Monday, September 26, 2011

Mesa Verde National Park

This post was originally published in My Trip Journal on May 24, 2011

Yesterday (Monday, May 23), we visited Mesa Verde National Park. Located 36 miles west of Durango, it was a beautiful drive through mountain passes and into gorgeous green valleys. Closer to the park entrance, the scenery was more reminiscent of our 2007 trip through New Mexico. No surprise there since we are less than 50 miles from the New Mexico border and the closest metropolitan area is Albuquerque which is approximately 215 miles to the southwest of Durango.

I had read that one has to drive 15 more miles along a scenic highway past the official park entrance (IOW, where you PAY!) and to allow an hour just to get to the park visitor center from the fee station. Then it is another 8 miles to the area where the cliff dwellings and museums are located. Bill knew that Mesa Verde meant "green table," so we shouldn't have been surprised as we approached the entrance to see little tiny cars driving WAY up there on a huge flat mesa that rose seemingly out of nowhere! At the end of the day, we both agreed that, although we loved the cliff dwellings for which the park is known, it was the stunningly spectacular drive up and around the mesa that made this park a 15 on a scale of 1-10. The endless views from overlooks along this 15 miles were truly as far as the eye can see with one in particular, having a 360 degree view.

Mesa Verde is the only national park that is set aside "to preserve the works of man." Here is one blurb taken directly from the brochure given at the entrance. "Mesa Verde National Park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans, both atop the mesas and in the cliff dwellings below. The park includes over 4,500 archeological sites, only 600 of them are cliff dwellings."

Only a few of the cliff dwellings are open for self-guided exploration, so once we arrived at the Visitor Center, we had to choose which guided tour we would take. We chose Cliff Palace which is the largest (150 rooms) dwelling. Tours last for one hour and involve climbing ladders and 1/4 mile of walking steep ascents and descents. To get out of the dwelling involves a 100 ft. vertical climb on a ladder. Not everyone could do this and we questioned some of the people we saw joining our tour group. At the end of the tour, we were among the first out as we couldn't imagine how long it would take the entire group (60 people) to climb those ladders, plus we were hungry!! Apparently, the rangers know what they are doing because we ate our picnic lunch at a spot where we could see the exit and we did see the ranger come out, so we can assume at least everyone from our group made it out! It would be a crying shame to visit the park and not be able to do this tour. The story of how this dwelling was discovered (two men searching for lost cattle) and the lives of those who lived here is quite interesting.

Following our tour and lunch, we drove around the rest of the Chapin Mesa loop past the area where Balcony House tours begin. This tour requires climbing ladders which are totally open as well as crawling through a 12-foot long, 18-inch wide tunnel. Anyone with a fear of heights or claustrophobia is strongly discouraged from signing up for the Balcony House tour. You didn't even have to strongly "discourage" me - the words "crawling" and "tunnel" were quite enough. During the busy season, one has to choose between the two tours - you are generally not allowed to do both in the same day.

There are two other driving loops with numerous overlooks to view many of the other cliff dwellings plus visits to the Sun Temple, pithouses (underground areas which are believed to be original dwellings before the larger exposed dwellings were established) and kivas (their religious gathering places). We enjoyed all the overlooks along the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road, but the Weatherill Mesa Loop Road was not yet open for the season.

We must have visited Mesa Verde at the perfect time because it was warm and sunny, but there were no crowds and no traffic. The only time we got any sense of others being in the park was during our Cliff Palace tour and again, the parking lot for the tour meeting place was virtually empty. At times, we felt totally alone up on that mesa. In fact, as we were headed out, we stopped at the park's largest gift shop/restaurant/lodge area for a restroom break and we were the ONLY people in the entire complex who weren't employees. It was a tad eerie!

After exhausting all we could find to do, it was time to head back out (or DOWN would be a better way of expressing it) the 15 mile entrance road. We expected a totally different perspective since it was much later in the day and the sun had moved all the way across the sky. We were NOT disappointed. After exiting the park, it was an easy 30 minute drive back to Durango. 65 mph speed limits and no traffic make for quick trips!!

Following a quick trip to the City Market grocery store (one of Kroger's Colorado affiliates), we settled in after a great day. Bill grilled some delicious steaks and after some computer time, we called it a night.

In case you haven't picked this up by now, we LOVED Mesa Verde National Park. There is plenty to do and see even if one does not want to take either of guided tours. Ironically, I considered not visiting this park because we had spent a good deal of time climbing around on cliff dwellings in New Mexico's Bandolier National Park in 2007. However, in the interest of visiting all the National Parks and getting my National Park Passport stamped, we chose to go. And we would have truly missed a gem if we hadn't.

One more note of interest that I hope might whet your appetite to learn more........these Ancestral Puebloans (they used to be called Anasazi, but now that seems to be politically incorrect, so we must call them Ancestral Puebloans), who built all the intricate and amazing cliff dwellings in the canyons of New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado simply disappeared. The dwellings were occupied for less than 100 years and then were deserted. And we are talking about THOUSANDS of people, not just a few! Theories abound as to why they left and where they went, but no one knows for sure. Many believe today's Navajo, Ute and several other Native American tribes are direct descendents of these folks, but again, no one knows for sure.

I would like to think that someday, somehow in the eternal world that IS my home, I'll have an opportunity to spend some time with these people because I sure would love to hear their stories and can you only imagine what they'd think about mine and yours?

Thanks for reading my ramblings!

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