Tag Archives: Mesa Verde NP

June 9: Climbing ladders and squeezing through tunnels, oh, and two 10,000 foot passes

Today was a two-part day. The first part of the day was my 10 am tour of Balcony House. I’d never done this one before, and I was a bit nervous about it. A 36-foot ladder was only the beginning. A 12-foot long, 18-inch wide, and 2-foot high tunnel, two more 12-foot ladders, and a set of stairs that rather reminded me of that part of the Mist Trail in Yosemite where you’re shinnying along a cliff edge that’s about a foot wide, with nothing between you and a hundred-plus foot drop except what looks like an old chain-link fence anchored into the rock. The only difference is that at least you’re not getting soaked with spray from Vernal Falls. Then again, with the temperature in the high 80s at 11 in the morning, the spray would have felt good.

36 foot ladder into Balcony House.  That was seriously scary.
36 foot ladder into Balcony House. That was seriously scary.
Inside Balcony House.
Inside Balcony House.
The view from Balcony House.
The view from Balcony House.
A kiva in Balcony House.  A kiva is an underground spiritual/social place.  That little hole just below the firepit is a sipapu.
A kiva in Balcony House. A kiva is an underground spiritual/social place. That little hole just below the firepit is a sipapu.
More Balcony House.
More Balcony House.

But it was worth it. Balcony House isn’t as big as Cliff Palace, but it’s got a lot of interesting pieces to it, and this ranger’s emphasis was on how the Ancestral Puebloans (the modern name for the people who lived in Mesa Verde, instead of calling them Anasazi, which is kind of pejorative, basically “ancient enemy” in Navajo) managed to live in a pretty darned harsh place. I’d always known they lived short lives (to their 20s and 30s, mostly), and that they only stayed in the cliff dwellings for about 80 years before they moved south to become part of the ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni and several other tribes, but their existence was a lot bleaker than the red Indians of the Mesa Verde book that came home with us from my first trip here made it out to be.

I read and reread that book as a kid, and even made a school project diorama about them, inspired by the really wonderful, elaborate 30s-era (WPA strikes again) dioramas in the Chapin Mesa Museum. I don’t know why they fascinated me so much, but they did.

One of the dioramas  at the Chapin Mesa Museum.
One of the dioramas at the Chapin Mesa Museum.
Spruce Tree House, which you can't go inside of anymore because of rockfalls.  It's near the museum.
Spruce Tree House, which you can’t go inside of anymore because of rockfalls. It’s near the museum.

By the time I managed to get back to Merlin and stop by the museum to see the dioramas once more, I was hot and sweaty and ready to head to the mountains.

A sculpture outside of the visitor center.  That's a man, climbing a cliff with a load of wood on his back, just as the Ancestral Puebloans would have done to reach their cliff dwellings.
A sculpture outside of the visitor center. That’s a man, climbing a cliff with a load of wood on his back, just as the Ancestral Puebloans would have done to reach their cliff dwellings.

Which I did. With a stop in Durango for lunch and gas and ice, I headed north (I know, I know) towards Silverton on what’s locally called the Colorado Skyway. Aptly named, too. Merlin climbed over two passes, both over 10,000 feet, this afternoon before I stopped for the night. I have one more to go, at 11,000 feet (only 3,000 feet lower than the summit of Mt. Rainier!), but that’s for tomorrow.

Along the road between Durango and Silverton.
Along the road between Durango and Silverton.
Another view along that road.
Another view along that road.

Tonight I’m in a forest service campground at around 9000 feet, next to a river rushing with snowmelt. The best part? It’s in the fifties out there, and is supposed to get to the thirties tonight (my sleeping bag is rated to 30dF, so I will be fine <g>). No more desert! No more heat!

At my campsite in the Lower Mineral campground just north of Silvertion.
At my campsite in the Lower Mineral campground just north of Silvertion.

At least not till I hit the plains of eastern Colorado and Kansas in a few days. Eep.

June 8: Cliff dwellings, and a bit of a rant

First, the rant. I think I need to write Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (my senators) about how our national parks are being priced out of the means of too many Americans. Thirty-two bleeding dollars for a campsite at Mesa Verde is just the tip of the iceberg. It brought back memories of a bunch of other indignities, like the fact that the price of a cabin at Yellowstone has doubled in the last ten years (and never mind that you can’t even camp near Old Faithful anymore, so if you want to be at the geyser basins early or late, you have to pay for lodging), or that the cheapest place to stay in Yosemite is a filthy (and I mean that in the literal sense – the one I stayed in was disgustingly dirty when I was there in 2011) tent cabin for $125 a night. There’s a lot of inequity about entrance fees, too – some very popular parks don’t charge fees, and some charge upwards of $30 just to get in (this is why an annual parks pass for $80 is something I always do – even when I don’t travel it pays for itself just for going to Rainier and Olympic). Anyway, I hate how the parks are letting the concessioners get away with murder. If they really want to walk the walk about getting the younger generations into the parks that they keep talking about, then they need to make sure the younger generations can actually afford to go to the parks. And those of us in the older generations who aren’t rich, too.

Rant over. At least for now.

Other than that, I love Mesa Verde. This is another of those parks that I first visited when I was too young to remember. Almost. The earliest memory I have of traveling with my family is of my sisters holding my hands as I walked along the top of the walls at the Sun Temple here (which is strictly illegal to do these days).

Sun Temple, which the archaeologists think was a communal worship/spiritual gathering place.
Sun Temple, which the archaeologists think was a communal worship/spiritual gathering place.

I’ve been to Mesa Verde once as an adult, in 2002, in the immediate aftermath of a huge fire that closed chunks of the park. It’s nice to be back when everything’s open.

The first thing I did was stop at the brand-new (2012) visitor center just inside the park entrance to buy two tickets, one for a tour of Cliff Palace today, and one for a tour of Balcony House tomorrow, then  I drove the mesa top loop, which is where Sun Temple is, and where there are other ruins, and where of course I saw more wildflowers.

One of the mesa-top ruins.  This was a pit house from before they started building cliff dwellings.
One of the mesa-top ruins. This was a pit house from before they started building cliff dwellings.
Scarlet gilia
Scarlet gilia
Mariposa lily
Mariposa lily
Prickly pear cactus, yellow this time.
Prickly pear cactus, yellow this time.

I went through Cliff Palace in 2002, and it’s an amazing place. The ranger who took us through this time talked mostly about the history of archaeology as it applies to Mesa Verde, and the good things that happened and the bad. It was eye-opening. Did you know that because the first “real” archaeologist who excavated in Mesa Verde was from Sweden, that the largest collection of Mesa Verde artifacts is in a museum there? I knew from my own education that repatriation is a fraught concept, but I hadn’t known this in specific.

A view of Cliff Palace from across the canyon.
A view of Cliff Palace from across the canyon.
A cliff dwelling I didn't get the name of.
A cliff dwelling I didn’t get the name of.
Cliff Palace from the head of the trail.
Cliff Palace from the head of the trail.
A view from inside Cliff Palace.
A view from inside Cliff Palace.
Another view from inside Cliff Palace.
Another view from inside Cliff Palace.
A view from where we left Cliff Palace.
A view from where we left Cliff Palace.

Anyway, Cliff Palace is a remarkable place, well worth climbing ladders and squeezing up narrow steps (better than the hand and footholds on the cliffs the residents used) to get in and out of. I understand I’ll have to crawl through a tunnel to get into Balcony House tomorrow. That ought to be interesting.

Given that I refused to pay $32 to camp in the park, finding a campsite last night was interesting. The national forest doesn’t start until almost Durango, so that was out. I ended up in a commercial campground just across the highway from the park entrance. It was $19, which was considerably better. But still. I need to write my senators. Not that it’ll do any good, but it’ll make me feel better. The parks are supposed to be for everyone, dammit.