Yesterday we drove to Mesa Verde National Park, which is in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was a bit longer of a drive than we planned on, partly because once you got to the park entrance there was still another 20 mile drive into the park itself.
We could see the Rocky Mountains all the way from Monticello, Utah where we are staying. They sort of floated above the horizon at first, but kept getting taller and taller the closer we got. Mesa Verde itself looks like a low mountain range and wasn’t terribly noticeable until we got to Cortez, Colorado.
The altitude at the start of the drive into the park was about 6500 feet. Within about six or seven miles we were at 8200 feet. The road winds a lot and has many hairpin turns. The posted speed limit was 35 MPH and I don’t really think you’d ever want to go faster than that since there were hardly any guard rails. Susan wasn’t overly enthralled with the drive since almost every time she looked out the car window there was a sheer drop-off right next to her.
The rock layers along the drive were broken into blocks and looked almost like they had been laid there on purpose. The top of the Mesa is mostly dwarf forest. It reminded us a bit of the scrub pine forests we saw in Florida because of the yucca growing between the trees, but these trees were only about a dozen feet tall at their very highest and most were probably only about eight feet tall. We passed several areas with a lot of dead trees where there’d been a forest fire, probably within the last four or five years.
The Anasazi cliff dwellings are almost all at the far end of the drive. We had planned on visiting the museum there first, but when we got there we were told the parking lot was full and they suggested we take the Mesa Loop drive, which we did.
I don’t know if it was planned this way or not, but there were a number of archeological sites along the Mesa Drive that were protected by metal roofs and they started with the oldest sites and worked their way to the most recent.
The first archeological site was a “pit house”. A small area (two connected circles, one large and one small) was dug out to a depth of about a foot and a half. A wooden tent-like structure had been built over it, but of course that part has long since decayed away. The second site had a “pit room” which was dug out to about 8 or 10 feet deep. It too had had a roof of some kind over it at some time, long since burned down or decayed away. One of the tunnels in the back of the pit room lead into the foundation of the tower that was behind it, the other was to bring in fresh air.
Further down the road there were a number of cliff dwellings. There were about three or four relatively small ones that were close to one of the largest cliff dwelling site in the park. The amount of work that went into building these must have been considerable since the rocks they were constructed from had to have been brought from several hundred feet lower in the canyon.
On a point of the top of the mesa near the cliff dwellings was a structure they called the Sun Temple. As far as the archeologists could determine it had been started near the time the Anasazi left the area and never finished. Their best guess is that it was a religious structure of some kind but that really is a guess. There was no entrance to it and from above it looks like a big D with a number of square and round rooms inside. What is interesting is that the stone work is so much more sophisticated than the earlier sites we’d seen.
One of the largest cliff dwelling complexes in the park was called Cliff Palace. We were able to get a good view of it from Sun Temple and several other viewing sites further down the road.
There are tours of Cliff Palace and many of the other cliff dwellings, but all of them require that you climb stairs and ladders so we had to take a pass on them.
By the time we finished the Mesa Loop Drive, it was quite late in the afternoon. Since we had at least a two hour drive ahead of us to get back to the motor home and we were both tired (we’d stopped at almost every archeological site along the Mesa Loop and there were a lot of them!) we decided to head home.
Once again the scenery was spectacular and different from anything we’ve seen before. Even though the drive was long (and a bit scary for Susan at times) we enjoyed it a lot. We didn’t get to see all of the park because we ran out of time for day. We haven’t decided whether we’re going back to see the rest yet since it is a long drive (we put over 200 miles on the odometer getting there and back!) and there are still a number of other things we want to see that are closer to where we are staying. We’d give the park a B+ for handicap accessibility. Most of the viewing sites were wheelchair accessible and although there were usually no wheelchair cuts in the curbs, the curbs were sloped and shallow, making it fairly easy t o get Susan over them.