Monday, August 24, 2009

The Final Installment of Road Trip 2009 - Colorado's Ancient Legacy

All along the plan had been for Mesa Verde National Park to be the highlight of our road trip to southern Colorado, but we got sidetracked along the way into many other amazing adventures. I'm glad we did, but Mesa Verde is such an amazing place, we really could have devoted much more time and energy to it.

Our first view of the cliff dwellings were breathtaking.
So what is the first thing I did? I forgot the commandment Do NOT lean on the stones! Yes, these stones that I have cavalierly placed my elbow on were laid by the ancient Puebloan people between 1250 and 1300 AD. Thank goodness I didn't knock it over!
The Rangers you get for the guided tours to the cliff dwellings vary greatly in their speaking ability, knowledge of the history and the park, and their attitude. There are three guided ranger tours to take - Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House (the one that you see in these pictures). After you take all three, you'll have an idea of the differing abilities of the rangers. If you took one tour that wasn't particularly interesting, I recommend taking it again with a different ranger. That is, if you're up to it. They are very strenuous.
This particular ranger really enjoyed his work and had a tremendous knowledge of the park and the people they are interpreting.
In the past few years, nearly all of the park has burned. The ecosystem of the burned areas has totally changed from the forest it was before the fire. Here, you can see that prairie is taking over. According to one ranger, it takes nearly 30 years before the soil has recovered enough to support tree life. Many of the trees they planted to try to reclaim the forest died, so they stopped planting.
After our first day at Mesa Verde, which we spent at Chapin Mesa, the furthest from the Visitor Center, we drove into Cortez for dinner. Finally, after all these years of seeing Sleeping Ute Mountain and not being able to pick out the figure, I saw it in person, and the light dawned. Can you pick it out from this picture?
Day two at Mesa Verde started with a guided tour of Cliff Palace, the most recognizable ruin in the park.
The hike to the ruins includes LOTS of steps.
Lots and lots of steps.
But all of the hiking and climbing is worth is once you're down in the ruins themselves.
The NPS has done an amazing job in maintaining these ruins without destroying the integrity of the site. They weren't helped by the fact that most ruins had been discovered and looted long before the area became protected.
Going down all those stairs also means going back up.
As you drive through the park, there are MANY scenic overlooks, some which involve a considerable hike, and some that are only a few steps off of the road. I recommend taking every one of them you possibly can. The Mesa Top Trail is especially rich with places to stop, and from the vantage points provided, you can see hundreds of ruins.
Thank goodness the NPS decided to build stairs and ladders, and not make visitors use the precarious hand-holds favored by the ancestral Puebloans.
The daughter seems to be enjoying the climb, though. This is taken halfway up the ladder seen in the previous photo.
There are yuccas in Mesa Verde as well, but they are a lot different than the ones we're used to in Nebraska. The fruit almost looks like hanging cucumbers.
And here are the two intrepid explorers doing a self-portrait at one of the scenic overlooks.
A kiva in one of the cliff dwellings. Even though kivas are common in Puebloan culture today, their use in the ancient world is still not completely understood. Some experts say they were ceremonial only, others say that they were extended living spaces occasionally used for ceremonies. While most kivas in Mesa Verde are shown without the roofs, which have collapsed, each kiva would have been covered with a solid roof that made a courtyard for the space above.
So are you tired of the views of cliff dwellings yet?
Park Point is definitely a must-do stop. Here is a view of Shiprock in Arizona (many miles away) from the top of Park Point.
It's hard to believe the trip we have been planning and anticipating for more than a year is almost over, but that indeed is the case. Lunch on the final full day was in Alamosa, and we finished in time to watch the departure of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
A final quick trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. It was about 4:00 p.m. when we arrived, and the area by the stream was a lot of fun, but when we tried to hike up into the dunes themselves, we quickly realized that it was going to be much more than we could handle. We contented ourselves to cooling our toes in the water.
Just pretend, if you will, that this picture of Nebraska Outback is on her hike down from the dunes you see behind her.
Our final home-away-from-home, a Camping Cabin at the Pueblo Colorado KOA. An absolutely incredible thunder storm rolled in across the Rockies shortly after we got settled in for the night. The light show was amazing. No hail or dangerous winds, just a little rain, light and noise, so it made for an exciting night.
We actually packed up in the morning and made another short detour back to Garden of the Gods. Mostly to shop in the gift shop, but we enjoyed the view, too. Then we had a little retail therapy back at historic Manitou Springs before it was time for a tearful goodbye at Denver International Airport.

It sounds like our next adventure is going to be a long-awaited wedding, then maybe whitewater rafting in Idaho next spring. Sounds like fun!!

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

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