Much as I love the landscape in Utah, I was ready to leave Moab. We'd done pretty much everything we could do, and the crowded campground was getting old. Since we'd had to move, it was tough seeing those beautiful oversized spaces that were now out of our reach.
I snapped a few pics of the snow on Las Sal Mountain as we drove back south, retracing our path from when we arrived. We were on our way to visit Mesa Verde National Park in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Mike's cousin Pam, who lived and worked in Yosemite for years, had told us it was a beautiful place; and it was only a couple of hours from Moab and a good place to stop before taking on the longer trip to Santa Fe.
We checked into the Mesa Verde RV Resort and got a nice long pull-thru spot. It's a very pleasant place, just off the highway but very quiet. If there were more to do here, I could imagine staying for a while.
Mesa Verde is a bit different from all other national parks. It was created in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt to preserve the ancient ruins of native American pueblos and cliff dwellings. It's the only cultural park in the entire system and is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. There are more than 4000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings in the park and they are still under constant study by archeologists.
The drive into the park is a steep climb up to, well, a mesa. Imagine. Once we got near the top we began to see the signs of a major forest fire. Granted, the trees here are not particularly big, but whatever trees were here had all been burned for miles, leaving nothing but blackened sticks standing. It was very sad and I suspect this park is no longer the place that Pam, Mike's cousin, remembers.
It was early in the season and parts of the park were still closed, so our visiting options were limited. There were a few places we could visit on our own, and then a single guided tour that required tickets. You had to buy the tickets in person at the visitor center, so we had set out early to get there. Amazingly, by the time we got to the visitor center around 8:45, all the morning tour tickets were gone, so we settled for a noon tour and went out to explore on our own.
In addition to the cliff dwellings, there are several mesa-top ruins sites, so we started with one of those called Far View, ruins of a sizable farming community last occupied about 800 years ago. The most remarkable thing about this site is a very large, circular low-walled structure, 90 feet across, that archaeologists believe was a reservoir for the community. They are still searching for and excavating a network of ditches that were presumably used to provide water to the inhabitants' homes.
At Far View I also ran across something unexpected. On the very edge of the ruins, at the foot of some steps built long ago, was a tiny baby rabbit, the size of my hand. Sensing my approach, he huddled against a low wall in an effort to hide. I hoped his mother was still around and would come back for him. Sniff.
We had noon tickets to see Balcony House, one of the cliff dwellings that can only be seen on a ranger-guided tour. It was soon obvious why. Ranger Rob gathered us in the parking lot, where he started out with the warnings and the briefing. Climbing a 32-foot ladders, through a small tunnel on hands and knees, yada yada. The ranger was quite a comedian and I felt we'd lucked out with him as a guide.
He wasn't kidding about the ladder. We followed him down a few flights of metal steps and across a narrow ledge. Then it was up the crude wooden rungs, two at a time in parallel. Fun!
Once at the top, we all gathered around in the plaza to listen to the ranger. He talked about the rooms where we were standing, pointing out the balcony that gives the dwelling its name; and how a wall had been built in the middle to completely shut off another section of rooms - no one knows why. To get to the other side, there was another short ladder, a narrow crevice, a short ladder up to a small opening, a low alcove where soot on the ceiling indicated the use of fire, and then another short ladder through another squeeze, and FINALLY to the other side of the wall, where there were more rooms including two kivas in the floor.
We exited Balcony House the way the ancient residents entered: through another crevice and then on hands-and-knees through a tunnel barely big enough for we giant invaders, compared to the size of the builders.
Then it was straight up the cliff face! First climbing another ladder, then pulling
ourselves up via chains bolted into the rock. Shades of Angel's Landing in Zion!
It had been a fun tour. After we were done, we visited Spruce Tree House, the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park. It was not as interesting as Balcony House, but was more open and accessible. Instead of climbing up, this one was a hike down. At this dwelling, archeologists have restored the roofs of two kivas, so you can climb down into them and see what they might have been like.
The biggest, most impressive ruin at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace. Unfortunately it was closed for restoration, so all we could do was view and photograph it from the top of the cliff.
Even though it's a National Park, Mesa Verde only rated a one-day visit; but we don't like to move that often because it's a lot of work. Also the weather was turning cold and rainy, so we hunkered down at the Mancos park for another two nights. We even got a little snow! The cats engaged in wrestling matches, and we caught up on shopping and email and sleep.