After stocking up on supplies in Durango, CO, I take 160 west to the small town of Mancos, where my friend Kate is celebrating her birthday. Her and her husband bought property in the area where they park their RV in the summer, then in the winter they travel around the south. They happen to have a guest pad for visitors, which I make use of to get some packages from Amazon mailed to further outfit my new tiny camper, and take some photos of the Hiker Trailer to update the About page and other parts of the website.
October 14, Sunday
Mancos is only about 15 minutes from Mesa Verde National Park, which I haven’t been to before. In general, the weather has continued to be cold and rainy (but at least not snowy!) since I departed Silverton farther north in the mountains, but this afternoon there’s at least sun if not warmth.
After working for a while I hop into Bertha and cruise west to the park. My first stop is the visitor center just inside the entrance. The parking lot is mostly empty I’m happy to see – this is the top benefit of visiting tourist locations in the off season.
The biggest draw of Mesa Verde is the Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwelling ruins. I speak to a ranger about tour and hiking options, and in the end decide to go hiking today, and purchase a tour ticket for one of the ruins tomorrow. More about that later.
Past the visitor center I stop at the pay station and show my Interagency Annual Pass that gets me into all national parks, monuments, seashores, etc. for $80 for a calendar year – a great deal for the nomad who isn’t old enough for the senior pass. From there, the only choice is to go south (up) Mesa Top Ruins Road.
It’s quite a climb up into the park… which can only be expected with the word “mesa” in the name. But I learned at the visitor center that Mesa Verde is not actually a mesa. It has a slope of about seven degrees to the south, thereby making it a cuesta. But it looks like a mesa – the tallest edge is what you see coming up the road.
At the top is Morefield Campground, a sprawling affair with multiple loops totaling 267 sites set in an open area of bushy oak and grass. Of those sites only 15 offer full hookups, and those require reservations. Supposedly the campground rarely fills, even in the busy season. Today it looks quite empty, it closes in four days. As far as amenities go, there’s a gas station, dump station, showers (free), coin-operated laundry, gift shop and grocery store up here. I don’t take a real close look at the sites but from cruising by on my way to the hiking trails, they appear to be pretty level with good separation.
There are three trails coming from the campground that all got pretty good reviews from the ranger. I opt for the one at the very end of the line, Point Lookout Trail.
It’s only 2.2 miles round-trip but a pretty steep climb, with numerous switchbacks going up to… Point Lookout. This is a finger of the mesa (cuesta) that juts out over the plain below and as advertised, there are some great views.
It’s cold and windy enough today that I have my winter jacket and smartwool hat on, even with the exercise. I was smart enough to bring my mini tripod up with me, to get photos.
Far below, you can see Mesa Top Ruins Road. It’s a pretty steep dropoff.
On the point proper, a strong wind keeps me from leaning out too far. Colorado is definitely moving into late fall. The branches of deciduous trees stand bare and the mountains to the north are capped with new snow. On the rainy days in Mancos, I can watch the snow line creep lower and lower down the mountains. It won’t be long until it’s time to head south.
A point that is further illustrated back at camp overnight when I wake up cold at 5 in the morning. It’s down to 16 degrees outside. I never would have dared dry camp in temps this low in the Casita because of the plumbing. All I need to worry about in the Hiker Trailer is myself. I move around in my nest of sleeping bags and blankets to warm myself up, then fall back asleep.
This morning I’m very grateful that I decided on the 11 am tour instead of the 9:20 am tour. It may only be 15 minutes from Mancos to the visitor center, but Balcony House is much farther in the park, a good hour’s drive. As it is, I’m still dressed in winter gear complete with thermal underlayer when I arrive at the tour meetup point.
There are several cliff dwelling ruins visible from the trails and driving roads inside the park, and one one those, Step House, you can walk through yourself on a self-guided tour. (Another ruin, Spruce Tree House, also use to be walk-through but rock fall concerns have it closed for the foreseeable future.)
But then there are three cliff dwellings that require a ranger-led tour to see: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. One is already closed for the season, and the last two end on October 20th. All tours are $5 per adult, and during the busy season they can fill up fast. If you’re visiting Mesa Verde over multiple days, I sign up for a tour on your first day to make sure you get one. Although, that wouldn’t have been a problem this late in the season.
I opt for Balcony House, which the ranger informs me is the most “adventurous” of the tours. There are three ladder climbs and one section of crawling on hands-and-knees through a tunnel. None of which I would say were particularly strenuous, but if you’re mobility limited this is probably not the tour for you.
The tour starts at a seep spring near the cliff dwelling. Our ranger informs our bundled-up crew that a big part of why the Ancient Puebloan people likely settled on Mesa Verde was because seep springs offered a year-round source of water in an area that gets quite arid and hot in the summer. Corn was a staple crop for these people, and it was grown on top of the mesa/cuesta where summer temperatures were a bit cooler and water could be carried up from the seep springs.
Seep springs form when rain water permeates softer rock layers, and then meets a harder, impervious layer of rock that doesn’t let the water pass. The water travels above the harder rock layer until it finds an exit, often along the wall of a cliff. The passing water overtime erodes the rock, creating a divot in the cliff. These divots overtime become the large hollows where the cliff dwellings were built, offering a source of both shelter and water.
The buildings themselves are very impressive.
Scientists and archaeologists don’t have all the answers to the cliff dwellings and the people who built them. New ideas are constantly arising as others are proven false. Much of the history of the area is conjecture. But the current ruling ideas are as such:
The Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly called the Anasazi), had likely lived on Mesa Verde for about 600 years before building the cliff dwellings. During that age, the climate was a bit cooler and wetter than it is now, and they mostly subsisted on crops of corn, and squash. Over that period they built their homes on top of the mesa, buildings and cities that grew more complex as time went on. Sadly, ruins from this time period are in pretty poor shape due to exposure and weathering.
It was in the late 1190’s that family groups started moving below the rim and building the cliff dwellings. It might have been because water was getting more scarce and building at the seep springs put them closer to a reliable source. It may have been because an increase in population was creating resource strain and the cliff dwellings were easier to defend. It may have been for reasons we’ll never know.
Balcony House was built in two phases, the first in the 1230’s, and again in the 1270’s. It consists of 40 rooms, and is considered a medium size cliff dwelling. The presence of two kivas (food storage wells) suggests that the dwelling may have been occupied by two family units. Kivas could store a couple year’s worth of food, had wooden tops that could be walked over and a ladder in the center to access the food, and a vent hole to keep food from spoiling.
It was in the late 1270’s that the Ancestral Pueblo people started leaving Mesa Verde for modern day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the mesa was abandoned. Again, no one knows for sure why.
After the hour-long tour, I get back in Bertha and do some more driving. I stop at an overlook to view Tower House, home to the tallest cliff dwelling building left standing at four stories high.
But my favorite stop is Sun Point View. From this overlook you can see ten different cliff dwellings on the opposing canyon wall. A sense of awe fills me: what would it have been like to stand here in 1250 AD when this area was experiencing its peak in population and activity?
I head back to my moochdocking spot at Kate and Roger’s with a head full of questions but a heart full from adventure. It’s never been a goal of mine to visit all the national parks and it probably won’t become one, but I always love when my travels allow me to visit them. I always enjoy the experience and learn something.
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