Over Memorial Day, Samuel was moving back to Michigan from San Francisco so we seized the opportunity to go on another fantastic, jam packed road trip hitting eight National Parks in four days. In my last post we had finished the third day of our road trip going to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Beginning the fourth and last day of our trip we woke up bright and early to explore Mesa Verde National Park. Prior this this trip I’d only heard of the Mesa Verde from one of my favorite John Wayne movies, McLintock! Actually the iconic view from our campsite was one I could swear was from the movie as it drew forth familiar and nostalgic feelings from my childhood.
I hadn’t realized until Samuel brought up the topic that the park was home to the picturesque Puebloan villages. The only way to actually tour insides of the most well preserved villages is through acquiring tickets so we excitedly, got up early to get in line to procure said tickets. Unfortunately, we had thought that you could only buy the tickets the morning of, as such we were standing in line when we discovered that we had been misinformed and all the tickets for that day had been sold out. Making the best of it, we decided to drive around the scenic loops and go on several of the hikes that would allow us to glimpse the houses despite not being able to tour them.
When contemplating our game plan for the park, we decided to venture first to the Step House, which was the only site available in the park to explore without a ticket. Until a few years ago, Spruce Tree Terrace was another popular sight right next to the visitor center that tourists could explore themselves, however due to a crack in the rock overhang, the area has been closed off for safety reasons. To get to Step House, it takes almost an hour of driving up and down the side of a mountain, while winding along steep drop offs. Needless to say, this trek afforded beautiful views. At one point, I looked over and spotted what I thought might be a random Puebloan site. Upon pulling over and using a fellow visitor’s binoculars we did indeed randomly spot a village. This first sighting was so exhilarating, however unique dwellings soon were turning up seemingly on every cliff side we looked out. Sure, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much as there are 4300 sites and 600 of them are designated cliff dwellings.
Step House is along the Wetherill Mesa drive with the parking lot located at the end of this lengthy drive also the trailhead for the Long House Loop. The round trip hike to Step House was approximately a mile and fairly easy. The views of the canyon that we were descending partly into were stunning. That is, we thought they were until we eventually made our way to Balcony House. We had a great time exploring the Step House, using the guide book to be our tour guide as we mulled over what it might have been like to live here.
Long House and the Long House Loop
Arriving back at the parking lot after our Step House hike, the Park Ranger organizing the tour groups for the Long House was very helpful and suggested that it would be worth our while after visiting the Step House to hike the path out to the Long House Lookout. It was about approximately a three mile walk that was fairly flat and paved. There were evidence of wild horses everywhere but unfortunately we didn’t spot any. Also the landscape was scarred throughout the park from wildfires, but was especially evident on this Long House Loop.
We looked up the fires after our walk when we had cellular service again and learned that they actually name the fires and that from 1996-2003 the park was victim to an influx of fires. Another interesting tidbit that was discovered as a result from this series of natural disasters was the presence of 593 previously unknown, and unexplored archeological sites. Long House itself was incredible as it is the second largest dwelling that was built around 1200. If you look really close you can see structures in the overhang above the dwelling.
Cliff Palace Loop (6 miles)
After leaving Long House we booked it back to the car to head over to the Chapin Mesa, where we could glimpse the Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Remember it took us an hour to get back to the Long House from the visitor center, well it was another hour to back track and make our way to this popular scenic loop. Our first stop in the Chapin Mesa was the Cliff Palace, which is the largest of the Puobloan cliff dwellings in the park. It was unreal that this large village was precariously placed on the edge of an expansive canyon.
As it was such a short walk to the Cliff Palace Overlook, we continued along the Cliff Palace Loop to the Balcony House. We didn’t see on any maps where there was a specific overlook for this dwelling so we were dubious if we could get a glimpse of this popular site. Upon stopping a Park Ranger in the parking lot for the Balcony House tours (tickets were sold out), he recommended we stop at the next pull off up the road for the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. This 1.2 mile round trip trail would allow us to view this remarkable structure in the context of the canyon as a whole. I’m so thankful that of the three main dwellings this one was the last we saw because it was truly breathtaking and our favorite of the three. The house is nestled right at the top of the canyon edge, begging the mind to ponder what every day life must have been like living so high in the air. In the first photo below, can you spot Balcony House? Scroll one more down and you’ll see a progression of three photos slowly zoomed into this beautiful house. I really wish we could have had the opportunity to tour this cliff dwelling.
Mesa Top Loop (6 miles)
After finishing the Cliff Palace Loop we had already significantly exceeded our time allotted for Mesa Verde National Park but were so thoroughly enjoying ourselves that we decided to complete the final loop we had yet to trek. The key house we wanted to glimpse along the Mesa Top Loop was the Square Tower House, which includes the tallest structure in the park.
Spruce Tree Terrace
Our last stop of the park was the Spruce Tree Terrace and see what this popular area had in store. It was by far the busiest as there were so many other travelers packed into this area, in contrast to the rest of the park. We walked to the outlook to glimpse the Spruce Tree House, however we couldn’t explore further due to safety concerns. At this point, hours over schedule we decided to turn back and head out of the park. The crowds were just too much and we knew it would take us at least an hour to get to the main entrance. Even after reaching the entrance, we had an additional three and a half hours to get to our last stop of the trip, the Great Sand Dunes National Park.