Location, Location, Location
Saturday, 7 October 2023, Mesa Verde NP
We pulled into Mesa Verde, the country's 8th oldest national park (created in 1906), mid-afternoon. After getting recommendations from the ranger, we browsed the exhibits on the Anasazi people. I learned something: the name 'Mesa Verde' is a misnomer. A mesa is a flat, table-like land, often atop a butte. The 'mesa' here actually steadily slopes downhill as you head south, which makes it a 'cuesta'.
The ranger suggested the Knife Edge Trail, the first trail as we entered the heart of the park. For the first few decades of the park, a road along this route served as the entrance to the park.
The path ran only a mile, mostly flat through a scrubby, arid landscape with buttes and canyons surrounding us.
We enjoyed stretching our legs after the long drive. Deep into the high-desert, late-season terrain, we still noticed flowers grimly hanging on.
At trail's end, we could see the Knife's Edge rock formation.
Dead ahead of us, large boulders littered the old roadbed. (They had replaced this entrance route because repeated rockfalls made it unsafe.)
We still had time to spare, so we drove further south, stopping at overlooks, playing tourist. Far View - site of the park's lodge - served as our end point today, and we wandered inside the lodge. Not a classic lodge like those at Yellowstone of Yosemite, but their dining room had great views to the east. "How about a splurge for dinner here tomorrow night?" I asked Bill. Good thing I planned ahead - only one reservation for tomorrow remained, so we grabbed it.
Sunday, 8 October 2023, Mesa Verde NP
On my previous visit to Mesa Verde (MV), I had tried - in my unending quest to see as many NPS sites as possible - to visit Yucca House NM. This site, ten miles east of MV and administered through them, is perhaps the only site in the entire park system not promoted for tourism. At that time, MV rangers could only give vague directions for finding it, and I quickly gave up.
That was in the prehistoric, pre-GPS days. Now the site appeared on my Garmin, and I'd also grabbed a pamphlet with directions from the MV VC.
We found it - and the park entrance certainly gave off forgotten-outpost vibes.
As the pamphlet states, the site has no services, no facilities, no trails, and no interpretive signs - its raison d'être is for archaeologic research. We wandered through a small portion of the brush-covered landscape, noticing one masonry wall and what we guessed were two kiva (recessed temple) sites.
Without any way to know what we were seeing, we didn't linger. But I can check off another NPS site!
We returned to MV and headed south to the park's main attractions. After checking out the view from Park Point (the park's highest point),
Cedar Tower worked as our visit's appetizer This stone tower, well removed from other sites, was constructed by the Ancient Puebloans (the current preferred term to replace 'Anasazi').
Scientists can only speculate as to its purpose. Adjacent to the tower, a short half-mile loop trail took us by check dams, built by the Ancients to water crops and small gardens when the top of the mesa (sorry, cuesta) suffered droughts.
Chapin Mesa now beckoned. This area housed the most well-known remains from the ancient dwellers here. (Wetherill Mesa also contains many sites, but the area is currently closed for renovation.) Here the ancients paid heed to the prime rule of real estate: it's all about location, location, location. They started by settling on the rim with their rudimentary architecture. Later their techniques improved, and they built new communities atop the old villages. Eventually they went 'down under', creating the cliff dwellings that impress us centuries later.
We drove the mesa top loop, where a dozen pullouts offered access to ruins dating to 600 AD.
The sheltered relics showed how the architecture atop the cuesta evolved over the centuries, until around 1200, when they made their move into cliff dwellings.
I'd made reservations for the 3:00 ranger-assisted tour to Cliff Palace.
We had nearly an hour to spare, so we slowed our pace, sitting on a shaded bench, talking to other visitors.
Finally, 3:00 arrived. A ranger came a gave an introduction to the 40 ticket holders. "I am an indigenous American. As a Navajo, I had ancestors that lived here. Can you believe that until last year - for over a century! - the park had never had an indigenous person as a ranger.? Last year they hired two, and this year they have four. We can provide a new insight into the park."
He led us down the stairs, collected our tickets, and sent us down more ladders to the base of the Cliff Palace, where another (non-indigenous) ranger waited.
(On our way down, we talked with a couple of other visitors who had also just come from Black Canyon like us. Sounds like the South Rim draws were no easier than those on the North Rim!) Once everyone had descended the ladders, the new ranger told us more about the site. "Mesa Verde has over 600 cliff dwellings, and Cliff Palace is the biggest. It had 150 or more rooms at its heyday. Try to imagine the scene - chldren playing, turkeys gobbling, people arguing, mothers yelling, 'Stay away from that cliff!'"
She talked about the farms they still tended atop the cuesta, and mentioned how they abandoned the site. At the finish, she mentioned, "This is a ranger-ASSISTED hike, not a ranger-GUIDED one. If you're tired of listening to me - and I wouldn't blame you - you can wander through the site at your own pace. Now I have time for a question of two."
I raised my hand. "On the mesa top, I saw large stands of burned trees. How long ago was that fire?"
"That was in 2002. But the park gets fires regularly, mostly small ones. Those fires, while destructive, have a positive side. Burning out the brush will expose new archeologic sites - check dams, pueblos, potshards. Our scientists will go out and survey it all."
Now we got to walk beside the alcove pueblo, peering into the pit houses, storerooms, and kivas. The ranger led most if not all of us around a circular pit house. "Picture the ancient family that lived here. They spent their day atop the mesa, tending to crops. In the evening they'd come home, light a fire in the kiva, and sit around to watch Jeopardy." She paused to let the joke sink in. "Just kidding; the Wi-Fi back then was awful. Not much better today, either."
That ended the ranger-assisted portion of the tour. We hung around and listened to others' questions, then tackled the ladders heading out.
A pair of women noticed my tee shirt poem ("Slip on a pack, Jack / Go visit a park, Clark"), which triggered another conversation about my challenge - and another subscriber to the blog?
A window table in the Far View Lodge hosted our celebration dinner. We supped as we watched the shadows lengthen outside, a purplish haze creeping into the eastern horizon. Afterwards, we drove back to Park Point, the highest point in the park, and watched the sun set behind the Montezuma Valley. No clouds meant no splashy colors splayed across the sky, but a red glow deepened and darkened on the horizon.
We waited out the sky turning dark. MV is a Dark Sky Park, a perfect laboratory for me to experiment with more star photography. It took several shots, but I did get one acceptable shot and more experience.
Since light pollution from Cortez CO 15 miles away did make the sky lighter, I decided that tomorrow I'd try again at an even darker park.