The second morning of our cross-country road trip found us at the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park, a park dedicated to preserving the archeological history of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made the mesa their home for about 700 years in the late 1200s AD.
I hadn’t put much planning into how we should spend our day at Mesa Verde because I knew that it had more extensive Covid 19 restrictions than many of the other parks we planned to visit, so we arrived in Mancos, Colorado not really knowing what to expect.
We caught our first glimpse of the mesa as we drove into the park. The picturesque formation stood behind fields of grasses and flowers, and looked almost dainty from a distance.
As we drove up its side though, it became clear that the mesa was actually deceptively large. We climbed up the steep park road, passing by areas of fire damage, and stopping at scenic lookouts until we eventually reached the flat top of the mountain. The slightly bizarre thing about the mesa top was that it sprawled out so extensively that it felt like any run-of-the-mill flatland, although we knew we had gained a couple thousand feet in elevation during our drive.
We stopped for our first “hike” at Park Point, which has the highest elevation in the park. A short paved trail led us uphill to a lookout with expansive views. Although the trail was easy, I still felt winded because I hadn’t quite acclimatized to the elevation of about 8,500 feet. That combined with some very sore leg muscles after the previous day in Great Sand Dunes National Park gave me a general attitude of wanting to take it a bit easy for the time being. Still the view at Park Point was worth the slight discomfort it took to get there.
After a quick stop we were back on the road, heading towards Mesa Verde’s main attractions, it’s massive cliff dwellings. Just as we were reaching the Far View area, we noticed some animals grazing along the side of the road. They came into better view as we drew closer, and I nearly lost my mind as I realized they were wild horses!
Basically any wildlife sighting is extremely exciting for me, but horses hold a major of amount of nostalgia for years of my childhood spent obsessing over them. I used to consume books about horses, draw horses, collect model horses, and dream about the day that I would grow up and buy a barn and fill it with horses. Not every childhood dream gets carried into adulthood, and it would be pretty difficult to take care of horses while also maintaining the level of flexibility I prefer, but I still can’t help but feel giddy whenever I have the pleasure of seeing a horse.
Naturally I started babbling incoherently about how this was officially the best day of my life as Vince, who is ever cooperative when it comes to pursuing wildlife sightings, found a spot to park the car. I grabbed a couple of lenses and we set out to get some pictures, taking a nearby ranger’s advice on the safest place to view the animals.
The large herd we very focused on grazing as we stood and watched them. I was particularly enchanted with the antics of a mare and foal.
After making the somewhat painful decision to move on from the horses, it was finally time to check out the cliff dwellings. We stopped at the pit houses first, which are some of the oldest archeological sites in Mesa Verde. Pit houses are found on the mesa top and were inhabited before the cliff dwellings. Another interesting site on the mesa top was the Sun Palace. This large, ceremonial structure was made of double layer stone walls that were once between 11 and 14 feet high.
Near sun palace, we got our first look at some of the cliff dwellings that Mesa Verde is famous for. On the far side of the canyon we could see Oak Tree House and the famed Cliff Palace.
We had to drive back around the canyon rim to visit a lookout that would give us a closer view of Cliff Palace. A steep set of stairs led us down to the viewing platform where we got a much better sense of how large the site is. I briefly thought back on my only other experience seeing cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona. While that had been an interesting hike, the archeological sites were not nearly as grandiose as this.
Unfortunately, the ranger-led hikes into the cliff dwellings have been indefinitely suspended in response to Covid 19. This means that visitors to Mesa Verde cannot go into the cliff dwellings, and can only enjoy them from a distance at the lookout points. I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about the history of Mesa Verde and the Ancestral Pueblo people from a guided hike, but instead I’ve been doing further reading online and in some informational materials I picked up at the visitor center.
While we couldn’t explore inside the cliff dwellings, I still tried to imagine what life on the mesa must have been like. The Ancestral Pueblo people got most of their food from farming on the mesa top, and they climbed in and out of the cliff dwellings using holds that they had picked out of the canyon wall. I imagined that the shade of the cliff alcoves provided a welcome respite from the hot sun.
After we left Cliff Palace, we took one more short hike to see Balcony House. Not only was the cliff dwelling fascinating, but the canyon it was built in was quite beautiful.
While I hated to admit it, I was totally spent when we got back to the car. I am used to being able to be out hiking for days in a row, but I’ve had to learn to be a little more patient with myself as I recover from my accident. I would have liked to hike the Petroglyph Point trail, but I didn’t feel like my leg had two and half more miles in it that day, so we made the decision to spend a slow evening hanging out at camp.
Lucky for us, camp was crawling with mule deer, so we spent the evening surrounded by bucks with velvet antlers, and adorable spotted fawns. I got a huge kick out of watching them bounce through the fields, all four hooves leaving the ground at once.
All in all it had been a slower day than we usually get while traveling, but I really enjoyed myself, and I would love to return someday to experience some of the things we missed. It seems like I’ve already been to Colorado more times than I ever really intended to. This was my sixth trip to the state, and it seems like every time I visit, I discover something else that I need to do next time. This visit to Colorado was much shorter than usual though. We would be leaving Mesa Verde the next morning, and entering my 33rd state, Utah.