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Inside Mesa Verde National Park: From the Typical to the Mystical

Feb. 21, 2016
11 min read
Inside Mesa Verde National Park: From the Typical to the Mystical
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This is a guest post from my dad, Grandpa Points. He and my mom are in their mid-60’s, are (mostly) retired,

and are ticking off “bucket list” destinations quicker than they ever thought possible thanks to miles, points, and travel deals. They have an intense love of this country, of its National Parks and treasures, and have no problem with a clean budget hotel room and an economy airline seat on a budget airline as long as it gets them where they want to be. A photographer by trade, his adventures are usually captured not just in his mind, but in his camera. He shares his thoughts and travels here from time to time, and I’m excited to share another one of their budget travel stories!

You are in extreme southwestern Colorado. On Highway 160. You have come from Durango to the east or from Cortez to the west. But you are on Highway 160. You have spent the night in a clean, comfortable and acceptable 2.5 star motel with a complimentary breakfast, and you checked Facebook while eating your bacon/sausage and downing your juice.

You have filled the car up with gas and grabbed a 32 ounce soft drink that is now sitting in the cup holder next to you. You are on Highway 160. You are passing all the usual roadside signs espousing the next meal, the next night stay, the next car to buy and the next plumber to use. Your phone is in your hand to hear the next message, take the next selfie or post the next thought. You are on Highway 160. It is the only road to there.

Roads and highways can be lifelines and economic and social connections, but this time it is simply the means to an end. A gateway to a destination. We have all traveled this road, or one just like it, many times. It is interesting but nondescript, and your thoughts are general and not specific. You are just ticking off the miles, vaguely listening to Sirius XM radio tuned to 60's on the 6 or 80's on the 8. And then, in the near distance, a significant and expansive bluff rises from the valley floor with a road diagonally traversing it like a ribbon on a package.

Photo courtesy of Eric Willhite

A blinking light on Highway 160 slows you down as you turn south onto this beckoning asphalt. Highway 160 is left behind as are many of the tangibles of your daily existence and of your usual road trip experiences. You are going from the typical to the magical. You are leaving the present for the past. You are now in Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Money Saving Tip: Those 62 and up should absolutely get the $10 US National Parks Lifetime "America the Beautiful" Pass as that will save you money when visiting the national parks over, and over again as the park admission fee is then forever waived for the passholder + vehicle occupants or the passholder + 3 accompanying adults!

The first stop after being photographed with the Park sign, is the new info center and research complex.

Here, you can acquire pertinent park info, secure tickets for tours, admire and study the artifacts and get a 101 entry class overview of the magic just up the hill. And what a hill it is! You are no longer indifferent or hypnotized into a lethargic state by the white stripes zipping past your car. You are on full alert, and your senses are stimulated. The narrow road climbs steadily and quickly with some exciting and dynamic Formula One Gran Prix style turns waiting to be ( slowly and safely ) navigated. Your car will reach for a lower gear as you put your second hand on the steering wheel, and you sit with a more erect posture as the drop-offs steepen, and the beauty of the surround increases. Multiple scenic turnouts and overlooks exist for your viewing pleasure .

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This road is not dangerous or frightening, but it is worthy of your attention for where it takes you and for the manner with which it takes you there. It is somewhat metaphorical as if you need to be elevated, to have to climb, to achieve such a destination of significance and importance. In 25 miles, you go from the valley to the mesa top, from today to yesterday, and from the mundane to the unique. It would not be a reach to say that the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde are our Machu Picchu.

The Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

These special structures were built by the Ancestral Puebloans that lived in the area from 600 to 1300 A.D. They were a hearty and pragmatic people who were also known and respected artisans for their pottery and weaving skills. Despite 700 years of occupying the area, the cliff dwellings were constructed and utilized for only the last 100 years of their presence here. There are over 600 such sites in Mesa Verde with the most famous ones being the Cliff Palace, the Long House, the Spruce Tree House, the Step House and the Balcony House. Park Ranger guided tours are necessary for the Cliff, Long and Balcony. Tickets are $4.00 for each and can be obtained at the Park Visitor Center. Demand may be high, so make securing your tickets a priority. Some high traffic days may result in individuals being able to obtain tickets to tour either the Cliff Palace or Balcony House, but not both in the same day. Tickets must be bought in person and can be purchased up to two days in advance.

Our visit to Mesa Verde was for a day and a half. We were able to take both the tour of the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House. The Cliff Palace is quite large and very visually stunning.

It is believed that it must have served as an administrative and ceremonial site as well as being residential. The tour takes about 45 minutes and includes some ladder climbing and some elevation change, but the overall walking distance is minimal. The Cliff Palace is sort of the quintessential cliff dwelling and is not to be missed. That being said, the Cliff Palace is undergoing restoration work and will only be available for tours from May 28 thru Sept 12 in 2016.

Our favorite was the Balcony House due to the physical aspect of the tour that demonstrated some of the daily challenges that faced the inhabitants.

Narrow doorways, skinny halls (tunnels), tight turns and several 35 ft wooden ladders at about 60 degree pitch are negotiated on this one hour interactive tour.

Our tour group had folks of every body type, athletic ability with ages ranging from 4 to 75. All handled the mission well.

Warning signs do exist advising those with physical limitations to carefully weigh their options.

The Balcony House provides you with the feel of what it was like living halfway up on the side of a cliff where wandering too far from your front door had a serious downside.

The Spruce Tree House is generally a self guided site that is on ground level and is easy to access and explore as it is quite downhill from the parking area to the dwelling. Conversely, leaving the site after your visit does require a moderate climb on a paved serpentine path. There are benches provided to rest your legs and your heart as the elevation here is above 7000 feet. The Spruce Tree House is the 3rd largest dwelling and is home to about 130 rooms and kivas.

We had the site virtually to ourselves the day we went so we were able to take our time and get a hands on appreciation of the remains and the ruins.

A cafe, museum and restrooms are nearby. Due to a recent rock slide, The Spruce Tree House is temporarily closed pending damage assessment. An additional bonus of this area is the 2.5 mile Petroglyph Hike loop that begins and ends there. The trail is challenging in a few spots, but it introduced us to the magical world of petroglyphs, and gave us the opportunity to ascend to the top of the mesa for the expansive beauty and enriching solitude we found there.

Sister Points, Grandpa Points, and Grandma Points!

We will always remember the mesa echoing the sounds of silence that day. The acoustic calm reverberated off the canyon walls and embedded into our souls. We were one, or three, with Nature. Thoughts to ourselves, seeing the same thing but differently, and with a smile in our hearts and on our faces.

Mesa Verde can be enjoyed, and is so worth the visit even if time is not on your side and your experience is almost exclusively from your car. The main park road will lead you to the Mesa Top Loop and the Cliff Palace Loop that will allow good visibility of the main cliff dwellings and give you easy access to the pit houses and the Sun Temple.

The road is essentially on the top of the mesa and your view is unencumbered and your scope of vision is great and grand.

Lodging in Mesa Verde National Park

Lodging in the Park is limited to the Far View Lodge and Morefield Campground. We stayed in the Lodge, and our standard room was very satisfactory. It was neither spectacular or disappointing with rates being in the $150 to $200 range per night. A somewhat pricey restaurant, The Metate Room, is at the lodge and offers unique offerings in a spectacular setting. More moderate selections are available at the Far View and Spruce Tree Cafes located on the main park road. There is no TV in the Lodge, but there is Wi-Fi connectivity. Cell phone reception is spotty and limited throughout the Park. There is, therefore, ample time and opportunity to flex your distance vision skills during the day focusing on the many sites and vistas and at night as you gaze at the canopy of stars sparkling in the black velvet sky.

We marvel at the engineering and craftsmanship demonstrated at Mesa Verde 750 years ago. In it's full glory and intact state, it must have been spectacular. We are so fortunate that it was recognized early on that these dwellings were architectural and historical treasures and deserved special respect and protection. They now stand as monuments to their creators, a special people whose roots to these lands are deep and sacred.

The Ancients, that lived and prospered here for centuries, left somewhat suddenly and migrated further south around 1300 A.D. Severe and extended drought and a reduction in available natural resources are often surmised as reasons for their departure.

When they left, they never returned. When we left, we vowed we would return. It is too special not to.