On Thursday, August 26, Sean and I drove out of the San Luis Valley, up and over the San Juan Mountains and the Continental Divide, and onto the Colorado Plateau to Mesa Verde National Park. We were booked for three night’s at the Park’s Far View Lodge and had tickets for multiple tours through Sunday morning. Although Sean had long wanted to visit this National Park, and I had read extensively about the Ancestral Puebloans in advance of our arrival, neither of us expected to be so moved by this place even as we first arrived, still a day before setting sight on a cliff dwelling.
After spending the morning breaking camp and taking our leave of Great Sand Dunes National Park, we set out on the three and three-quarter hours drive to Mesa Verde National Park.
There were low clouds and distant rain over the expansive San Luis Valley as we stopped for gas at a truly ancient and seemingly semi-abandoned Sinclair Station in the tiny hamlet of Hooper, Colorado.
From Hooper, our route took us due west in in straight line across the valley. In the somewhat larger town of Center, we found a post office to drop off our Great Sand Dunes postcards.
Then we continued west toward the San Juans, turning gently southwest as we approached the foothills.
As we entered Del Norte, Colorado, we crossed the Rio Grande as it left the San Juans and entered the San Luis Valley. We pulled into Del Norte Town Park to get out and have a look at the river.
From here it would turn south and flow from the San Luis Valley on through its immense gorge bisecting the Taos Plateau, then through New Mexico, passing Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the ancient communities of the modern Pueblo peoples. From there it would don its infamous mantle as the border between the U.S. and Mexico, bisecting the Chihuahuan Desert with sometimes no more than a trickle, before finding the Gulf of Mexico.
We didn’t linger long, partly so that we could get out of the way of a group of kayakers getting ready to put in.
We drove through Del Norte and then headed west along the route of the river up into the San Juan Mountains.
Shortly, we left the river and continued southwest up and up and up.
We listened to podcasts—one of them appropriately enough a Radiolab episode about water—as we reached the Continental Divide and began a dramatic descent.
We stopped for gas in the resorty mountain town of Pagosa Springs before continuing our descent past Chimney Rock National Monument and a patchwork of private, state, federal, and tribal lands.
After we departed the mountains, we passed through Durango, Colorado. Both of us remarked that Durango felt very “Western” and reminded us of El Paso and parts of California.
After Durango, we were out on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. We passed through the town of Mancos, and Mesa Verde loomed ahead, to the south of the highway. The GPS seemed to want to take us up to the the lodge an alternate (and apparently basically impassable) route. But I ignored it and just continued on to the main Park entrance.
We arrived at Mesa Verde National Park, our thirty-fifth, at about twenty minutes after three.
We decided to forego visiting the visitor center and museum, which were situated near the entrance and head into the Park to check in at the lodge.
Mesa Verde is not a true mesa, defined by its flatness, but instead is a cuesta since it slopes. The northern edge, where the entrance is, rises steeply from the Montezuma Valley. Then it slopes gently to the south, split by multiple canyons.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected. What I didn’t expect was an aggressive ascent up the Park road with a spectacular and terrifying drop off on the northbound side of the road.
By the time the road leveled off onto the cuesta, my hands were clammy. I think it was a combination of being tired from driving, the fact that it was raining sporadically, and that it was unexpected, but my acrophobia kicked in big time. Even so, it was not remotely the scariest sheer drop-off road we’d traversed in the Parks…or getting to the Parks.
We passed the entrance to Morefield Campground and then went through a tunnel separating Morefield Canyon from Prater Canyon.
The road climbed to the northern edge of the cuesta, and we pulled off at Montezuma Valley Overlook to take in the view north and west toward Cortez, Colorado
Out to the west, Sleeping Ute Mountain rose dramatically above the plateau.
The road kept rising until it skirted Park Point, the highest point on Mesa Verde.
Out to the south, a thunderstorm passed over the Ute and Navajo lands of northern New Mexico and Arizona.
We arrived at the Far View Lodge complex at 4pm. We checked in at the main building and were assigned room 122. When we pulled up to the 100s building, I was disappointed that our room was on the lower of the two levels.
That disappointment was completely misplaced. It actually meant that our little balcony was more sheltered and private while our view to the south was glorious.
Sean even managed to capture a distant lightning strike from our balcony.
We had only just arrived, and Sean already declared that this was a very special place. It certainly was beautiful.
We had a dinner reservation in the lodge dining room at 6:30, so we slowly unpacked the car and settled into our room.
We couldn’t help but alternate our unpacking, settling in, and showering with long gazes at the vista from our balcony as the thunderstorms moved on.
Way out in the distance, we could make out the huge monolith of Shiprock rising from the desert of the Navajo Nation.
Also out in the distance was Chapin Mesa, where some of the Park’s most dramatic cliff dwellings were clustered.
As afternoon continued, we poured cocktails and sat watching the shadows move across Mesa Verde.
A few minutes before 6:30 we walked next door to the main lodge building and the Metate Dining Room. Tables were well spread out to accommodate the realities of COVID-19. This meant that we were in an upper area away from the windows, but that was fine since we had plenty of view from our room.
Behemoth Aramark is the contractor for Mesa Verde National Park, handling the lodge, campground, bus tours, etc. Even so, our dinner was excellent. The menu was limited, and many of the ingredients were regionally sourced.
By the time dessert arrived, we were plotting out what we’d have for dinner over the next two nights.
We had purposely chosen an early dining time that evening, since we had an early start next morning. As we wandered back to our room, the last bits of sunset were visible out past Sleeping Ute Mountain.
Back at our room we gazed at the view as the light faded.
Once it was dark, I fired up my laptop. I had some work to get done putting the finishing touches on a proposal due the next day. Patrick, about to complete his first week with Bold Bison and doing a magnificent job keeping things moving in my absence, had sent me a lovely email about how much he’d enjoyed his first week. So I happily wrapped up the proposal, ready for a final read through in the morning.
The evening was cool and pleasant, so we left the windows open as we drifted off to sleep.