Two glorious days at Mesa Verde National Park. To walk through and climb ladders into cliff dwellings, take in the magnificent views and stand in footholds of an ancient culture….well….nowadays when I drive past the entrance on Hwy-160 and spot a car driving up the side of this mesa on their way into the park, I swell with excitement for the people in that car. For what they are about to experience.
DAY 1 PLAN —
We got a late start, so Day 1 was really a half day plus dinner:
Gorgeous drive up the mesa and into the park
Take a zillion photos
Lunch at the Far View Terrace Cafe
Drive to the West side of the park
Lookout Points — stop at all of them
Tour of Long House and Tram Tour
Stop at Points of Interest
Check in at Far View Lodge
Dinner at The Metate Room (amazing, details in my next post)
Look at the stars
Stay overnight at the Lodge
The park layout is a winding wishbone shape. With Far View Lodge and Terrace Cafe in the center, a West and East side of the wishbone, and a boatload of sites in between. It is possible to see both sides of the park in one day if you arrive early, plan your time wisely and keep moving. But when it comes to national parks, Mr.D and I are lollygaggers. We live for signs that say ‘scenic overlook.’ We are the car ahead of you that stops often and slows down, with a lot of pointing and hanging out the side window to snap a photo. So, given the significant driving time from the West to East side and that it takes us two, five, ten times longer to get from A to B, we divided our visit into two dawdling days.
Starting with the West side with breathtaking views of Montezuma Valley, sites along the way, and tour of Long House.
And then the East side on our second day because we’d reserved tickets for the 700 Years Tour that covered that area, and Cliff Palace which is not to be missed. (East side post coming soon, and note that if you have only a short time at the park, Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling and most sought after site, on the EAST side.)
Now on to the entrance, park center and into the WEST side …
First stop, the visitor’s center where you can talk with park rangers about your plans, buy tickets to Ranger Guided Tours, and walk through exhibits explaining what they know and what remains a mystery about the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived there. We bought tickets to see Long House. The rangers were advising people on self-guided tours, where to buy tickets within the park, hiking, to prepare for extremely dry conditions and to be mindful of high altitude dizziness or shortness of breath. They knew every inch of the park, a lot of ground to cover.
Without going into too much detail, I found planning this visit confusing because the Ranger Guided Tours were purchased from the park and had restrictions on how far in advance you can buy them. Some cliff dwellings like Spruce Tree House required no tickets, while others were guided and ticket only. There was also a separate website for speciality park tours like the Photography Tour and Twilight at Cliff Palace. Our hotel lodging at the park and 700 Years Tour were through a separate company altogether, and couldn’t be arranged through the park of visitor’s center. Are you shaking your head right now? At the bottom of the post I’ve listed all of the phone numbers and websites that helped me solve this puzzle.
All confusion was forgotten once we drove up the mesa and began pulling over for views like this. There we were with the clouds, high above the Montezuma Valley. One of many words that came to mind — uplifting.
Bring binoculars. Here at Park Point we saw Shiprock in the distance, located on the Navajo Nation. At other points there are 360 degree views looking towards Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado – America’s Four Corners.
Just past Far View Lodge is the Terrace Cafe. Cafeteria style, they offer something for everyone. Big menu. And a breathtaking view from the dining area that fits the name — Far View.
I would suggest passing on the burger and fries and instead trying one of their Southwest inspired dishes like pulled pork sandwich with side of green chile, or the Navajo flatbread tacos and fresh fruit.
Or this Southwest lasagne with side of green chile. They have beer and wine, and an espresso and coffee bar. We were parched from the arid climate and opted for bottled water. We also bought a few bottles to-go for the afternoon of touring, which we heard could be strenuous at times.
They also have a gift shop that is not entirely the expected ‘made in China’ inventory. Local artwork and folk art, native blankets, jewelry, dolls, souvenir t-shirts, and wide brimmed hats that I highly recommend for a day of intense high altitude sun.
From the cafe we took Wetherill Mesa Road to the West side. Gorgeous, more stunning views, winding hairpin turns, at times we couldn’t tell which direction we were facing.
The rangers told us to keep a lookout for cliff dwellings and ruins all along the road to Long House. Here is one that blended into the cliffside, you can make out the walls and windows in the center section, with straight drop off below. This is when it really struck me, that the ancient inhabitants climbed a sheer cliff wall to access the top of the mesa. And then scaled back down to their homes (using ropes, ladders and footholds.)
We continued on this beautiful, remote drive for the 3:00 tour of Long House. (Tours are every 1/2 hour, $4 per person.)
This is Heather, our wonderful, very informed guide and ranger. We met her at Wetherill Mesa parking lot where there was a snack bar and covered picnic area. It was nearly a fully booked tour.
Heather gave us the general terms and conditions run-down. No food in the cliff dwellings. Squirrles and chipmunks love people food and will dig into an original sandstone adobe wall to get the crumbs. Water only, and to bring a full bottle because you will surely need it. She also confirmed that yes….
everything we’d read about strenuous conditions was true, we would be climbing tall ladders and hiking. And if this sign made anyone the least bit hesitant or queasy, probably best to stick with the tram ride. (For those who prefer the sans ladder, non-taxing dwelling experience, Spruce Tree House on the East side of the park is easy peasy non-queasy.)
A few last minute hikers were able to buy tickets there at the snack bar and join the tour. The rangers are always happy to fit you in if there’s room.
We rode the short distance to the top of the cliff. Then walked down the paved trail that was pleasant, scenic and very exciting for those of us who were about to see an actual sandstone village built into a cliff alcove for the first time.
These gnarly twisted trees were everywhere, I must have sixty some photos similar to this one. Maybe that’s why our camera battery went dead, from my overzealous trigger finger. So all photos of Long House are from our cell phone cameras. I think they turned out okay, see what you think…
We were greeted by huge black crows (ravens?)
Our first view of the house. They guesstimate 150 or so people lived here, based on 22 to 23 kivas (the circular rooms that were ceremonial and living spaces) that might have belonged to a family of 7 – 8 per. ‘Might’ is the key word here, because no one really knows why they built their homes here, and there was no written language to record exactly ‘who and why.’ We really only know for sure ‘where and when.’
We learned that from A.D. 750 to 950, they first built connected rooms with upright adobe walls on the mesa tops, called Pueblos (Spanish for Village.) As time went on they became skilled stone masons and began building thick sandstone structures that were sometimes three stores high. This is when craftsmanship in weaving, pottery, jewelry and tool making advanced. And then communities like Long House were built from A.D. 1150 to 1300.
These are the two ladders we climbed.
At the top we took a rest on the natural rocks where the people of Long House sat before us. Do you think they would have ever imagined that centuries later, people from every continent on the planet would travel to sit and marvel in their cliff house? We looked out to their view of the valley, while Heather showed us a few artifacts and talked about their way of life. That they were agile people who climbed up to mind their crops and hunt above on the mesa top, then back down to their home. Their crops were dry raised naturally watered. Some of the corn was found in storage areas and the cobs were no larger than a disposable cigarette lighter.
The indents in the floor were from axes and tools that they sharpened by rubbing into the sandstone.
Green plants indicate a water source, where it filters down through the layers of sandstone. Through seep springs. They carved channels to little pools in the floor that collected drinking water.
Fire pit with black soot markings. Most likely a primary cooking spot.
Stone doors and window coverings.
A hand print.
After about 100 years of living in these alcoves they moved away, and there are many theories as to why. There was drought in the area, but they’d survived drought and dry conditions before. The land, crop resources may have been depleted. Over-hunted wild game. It could have been for political reasons, or moving on to greener pastures along the Rio Grande. But they didn’t just disappear, rather they migrated to New Mexico and Arizona.
Long House is in the shape of an amphitheater, so their music and sounds would have been heard all through the canyon.
We hiked back up to the tram and were given the choice to tour the Badger House Community, or stay on the tram to view two overlooks. We went for the scenic overlook option.
In 2000, lightning strikes caused two fires. The Pony Fire that burned 4700 acres, and the Bircher Fire that burned 22,000 acres in the North and East park areas. Many trees were pinyon and juniper, full of sap that burst easily into flames. We rode the tram past acres of burned trees as far as the eye could see. We also saw smaller house ruins here and there. I’m guessing for the more reclusive types who’d done the big city cliff thing and decided to move to a more remote setting, to the country.
Lookouts and sites have ample signage for self-guided tours. At Kodak House, pictured, we read about the looting that took place for many years, and how difficult it was for excavations that began in 1891, because the potrobbers had pushed entire walls down the cliff to find artifacts. This dwelling got it’s name from an excavation crew who used to stash their camera in one of the rooms, hence the name Kodak.
We stopped at Long House Overlook to see where we’d just been, then looped back by Badger House, to the Long House trail head, and to the parking lot.
The drive back to the lodge took about 45 minutes. From sandstone, to canyon valley, to burned landscapes, to rolling green hills.
I was starting to get a little hungry and clouds began to look like stuffed poblanos.
Staying at the lodge was a good idea. It saved us the drive out of the park, home, then back again in the morning. The rangers estimate the drive from the park entrance to Far View Lodge to be 30 to 40 minutes, then another 45 minutes or more to the attractions on either side of the wishbone. So it’s a good idea to allow for driving time within the park, so you don’t have to rush through. Another good idea is to fill up the gas tank in nearby Cortez or Mancos before arriving. There is one gas facility in Morefield Campground. It’s not open year ’round. Beyond that and into the park, no gas.
We’d reserved one of the newly remodeled Kiva rooms located behind the lodge. There are accommodations in the actual main building that we heard have mixed reviews, so I would suggest looking for recent online reviews before you book your stay.
The Kiva room at Far View Lodge was along a row, like a motel situation. Small, very clean, and quiet. With Southwest design accents. I wouldn’t mind staying again at all.
Copper sink and bath stand in the entryway. Across from a small bathroom with shower.
Little balcony with sitting area.
Our view from the balcony.
After climbing ladders and walking, we were happy to find that our bed was heavenly comfy cozy, with poofy pillows.
That night we had dinner at The Metate Room. It was divine dining with a regional menu inspired by local foods and cultures. I cannot wait to share the experience and photos with you in my next post.
Here is a link to my post about our Metate Room dinner.
Here is a link to Day 2 – Part One of the East side of the park.
Follows are links and phone numbers I found helpful in planning our trip:
Mesa Verde National Park Website
Park Visitor’s Center Phone 970 529 5037
Mesa Verde National Park Plan Your Visit
Mesa Verde Fees and Reservations
Far View Lodge Phone: 800 449 2288
Special Tours at Recreation.gov