyon

The next morning we awoke early, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out to hike The Trail of Time. on our own. Again - more age of the canyon questions, but this time I felt like we could just take it all in and truly stand in awe at the events that had to happen over time for this incredible canyon to form.

Early morning in the Grand Canyon is so peaceful and beautiful. We saw a lot wildlife and were amazed by the lack of people on the trail.

We spent about two hours hiking, stopping for pictures, and just marveling at the beauty. Our guide had explained to us that the Grand Canyon tends to be a more passive national park - meaning people mostly LOOK at the scenery in the park. As we would come to Arches and Mesa Verde we would experience more active National Parks.

I’m sure we could have spent more time and done more activities at the Grand Canyon, but having a little less than 24 hours in the national park was perfect for us - especially because we had more to see and do in the next seven days!

Learn About the Grand Canyon

Learning Resources for The Grand Canyon

There was learning before, during - and will continue to be after - our visit to the Grand Canyon.

We learned more history on our trip than we ever could in a textbook. I count each and every one of our travel days a SCHOOL DAY. This is intentional learning, and I wish every child had the opportunity to learn about America in this way!

No matter what age my children have been, I always have the following strategy for before, during, and after our trips:

  • adult reading for mom and dad — so we can talk with each other and the kids about the area we’re visiting

  • books for the kids to read while on our trip

  • follow up read aloud books, puzzles, coloring, etc…

  • National Parks games are great — they have helped us learn so much!

Click here for Part II of our Colorado Plateau Adventures - Monument Valley and Mesa Verde National Park!

I’d love to know if you’ve traveled to the Grand Canyon, or if you are wanting to make a trip.

I hope these resources have been helpful to you. Leave me a comment below!