On the afternoon of Friday, August 27, Sean and I had tickets to tour Long House, the first of four cliff dwellings that we would explore while we were at Mesa Verde. After spending the morning touring the National Park from the mesa top, we were excited to get down into one of the dwellings.
Our tickets were for 3pm, the final entry for the day. The Long House Tour is ranger assisted, rather than ranger led. This means that groups of 35 are allowed in at thirty-minute intervals and can talk to three rangers positioned throughout the cliff dwelling, rather than having a ranger hike in with a group. It’s like timed entry to a museum exhibition: you have your entry time but then can move through the space at your own pace.
For more than 700 years—nearly triple the age of the United States—Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited what we now call Mesa Verde, a cuesta rising above the Colorado Plateau. Beginning in the mid-500s and lasting through the late 1200s, Mesa Verde was constantly inhabited, first by small assemblages of family units in modest pithouses on the mesa top, and ultimately by complex villages climaxing in the dramatic, world-famous cliff dwellings, including the largest cliff dwelling in the American Southwest, Cliff Palace. Then by the end of the 1280s, Mesa Verde was abandoned completely as the Ancestral Pueblo people migrated en masse to the Pueblos along the Rio Grande in what is now New Mexico or to Hopi lands in Arizona.
Sean and I had budgeted 2.5 days to explore Mesa Verde in a series of four tours. While tickets for ranger-led tours into the cliff dwellings are only available two weeks in advance, bus tours operated by concessionaire Aramark were available to book months ahead of time. Usually we’re much more interested in ranger-led options than in those handled by private companies, but we figured that the 700 Years Tour would be a good introduction to the Park on our first morning. And it concluded with a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace. As we booked the tour in early April, we weren’t necessarily certain we’d be comfortable riding a tour bus with some 30 other people, but we’d cross that bridge if we had to. As it happened, the Delta variant was not yet raging in Colorado when we were there, and everyone was required to be masked, so we felt comfortable. Unfortunately, the Cliff Palace tour was a no-go because road work in the Park made it completely inaccessible in the summer of 2021.
And so on Friday, August 27 we began our exploration of Mesa Verde.
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.
The San Luis Valley is a high (average elevation 7,600 feet), huge (eight thousand square miles), and gorgeous portion of south central Colorado and northern Arizona. Sean and I had entered it from the north at Poncha Pass and driven through about a third of the valley to arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park two days earlier. Now on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 25, we wanted to relax from our hiking by visiting a hot spring and exploring some of the valley.
On Wednesday, August 25, the 105th birthday of the National Park Service, Sean and I ventured into the dunefield of Great Sand Dunes National Park. We’d gazed on it from varying distances for two days, but now it was time to experience it closely. On this second full day in the Park, we wanted to prioritize the dunes, but we also wanted to hike in them first thing while it was still cool and before the day heated up and made the experience less pleasant.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 24, we continued exploring the parts of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve that were not actually the dunes proper. We’d decided to save them for the following morning, when temperatures would be cooler. We toyed with the idea of driving to a trailhead on the other (eastern) side of the Sangre de Cristo Range to hike to a couple of alpine lakes high in the range, but the drive was almost two and a half hours.
So instead we opted for Mosca Pass Trail, which leads from near the Visitor Center complex up into the Sangre de Cristos to a low pass between the San Luis Valley and the Wet Mountains Valley. The hike was 3.5 miles to the crest of the pass, then 3.5 miles back to the trailhead. The Falcon Guide rated it Easy. We figured it would be a nice end to a day of hiking around the foothills zone between the dunefield and the mountains.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects 149,000 acres of dune field, transition zone, and a portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south central Colorado. The Park and Preserve was authorized by Congress in the waning days of the Clinton administration in 2000 and established in 2004 under the Bush administration. The dunes proper had received earlier protection in the waning days of the Hoover administration in 1932 after local communities became alarmed that the dunes might be destroyed for industrial use for gold mining or concrete production.
That the tallest sand dunes in North America rise above the enormous, flat, high-elevation (above 7,000 feet) San Luis Valley in Colorado—and not in, say Death Valley, nor the Mojave, Sonoran, or Chihuahuan Deserts, places generally much sandier than the valley—is a unique circumstance of geography. The sand that comprises the dunes comes mainly from the San Juan Mountains dozens of miles to the west across the broad, flat valley. Sediment washed down from the mountains by snowmelt, rain, and the Rio Grande, whose headwaters are in the San Juans and which begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico by emerging into the San Luis Valley. Sandy sediment is deposited on the western side of the valley and then blown by the prevailing winds rushing down from the San Juans. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rockies, run north-south for 242 miles, but the dunes formed only in a nook just north of Mount Blanca, the range’s highest peak and a sacred mountain to a number of Native American peoples. The dunes formed adjacent to a relatively low saddle in the range where three major ephemeral springs flow down into the valley. The streams, which secure the sand, are important for the stability of the dunes and for the hardy plant communities that grow from the extensive sand flats surrounding the dunes proper. But it is the storm winds rushing down from the low saddle in the Sangre de Cristos that balance the prevailing winds from the west, keeping the dunes themselves remarkably stable over years and decades.
Even with the uniqueness of the region’s wind and geography, the sheer amount of sand cannot be explained just by this process. More recent evidence suggests that the southern end of the San Luis Valley was once covered by a vast lake, remnants of which are visible as wetland complexes west and south of the dunes and a vast aquifer beneath the valley, which makes agriculture possible. It is the sand of this ancient lakebed that comprises the bulk of the dunes.
Tuesday, August 24, we’d spend exploring this singular place by getting to know the transition area between the dunes and the mountains.
As we began our first big National Park trip in just shy of two years, Sean and I were not the same people we were when we returned home from our sixteen-day journey to San Francisco, Redwood National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Portland in September 2019. No one was the same. No one is ever the same, but in this case the changes wrought by time felt heavier, sometimes more momentous, but often just murkier in the morass of the pandemic. The Parks too are always changing, but as we left for our new sixteen-day trip the smoke of the Dixie Fire wafted heavily across the interior West, Midwest, and even Atlantic seaboard. As our new trip approached, we looked back on that earlier trip and watched the reports of fire consuming Lassen Volcanic National Park, which Sean had declared the most beautiful we’d visited.
Many other things had changed, but the most personally gratifying was the maturing of Bold Bison, my firm. That previous trip had been the respite in the wake of departing Openlands. Now two years later, this Colorado trip commenced in the wake of my longtime professional collaborator Patrick joining the firm. Stepping away for my first big trip in a while, I was leaving my business in deeply capable hands. This particular professional evolution was underscored on the day before our trip, Friday, August 20, with a successful client presentation in the morning followed by a late afternoon gathering on Chicago’s lakefront to celebrate a whole series of delightful professional evolutions with friends who were former Openlanders. Almost all of us had landed in good positions doing meaningful work, whether it be in conservation or education. It was a good, celebratory moment before the trip.
Meanwhile that day, Sean was wrapping up a slew of work projects before his two weeks off. Elsa had been getting increasingly nervous about our departure, a jarring development after having us around nearly nonstop for eighteen months.
As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
On Sunday, March 1, 2020, Sean and I spent the day eating, drinking, seeing old friends, and going to the theater again. We also visited one more National Park Unit, Castle Clinton National Monument at the lower tip of Manhattan. Of course we could not have known then that this would be the last unit we’d visit before a global pandemic set in, making it also the last unit we’d visit in 2020 or the foreseeable future.