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As perpetual travelers, seeing new and novel things is sort of a normal state of being for James and me. In one sense, it’s great that we’re able to experience so many wonderful places, but in another, anyone who’s seen so much becomes just a little harder to impress. If you travel a lot, dear reader, you know exactly what I mean.
These days whenever we stumble upon a place that brings on those less-frequently-occurring feelings of awe and wonder, we become especially excited. Most recently, Mesa Verde National Park was that very place for us.
The Mesa Verde National Park Backstory:
Back in 1888, two cowboys were tracking their lost cattle in a snowstorm. From their viewpoint on the edge of a steep-walled cliff, they unexpectedly spotted traces of walls and towers built into the cliffside across the canyon. Curious and awestruck, they explored the network of rooms and found pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts. They named the dwelling “Cliff Palace,” and that name still holds today.
Fast forward to 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to “preserve the works of man.” Fun fact for fellow park nerds: Mesa Verde was the first US national park devoted to cultural history, protecting man-made structures rather than natural features. Kinda cool, right?
The park is located in a sparsely populated part of western Colorado and protects thousands of remarkably preserved archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, all built by the Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited Mesa Verde for more than 700 years from about AD 550 to 1300. While we’re throwing out fun facts, there were more people living in this area back in the Ancestral Puebloans heyday than there are today.
The Highlights Of Our Stop At Mesa Verde National Park
When you think of national parks, two of the most common activities that come to mind are hiking and scenic driving. Mesa Verde has those, but its real claim to fame and what makes it most unique are its ranger-led cliff dwelling tours… of which we did two. We also discovered a gem of a bike path set away from the crowds that tours even more ruins. Read on for a little recap of our time visiting this incredible park.
Y’all know James and I are both planners by nature, and to be honest I’m even MORE of a planner than James. Try as I might to fight it and go-with-the-flow, detailed plans just make me happy. Some people have chocolate? Me, I have plans. Although chocolate certainly doesn’t suck either.
So, when I was arranging our camping at the only campground in the park, I was relieved to see they took reservations and still had some sites available on our days.
Turns out the campground is huge and rarely fills so I had nothing to worry about. I was a little concerned that I couldn’t reserve a specific spot online, but that turned out to be a blessing. We got to drive around and choose our own spot upon arrival. Score!
There are only a small percentage of spots at Mesa Verde with full hookups, and those do fill up quickly. Luckily, we were rolling in Parky with his Pure3 battery system, and even if our campsite had hookups, we wouldn’t bother.
There’s quite a variety of campsites, some in the trees, some open, some close together, others a good distance from the next site… its eclectic layout added to its charm. We picked a lovely spot away from other campers, and it turned out to be an enjoyable basecamp during our time there.
CLIFF PALACE RANGER-LED TOUR:
Cliff Palace is one of the most preserved and breathtaking cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. It was also the largest cliff dwelling likely housing around 100 people in its 150 rooms and 20 kivas.
You’ve probably seen photos of the famous Cliff Palace somewhere along your lifeline, but it’s a very different experience standing right there smack dab in the middle of it. I experienced this overwhelming sensation, I suppose it was me trying to wrap my brain around the fact that I was standing in a fascinating piece of history. People lived, loved, died right there. A people much stronger and hardier than me. It was very humbling.
The Cliff Palace tour takes about an hour.
The max allowed on a tour is 55 people, and both our tours were filled to capacity.
Even though this is the physically easiest of the Mesa Verde tours, it’s still got some challenging bits and we made sure to stay at the front of the group, since we’d need less time than the families with small kids climbing up and down to the ruins.
Our ranger explained how the cliff dwellers had to climb to the mesa above to work and cultivate their crops. They must have been the most amazing rock climbers. And clearly ‘fear of heights’ wasn’t a thing back then. I would have been so screwed had I been born 700 years ago to the cliff dwellers.
BALCONY HOUSE RANGER-LED TOUR:
THIS tour takes a bit of nerve to do, and with my lack of love for heights, I’d been fretting about doing this tour all day. The Balcony House Tour of Doom requires climbing ladders from 15ft to 30ft (yes, you read that 30 correctly) where you’re free climbing on a cliff wall with lovely exposed views of the valley 600. FEET. BELOW.
Even though I was a big stress ball about doing this tour, the stupid thing is I’m the one who signed us up for it!!! I get myself in these situations all the time… it seems like a good idea when I’m buying the tickets, but minutes before the actual event of terror itself, I’m really ticked at the idiocy of Brave Stef who roped me into such ridiculousness.
James reassured me if I started panicking he’d be there for me… to take pictures. Thanks honey! (…and remember, the female memory is long.)
Here’s the ladder I was most scared of:
When it was my turn to climb it, James played me some background climbing music from his phone much to the amusement of our other tour-goers. His song choice? “O Fortuna” by Carl Orff. That song will now forever take me back to this day and remind me what a nut job I married.
As it always goes with these self-imposed situations of terror, I survived.
And not just survived, I was so grateful I had this experience.
It was such an incredible tour of yet another amazing cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde Nat’l Park. And as strenuous as it was, I was certainly glad for my health and fitness AND my ability to push my chicken self into the discomfort zone… without those things this isn’t a tour I could have done.
Bike Ride, Anyone?!?
Okay NOW I’ve got our cycling nuts readers’ attention! Mesa Verde has only 2 options for cycling. One, advanced road cyclists can do the challenging but stunning road ride out to explore the Chapin Mesa area and back… 50 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing. OR! Those of you who aren’t cycling masochists can transport your bikes to the Wetherill Mesa, and ride the 6 mile Long House Loop paved trail.
Cars aren’t allowed on Long House Loop, and because of its length, people without bikes don’t often wander too far down the path. After doing the very popular ranger-led tours, having the Wetherill Mesa bike loop all to ourselves was an extra special treat.
The climbs are gentle enough that even beginner bikers can handle it, and the real show-stoppers of the loop are all the overlooks and ancient ruins along the way. The loop travels to various archaelogical sites and overlooks, some are just a short distance off the loop, and are some up to a mile out & back, so exploring the area is perfect on bikes.
We spent about two hours doing the loop and seeing all the ruins along the way.
One of the overlooks gives this great view of the famous Long House, the second largest cliff dwelling in the park:
This cliff dwelling is known as the Nordenskiöld Site #16, named after a gentleman who documented and photographed it once upon a time. It’s about a half mile off the bike loop on a gravel trail and well worth the detour:
The information about bikes in the park can be a little confusing, here are the park’s posted rules. Though bikes aren’t allowed on ‘trails’, the Long House Loop paved path isn’t included in that. So bring your bikes, folks! The Long House Loop was a wonderful surprise we didn’t learn about until we got to the park, and even though it wasn’t on my itinerary, we did it anyway!!! See? I can do spontaneous.
Hiking Grand Finale! The Petroglyph Point Hike
Petroglyph Point Trail, in Mesa Verde National Park, is one of the most scenic and FUN hikes I’ve ever done. As in ever. No exaggeration.
It’s only 2.5 miles, but it’s technical enough it took us 2 glorious hours!!!
The hike has loads of stone staircases and rocks and narrow bits to maneuver, making it feel very playground-like.
The Petroglyph Point trail is a loop, and the first half is the technical bit, traveling along a lower cliff edge taking you to an amazing petroglyph panel:
After viewing the panel, the trail begins its turn-around and climbs up to the the top of the mesa, which was the only scary bit for my heights-challenged spidey sensor. Once up on the mesa top, it’s a gentle stroll back.
The views and the lookouts along the top of the mesa were phenomenal:
And there you go!
Those were the main things we did during our Mesa Verde visit. Oh yes, there was one more rather memorable thing that happened:
James’ shower sing-off with the lady in the next stall over at the Mesa Verde showerhouse.
The showers are the sort that each have their own door to the outside and there are about, maybe, 10 of them in a line. Throughout my entire shower, there was a woman singing something very Pirates of Penzance-ish in one of the next showers (rather loudly). Since she was still going when it was James’ turn in the shower, he started belting out Bohemian Rhapsody (even louder). It turned into a battle for showerhouse attention… one taking a breath and the other quickly picking it up until they needed air. Queen, then Pirates, then Queen again. It was both amusing and disturbing for those of us milling about outside the showerhouse. In fact I went to hide in the van, and even from inside with windows closed, I could still hear them battling it out plain as day. So, to the singing-showering lady that James had a little fun messing with, I’m sorry. While I’m used to antics on Planet James, it can certainly take newbies by surprise.
This got long.
Words fly when you’re having fun, I guess!
In closing, I’ll just leave you with this. Mesa Verde National Park, of all the countless parks we’ve visited so far this year, is going to be one that stays with me for a long time to come. If you find yourself RVing anywhere near the Mesa Verde area, just go visit! And prepared to be dazzled.