Although the two rims of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison are at times a literal stone’s throw apart, traveling from rim to rim takes a couple hours. There are two routes: west down into the Uncompahgre Valley and around the Gunnison uplift into the foothills of the West Elk Mountains, or east through Cimarron and along the Gunnison Gorge through Curecanti National Recreation Area. Mid-morning of Monday, August 30, we opted for the more scenic eastern route through another National Park unit.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects 30,750 acres of western Colorado where the Gunnison River carves one of the most dramatic gorges on the continent. After lobbying by nearby residents, President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument just before he left office in 1933. Congress upgraded it to a National Park in 1999.
On the afternoon of Sunday, August 29, Black Canyon was our destination after our final morning and early afternoon at Mesa Verde National Park.
When we woke up on Sunday, August 29, our final morning at Mesa Verde National Park, we still had some adventures waiting for us. These included one of the highlights of our entire National Park travels over a decade: descending with a small group to Square Tower House. After that singular experience, we lingered at Mesa Verde, strolling around the mesa top Far View sites and finally having a look into the Visitor Center, before continuing on to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Our splendid day, Saturday, August 28, continued with an afternoon on Chapin Mesa, where we filled in some of the gaps of the 700 Years Tour we’d been on the day before. The centerpiece of the afternoon was our hike to see the panel of Ancestral Puebloan rock art at Petroglyph Point and making a few trail friends along the way.
Saturday, August 28 was a splendid day in the National Parks. Sean kept saying about Mesa Verde National Park: “I really like this place. I’m having so much fun!” In the morning, we visited Mug House on the best Ranger-led interpretive tour we’d ever been on (which is saying something). In the afternoon, we hiked to Petroglyph Point and made some trail friends along the way.
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.