As promised, this is part two of our trip to the four corners area. So without further ado, Part II.
Mesa Verde Park covers 81.39 miles of mesas and valleys in the southwest corner of Colorado. The park includes over 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. These were the ancestral lands of the Pueblo Indians who later moved further south to join the Pueblo people of Arizona and New Mexico. No one knows for sure, but droughts were probably the main reason for the move. Knowing where they could go, and that the people further south were friendly probably helped make the decision to move a little easier. These people inhabited the Mesa Verde area for 700 years building their apartments in the caves and learning to live and farm the top of the mesas. They are called the Anasazi in the language of the modern Pueblo, meaning “ancient ones” and consisted of Navajo and Zuni people. Oh, by the way, Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table.
Outside the visitors center you will be greeted by the Pueblo Potter, a 2009 limestone sculpture by Adrian Wall.
But the first thing you see besides the building is The Ancient Ones, a breathtaking statue by Edward J. Fraughton. My picture here doesn’t do it justice, the light was not in my favor. It depicts a scene out of everyday life for these people. A man climbing a cliff face with nothing but small hand and footholds carved out of the rock to hold on to with firewood on his back.
The next thing we did was plan our visit with info and maps provided by the visitors center. We already knew we were not going to see the Cliff Palace and we wanted to do our own, self-guided tour which left us one clear choice that would take us to Spruce Tree House and Mesa Top Loop Road.
Spruce Tree House is one of the few cliff dwellings you can visit without a guide. To get there you must descend to the valley floor via a half mile of switchback trail (you’re going to climb back up this trail to get out so make sure you are physically ready to do it in the heat and sun) then cross the valley floor and take a short path up to the cave. There are also petroglyphs to see here if you have time to take the two mile, round-trip hike to see them.
The dwellings reach deep into the cave making use of every nook and cranny.
More of Spruce Tree House
Open Kiva. Kiva’s were underground structures with wooden roofs believed to be used for spiritual and community gatherings. Normally all you would see from these angles would be a small, square hole with a ladder sticking out of it.
Once we were done gawking at Spruce Tree House, it was time to take on the next leg of our Mesa Verde Adventure, which was actually several rolled into one.
Mesa Top Loop Road is a six-mile driving tour with twelve sites along the way. Some are seen from a distance such as Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling in the park which can be seen from Sun Point and Sun Temple stops.
Others sites, can be visited during the drive on top of the mesa including an old, man-made reservoir and surface dwellings like these.
There’s a lot more to see on this drive. Including, a 365 degree view from South Point View (also where the fire watchtower is located).
Speaking of fires…don’t be discouraged by some of the views that you’ll see on the Mesa Top Road Drive. You’re going to see some real fire devastation, but at the same time, your going to see tremendous renewal. The fires exposed a lot of new archaeological sites and more opportunities to learn about the Anasazi people.
Between 1934 and 2003, the Mesa Verde Park has experienced 12 major wildfires, all determined to have been started by lightning. Since 2000 alone over 24,000 acres have been scorched. But then you will also come across breathtaking views like this…
When I said to make sure you are physically ready to hike in Mesa Verde National Park I meant it. I saw at least one ranger have to go down the switchback path at the Spruce Tree House with oxygen and a portable defibrillator. Elevations range from 6,000ft to over 8,500ft. The guided tours require guides for a reason. Access to the Cliff Palace includes climbing down a long, narrow ladder in a sandstone crevice near the edge of the cliff. Don’t push it. Stop and take a break if you need to. Pace yourself. That means go at your OWN pace. The path to Spruce Tree House has benches and rocks to sit on along the way. There is poison ivy on this trail and it is marked. You are forewarned.
Bring plenty of water with you. We were there just two weeks ago and although the weather was mild (in the 80 degree range), the sun still gets hot in a hurry and there is not much opportunity for shade. Although some signs and websites say water is available at every stop on Mesa Top Road, it is not. Don’t take the chance. Bring your sunscreen!
Finally, if you really want to explore the wonders of Mesa Verde National Park. I would recommend making a long weekend out of it. We only saw a small fraction of what the park has to offer. There is a resort area and plenty of camp sites as well. Stay a couple of days and take some time to explore. There is also a restaurant at Far View Area. Nothing fancy. but there’s food, drink, and a gift shop. The park fee is $5 or $10 depending on what time of year it is. The guided tours are $4 unless you opt for the twilight tour and that’s $12. Make sure you get a map and a visitors guide and read them. Make sure you don’t miss and cool or important stuff!
The last leg of our journey saw us leaving our lodgings at the Ute Mountain Casino and Hotel a day early. We traveled to Pagosa Springs and stayed the night there in a really reasonable, tiny, family owned hotel by the highway called the Alpine Inn that I found on tripadvisor.com. We visited a couple of the local pubs, took a gander at the hot springs pools at The Springs hot springs and made a mental note to come back just to go there. We had dinner at the second best and more reasonably priced restaurant in town, Boss Hog’s Restaurant and Saloon. The people were very friendly and the food was decent.
Our route home took us over Wolf Creek Pass and through the San Luis Valley, down the Cosmic Highway (Highway 17). Note to self, RV camping at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and/or at the UFO Watchtower should be in my future. I could see how the great, wide open, and sparsely populated San Luis valley could seem like a nice place to land your space craft.
The western side of Wolf Creek Pass started out beautiful beginning with Treasure Falls, about 15 miles east of Pagosa Springs. The falls are named after Treasure Mountain, which legend says, holds the secret treasure of some Frenchmen that snuck into the area and struck it rich.
It was a cool morning so the mists hung over ponds along the way and the air around the falls was crisp and heavy with the smell of deep pine forest. You can do a side trip here and take the trail to the top of the falls for about at 300ft climb. Set aside about 45 minutes if you want to make the 1/2-mile round trip.
As we made our way further up the pass things began to get strange, then downright eerie, then just sad. Here in Colorado we’ve been battling the pine beetle for some time now. On the front range we have seen some issues, but nothing prepared me for the absolute devastation of so many old pines over such a large area. In this case, it was the spruce beetle. Tens of thousands of acres in the San Juan forest, including Wolf Creek Pass have died leaving vast swaths of dead trees interspersed with other species not affected by this particular beetle. This is a wildfire just waiting for lightning.
The eastern side of the pass was a little better and dropped us into the San Luis Valley. From Alomosa, we found ourselves on Highway 17, The Cosmic Highway with one more mountain range, the beautiful Sangre de Cristos, to cross to get home.
If you look closely, that barely discernable, hazy line of demarcation at the foot of the mountains is the Great Sand Dunes. A desert of sand dunes, in the middle of the Colorado Mountains with Medano Creek flowing through them. Again, you can’t make this stuff up.
Back at home after a full week on the road I was glad to be back in my own bed with my own pillow (big satisfied sigh). We also missed a cold snap in the Colorado Springs area that apparently had brought a dusting of snow to some parts of the area. Temperatures were back inthe 70s and 80s by the time we got back. Oh shucky darn.
I love trips like this where I get see so much. Sometimes it can feel a little bit like sensory overload, with so much to see, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love to travel and see new things and share them with others who may share the same passion. Happy travels everyone! Be safe!