We arrived in southwestern Colorado on a hot mid-afternoon. We drove here from Moab in a futile attempt to escape the smoke from the wild fires in the north. Like a cloudy day, a gray smokey haze chokes the sunlight from the sky. There’s a lingering odor that reminds me of a damp smoldering campfire struggling against the morning dew. We haven’t seen rain in months. It is sorely needed.
We are camping at Morefield Campground inside Mesa Verde National Park. We arrived without a reservation and got one of their prime full hookup sites. Unheard of normally, as these sites are booked well in advance, but these are not normal times. Due to COVID-19, major portions of the park are closed and all tours to the cliff dwellings are canceled. We knew this in advance but we came to see what we could.
Early Spanish explorers gave Mesa Verde its name. Translated it means green table. Unlike the barren desert mesas we saw around Moab, a green forest of mainly pinyon and juniper trees thrive on top of Mesa Verde. Starting around 550 AD, Ancestral Pueblo people began living on the mesa where they flourished for over 700 years, eventually building stone structures in the alcoves of the canyon walls about 1200 AD. Mysteriously archeological evidence shows all the inhabitants disappeared near the end of the thirteenth century.
Before the intricate multistory cliff dwellings were built, the Ancestral Pueblo people lived on the mesa in pit houses clustered as small villages. According to archaeologist, thousand of people once lived on Mesa Verde. The national park serves to preserve over 4500 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwelling.
All cliff dwelling tours have been canceled. Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center was closed although the gift shop was open and a ranger was stationed outside at an information table. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe and Gift Shop, Spruce Canyon Trail, Wetherill Mesa Road including its archeological sites and trails were also closed. Still there was plenty to see. We spent an entire day exploring those areas of the park that were open.
We started the day with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the Knife Edge Cafe located at the Morefield Village. An endless supply of golden pancakes bigger than the paper plate they were served on was a delightful deviation from our standard bowl of oatmeal. Also located at the village is a camp store and gift shop, laundry facility, and a service station.
We drove the main road up toward the mesa stopping at all the overlooks. First we stopped at Knife Edge Overlook named after the cafe…aah…maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it was actually the name of a narrow road that was once the main entrance into the park. The old existing road bed is now a hiking trail to scenic views across Montezuma Valley. It’s a 2 mile out and back round trip.
Another interesting stop was at Park Point where we hiked a short distance to the highest point in Mesa Verde National Park. Atop the peak is a fire lookout station and a terrace with impressive views in all directions. Ironically the smoke hovering across the valley from fires far away obscured the distant landscape.
As we continued ahead, we turned onto Cliff Palace Loop. We emerged from a green forest of juniper trees into an area of dead trees. A sign indicated it was the location of the Long Mesa Fire of 2002. The devastation still remains 18 years later. On the bright side, the fire revealed several previously unknown archaeological sites.
The main attraction, of course, are the cliff dwellings. Though the park is not conducting tours to the cliff dwellings, overlooks and viewing platforms are easily accessible from nearby locations. The highlight of the day for me was our view of Cliff Palace from an observation platform. The broad view of the large cliff structure with more than 150 rooms and 20 circular kivas was mind-blowing. Trying to visualize and understand how people once lived there invoked a deep feeling of reverence.
We stopped at more overlooks such as the House of Many Windows, Hemenway House, Spruce Tree House and many smaller dwellings built along the ledges and alcoves of the canyon.
We stopped to see the pit houses excavated and preserved with modern roof structures. The pictures I took don’t really show the intricacies or dimensional details. We saw the Sun Temple built atop the mesa. The purpose of the D-shaped structure remains a mystery to scientist.
Coming down off the mesa and heading back toward camp, we emerged from a tunnel to see an albino horse. We were told by a store clerk at Morefield Village to be on the lookout for this elusive wild horse. It’s a holdout from controversial efforts by the park service to reduce or eliminate the wild horse population in an effort to keep them from damaging archeological sites.
We stayed at Morefield Campground for two more nights. We didn’t go back to the top of the mesa. We saw most of what there was to see. The campground was quiet and deer roamed unmolested between the sites. We did drive into town to have lunch, do some shopping and pick up some groceries.
By now, we are all aware how so many activities have changed because of COVID-19. With shortened hours, social distancing, limited services and at times total closures, we’ve had to make concessions. We’ve had to adjust. I will say that due to the nature of Mesa Verde National Park it’s had the most restrictions and closures of any of the parks we visited thus far. But Grammi and I will not be discouraged, we will not lock ourselves away. We will take precautions and abide by the recommended social practices as we continue to travel the country seeing what we can.
Until next time…happy days and safe travels.