The Colorado Adventure: Day 4, part 2
As I looked over the plan for our adventure time after time over the course of a month or so, I couldn’t help but get nervous for our 5th day of the trip. No matter how I tried to tweak it, it was going to be a very long 15-16 hour day, with the end of that day consisting of 3-4 hours of driving after sunset. After a discussion with the family, we decided to adjust the schedule and push on down to Mesa Verde National Park after the Ouray hike, instead of starting with it on day 5. It was a gamble that worked, but just barely…
If you’ve read about our adventure before, skip to the next picture.
I must give credit where it is due. While the majority of the trip were places we knew about, the specific itinerary ideas were thanks to a YouTube channel called Less Junk, More Journey. The channel is a regular vlog about a family traveling around the country full-time in their RV. I used locations from their videos that really interested Cheryl and I, and formed a route that covered most of the state of Colorado. The route’s intention was to give us a taste of what every area had to offer so that we would know what we wanted more of. We consulted the kids to get their input and set our plans in motion.
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwestern high desert area of Colorado, just outside the town of Cortez. The park is famous for the cliff dwellings that are scattered throughout it, and the mystery as to why the inhabits abandoned it. (That’s pretty much been answered by this point, but that is where to story of Mesa Verde kinda begins.)
Now I commented that our decision to adjust the schedule barely worked. Let’s elaborate. In order to fit Mesa Verde into the same day as the Ouray hike we elected to cut out a tour at the Old Hundred Mine near Silverton. Now, you can visit the park anytime during hours of operation, but the three marque dwellings; Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House all require tickets to visit, and those tickets are limited to help lower human impact on the sites. Here is where it started to get tricky, you can buy tickets at the park or at the visitor in Cortez for the day of, or the next day. So we shot down to Cortez and gambled that they would have more tickets as your average person would most likely just go to the park. Here is me informing you that the theory was not correct… they are digital and work off of a database so it doesn’t matter where you buy the tickets from.
You may only buy tickets for two of the three sites per day and we wanted to visit the most popular Cliff Palace, and since it is in the same area, Balcony House. We didn’t make it to Cortez until late afternoon and most people must have had the same idea because they were both sold out. In fact, the only thing left were four tickets for Long House, and the tour started in an hour. There were four of us, and I heard a lady walk up and ask about tickets as I ran out to the car to consult on a change of plans. It took a few seconds for everyone to decide Long would do, I hustled back inside in time to snag that last four tickets, learn that it takes an hour to get to Long House from the visitor center, muter S.O.B. in my head, and get us on the road!
Here is where I discovered just how big Mesa Verde is. The entrance is at the northernmost part of the park; Cliff, Balcony, and several other dwellings are in the south central part (blue star), and Long House is in the farthest southwest corner (red star), and all throughout are trails and various other points of interest. Cortez is only 15 minutes from the entrance, and when the ranger selling the tickets said an hour he meant it! However, I will say that I was kind of impressed with how sporty my wife’s new Jeep Cherokee felt over my Ford Edge… we made it in 45 minutes… just saying. Not only was there like 1000 foot of elevation gain along the route, but look at how curvy that road is, impressed.
When the time for the hike came the ranger turned out to be a retired school teacher drawn to the area by the mystery of the park who stayed for the scenery. I have to admit, I’ve seen my share of deserts, but Mesa is quite pretty. A fire ripped through the area several years back and everywhere you look are the remnants of trees covering the landscape.
The hike itself was about a mile to the descent to the ruins, then roughly a mile of visiting them, then a mile back. The whole way the ranger was a great storyteller discussing what history has taught us. I truly wish I was recording him as he was great and I’d love to relive it with CJ once she’s older! Unfortunately, I was still at a point in The Iowa Hiker that I didn’t want to put others on the spot like that.
The walk to the descent was along a blacktop path that makes it easy for most everyone to venture down. They do give plenty of warning about the elevation and heat, and joked with us about being from Iowa as he pointed out what mountains were. We all chuckled a bit, I didn’t want to inform him that we’d already been at double the elevation or that hiking was kinda my thing. 😉
Finally we made it to the descent, and that view was quite impressive. The closer we got, the more I understood the mystery of the pueblo people. After all, this was a harsh landscape to think of living in, albeit beautiful. As we approached the ruins of Long House I can honestly say I was very surprised at just how large it was, or dare I say, long… (I had to).
Once we arrived the ranger took us around discussing the different aspects of the dwelling and what life would have been like. I was honestly surprised to hear that they estimate that the average lifespan for women was in their mid-20’s, while males were in their mid-30’s. However, once you consider their living and eating habits it does make sense. Toward the end he revealed that evidence has lead them to realize that the original inhabitants were the ancestors of the Hopi people of northern New Mexico. When interviewing the Hopi elders, they were able to describe the ruins of Mesa Verde in detail, even though there was no way for them to have ever visited or know about what existed there. Everything was continuously passed down through the generations. At one point the ranger asked everyone to remain silent and take in the view. The silence was pristine, and the view was golden.
Eventually we had to head back as I’m sure the ranger wanted to head home for the day. Good thing too as weather was starting to move in. On our walk back the storms in the distance created a brilliant contrast with the dead trees and bright green grass.
While at first we thought that just visiting Long House would be good enough, we all agreed we were wrong. There is so much to Mesa Verde National Park that we have to go back. Next time we have to make it at least a 2-3 day adventure so we can not only visit all of the dwellings, but also get our shoes dirty hiking the trails scattered throughout the park.
So while our visit was hurried, winged, and frankly lucky; it was great. Yet another reason to love what Colorado has to offer. If you find yourself looking at Mesa Verde National Park, plan for multiple days if you want the full experience.
See you at the next stop on the Colorado Adventure of 2017!