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Travel: Exploring Mesa Verde

Kim Fenske tours Colorado’s only world heritage site

Long Dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park.

Long Dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Arriving at the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center ten miles east of Cortez in early evening, I worked with a ranger at the tour desk to build an itinerary at Colorado’s only World Heritage site. Despite the ranger’s doubts that I could meet the necessary schedule, I purchased tickets for the three possible tours at a cost less than a camping fee at developed campgrounds. The tours of both Wetherill Mesa in the southwest corner of the park, and Chapin Mesa in the southeast portion of the park, involved driving nearly a hundred miles during the day.

After paying the entry fee, I drove a few miles south to Morefield Campground and registered for two nights of camping at the campground store, open from mid-May through mid-October. The complex offers showers, laundry, internet, fuel, and basic camping supplies, more services than typical of my usual backcountry or primitive camping on national forest lands. After purchasing ice to defend against the ninety-degree heat of the day, I found a tent site conveniently located a short distance from the amenities. My primary criticism of the facilities is that new investment is overdue to update showers and restrooms in the campground.

Long Dwelling amidst the burned pinion pine and juniper forest on Wetherill Mesa viewed from the far side of Rock Canyon

Long Dwelling amidst the burned pinion pine and juniper forest on Wetherill Mesa viewed from the far side of Rock Canyon.

Sunset over Mesa Verde.

Sunset over Mesa Verde.

Orienting my tent to gain as much exposure to the morning sun and protection of the afternoon heat by nesting against the shelter of a stand of piñon pine and juniper, I staked my tent easily into the gravel pad provided. Soon, strong winds of an approaching cold front ripped my stakes from the ground, giving me a rocking ride before a gentle rain rolled off my rain fly through the night.

I awoke early in the morning and prepared a stack of French toast before departing camp at eight to reach the closed gate to Wetherill Mesa. I waited a half hour at the gate near Far View Lodge before a ranger escorted a line of visitor vehicles to the Long House Parking Area. There is a size restriction of twenty-five feet for vehicles on the twelve-mile drive down a winding park road to the Long House Dwelling.

A collared lizard at Mesa Verde.

A collared lizard at Mesa Verde.

The tip of Wetherill Mesa is an area of piñon pine and juniper forest burned over by a natural lightning-strike wildfire. Exposure to frequent fires on the mesa probably encouraged the early ancestral Pueblo people to construct their sandstone and mortar dwellings in the shelter of the cliffs in the area beginning about 1225. Six hundred years prior to this Classic Pueblo Period, the first inhabitants of Mesa Verde enjoyed the prosperity of simple agriculture, propagating corn, beans, squash to supplement hunting and gathering.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park.

As a precursor to cliff dwelling tours, the Park Rangers warn visitors of the dangers of high altitude sickness due to the 7,000-foot altitude within Mesa Verde National Park. I needed to suppress my laughter at each warning, since my usual backpacking trips involve camping a mile higher and hiking more than 7,000 feet above this low altitude.

During the hour-and-a-half Long Dwelling tour, our escort provided a comprehensive overview of the history of the ancestral Pueblo people.  Discussions provided visitors with information about the development of bone and rock tools, basket weaving and pottery, agriculture and intercultural trade of the inhabitants.  I observed the square stone and mortar rooms the size of my car-camping tent that served as homes for the ancestral Pueblo families. I also passed the circular kivas,sunken rooms covered with mud ceilings, used for communal meetings and ceremonial functions.

After the morning tour, I returned to Far View Terrace to dine on a “Navajo” taco, similar to pan-fry bread dishes that I had enjoyed among Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Souixan families of the Northeast. Then, I spent the afternoon touring the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. During mid-afternoon, a lightning storm developed over the Ute Indian Reservation east of Mesa Verde and threatened Chapin Mesa. The rain and clouds provided welcome relief from the desert heat. However, my Balcony House tour was abbreviated due to the storm hazard.  Nonetheless, I felt fulfilled by seeing the most significant archeological sites of Mesa Verde and was glad to receive the unique perspectives of several park rangers on the cliff dwelling tours.

Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling, perched below the rim of Chapin Mesa

Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling, perched below the rim of Chapin Mesa.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Check out his e-books:

Holy Cross
 
Greatest Hikes
 

More travel and hiking stories:

Alaska:

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

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