This August has been one of the most beautiful monsoon seasons we can remember, with huge clouds rolling through all day every day, sun rays and rainbows, and scattered thunderstorms with curtains of rain all around. This past weekend we headed to Mesa Verde again! — this time for a bird’s eye view captured on video of our gorgeous skyscapes, and to tour the quieter west side of the park. We then backtracked to the east side to check out the new bbq smoker at Spruce Tree Terrace Restaurant. But really, this day trip was all about driving the winding roads on the mesa tops and taking in the spectacular views.
The drive from downtown Durango was only 40 or so minutes. First stop, the Visitor’s Center to buy tickets for the ranger guided tour of Long House. Then a look at the exhibits and we always make a point to check out our route on the topographical map with buttons that light up the different roads and points of interest.
At the top (north) of this map is Highway 160 showing the route south from the visitor’s center to the center of the park where Far View Lodge is located, and then the western road to Wetherill Mesa, Long House, Step House, and other pueblo sites. Note how zig-zagged the roads are.
Driving up the mesa and before you know it you’re high above the valley floor, taking hairpin turns and looking out onto Montezuma County that seems to go on forever. The drive from the Visitor’s Center to the Long House / Step House parking lot is about an hour (27 miles), depending on slower moving vehicles and stopping at lookout points for breathtaking views. On this day the air was clean and pure, with that unmistakable scent of fresh rain when every living thing in this arid high desert region sighs aaaaaahhhhh.
We arrived an hour before our scheduled tour of Long House, leaving plenty of time to first explore nearby Step House. (Note: Step House closes at 4pm, and the last time to enter the dwellings is 3:30pm.) This is one of our favorite cliff dwellings, with a pit house, ruins to walk through, petroglyphs etched into the sandstone, the ancient outline of a hand print high atop the dwelling, and the ruins of a prehistoric staircase that once ran along the alcove wall. A self-guided tour, you can take your time and there’s a ranger on site for questions. Note: the pathways are at times rugged and the walk back up to the mesa top can be strenuous. Wear sturdy shoes, a hat, and bring lots of water.
A fully booked tour with visitors from China, Italy, Denmark and all across the U.S. A good thing we purchased tickets earlier at the Visitor’s Center. Notice that the trees are bare from a fire that began with a lightning strike that burned many acres of this area. The walk from the shelter/ snack bar to the Long House Trail is 3/4 of a mile. (There used to be a tram and they are negotiating the new tram contract.) Then down you go, flights of stairs to a winding path that reveals the magnificent ruins of a very long village built into the side of a huge cliff alcove. One of the unique parts of the tour is that you are permitted, with a ranger, to climb up two ladders and walk along the very back of the dwelling to see the gouge marks in the sandstone where they sharpened stone tools, the cooking area with charred marks still visible on the alcove wall, as well as metate stones and slabs used for door and window coverings. You walk the entire length of Long House. (Note: the walk back up can be strenuous and you are at a high altitude, so take breaks along the way as needed.)
This map shows the route from Long House, backtracking to the center of the park (east side) and then southward to try the bbq at Spruce Tree Terrace Restaurant. Named after nearby Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde’s best-preserved cliff dwelling, but happened to be closed for maintenance. (Note: it’s always best to check the Mesa Verde website for closures, restaurant hours and tour schedules.)
Another gorgeous, relaxing drive with views, wild horses, scattered showers, and then lunch. The smoker is a 25K rig brought in from the mid-west and as you can see, the portion sizes are perfect (humongous) after hiking up and down pathways, through dwellings and climbing ladders. We ordered the ribs and brisket — tender, seasoned, deelish. Next time we’ll try the sausages and turkey leg. Afterwards, you are right next to the Chapin Museum that is full of artifacts, Spruce Treehouse can be viewed from above, Petroglyph hike trail head, and the picnic area overlooking a canyon is not far away.
The drive back down the mesa was breathtaking. We always pinch ourselves that this amazing park is in our own back yard.
If you have only one day to visit Mesa Verde, we suggest that you explore the busier east side, definitely tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, drive the Mesa Top Loop Road and have a bbq lunch and then tour Chapin Museum.
If you have two days, take that second day to venture over to the quieter west side for Long House, Step House, and the many sites in that area.
Here we have the route from our bbq lunch at Chapin Mesa, then north and back to the park entrance. A beautiful day spent at an amazing national treasure. (Note: Fee Free Day – National Park Service Birthday 2017 • Friday, August 25, 2017 – All Day)
Do you have a favorite Mesa Verde site or cliff dwelling? Leave your picks in the comments below, we’d love to hear about them!
Wishing you happy summer discoveries!
Amy & Mr.D
Where is the Four Corner’s area and Mesa Verde? ……………