We spent three nights camping inside Mesa Verde National Park which was a convenient way to maximize our time inside the park. It was a little disappointing that much of Mesa Verde was closed while we were there, but we made the most of our time. Having less to see and do just meant we spent more time enjoying and appreciating what was open.
Coming from Mancos State Park, we stopped at the Visitor Center on the way into Mesa Verde to buy our sticker. They were only allowing ten people in the store at a time. We learned that not only were the guided tours not operating due to COVID, but many of the hiking trails were closed due to the current extreme fire danger. As recommended by the signs at the Visitor Center, Left Buddy (LB) downloaded the Audio Tour - Mesa Top Loop Drive: A Pueblo Perspective on Mesa Verde. There are also other podcasts, videos, and an app available through the Mesa Verde website.
It was noon when we checked in at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde. When you reserve a camp site, they do not assign you a campsite number. Instead, they give you a tag to clip to the post at the campsite you pick out as you drive through the campground. At first we thought this was a hassle, but it turned out to be the better option. Many of the campsites are exposed to the full sun, so we were able to drive around and find an open site that had a lot of shade. They say the campground never completely fills up, so if you arrive early in the day, you’ll probably have your pick of sites.
After picking out our site, we removed our bikes from the van and locked them to the picnic table. Since trailers and large RV’s are not allowed into Mesa Verde past the campground, we wanted to make sure we didn’t have any issues with parking the van inside the park. Earlier we decided we would buy our lunch inside the park as our weekly dining out that week. The cafe at the campground is only open for breakfast, so we drove the 30 minutes to the cafe at Far View. We were hoping for something like burgers and fries, but the menu was rather limited. We both opted for the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich with bags of chips and Cokes. It was a rather disappointing meal. The sandwich was made with cheese sauce instead of melted cheese. Right Buddy (RB) is not a big fan of cheese sauce. Oh well, such is life. After lunch, we drove back to the campground to do our laundry. RB also took advantage of the free showers. An attendant checked your campground paperwork before unlocking a shower stall for you. A staff member cleaned the shower stall when you were done with your shower. We were impressed with the COVID precautions they were taking.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing at our campsite and working on our computers. The cell service was not great, but there was free Wifi that we used along with our Bitdefender VPN. The Wifi also was not great, but it was better than what we could get through the cell signal. We also planned what we were doing the next two days in the park. We thought we would concentrate on the Chapin Mesa the first day and go on a couple short hikes, then on the second day, concentrate on Wetherill Mesa and ride our bikes on the Long House Loop paved trail. We were then disappointed to learn that the Wetherill Mesa was closed, perhaps due to the extreme drought. There is only one road that leads out of the park and the Wetherill Mesa is the furthest you can get within the park from the park entrance. We’re assuming that the park service was concerned about how quickly they could evacuate people out of the park in the case of a wildfire. For dinner we made lemon cream pasta. Before we went to bed, we listened to the audio tour podcast. It gave us a good perspective on what we were planning on seeing the next day. It lightly rained on and off in the late evening and overnight, but not enough to make any significant improvement to the extreme drought.
The next day, we started our tour of Mesa Verde by driving the Mesa Top Loop, following along with the audio tour podcast. The podcast for each stop was a little longer than the time it took to drive from stop to stop, so it was lunch time by the time we finished the loop. The Mesa Top Loop is a nice chronological history of the dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The structures changed from pit houses dating back to around 600 AD, to wooden villages around 850 AD, to stone villages around 950 AD, and finally to cliff dwellings around 1200 AD.
At one of the stops, a family was stopped along the path. What were they looking at? There was a swarm of insects on the ground and a handful of lizards were taking turns enjoying the banquet of insects before them. There was a tour bus that was following us around the loop. It looked like it was the half day bus tour run by Aramark, the same company that runs the concessions, lodge, and campground in the park. The number of people on the bus was limited so there was plenty of room for them to spread out. The tour starts from the Far View Terrace. A tour guide explained each site in depth.
For lunch, we headed over to the picnic area in the Spruce Tree House loop. The picnic area was rather nice, set up more like a campground than a picnic area, with individual pull outs right next to each picnic table. The area is shaded pretty well by short juniper and pine trees. A couple of restroom buildings were in the picnic area as well, with flush toilets and drinking fountains.
After lunch, we checked out Spruce Tree House. You can only go a short ways down the path which gives you a pretty good view of the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in the park. The park used to allow people to explore Spruce Tree House on their own. However, the alcove that Spruce Tree House is in has become unstable, so it is closed to the public.
From there we went back over to the Sun Temple where there is a view of the Cliff Palace on the opposite cliff. RB was hoping the Cliff Palace would have more sun hitting it in the afternoon since it was all in shade when we were there in the morning. No such luck. We decided to hang out at Far View Terrace and go back to Sun Temple later in the afternoon to see if the lighting of Cliff Palace was better. We had ice cream at the cafe. It was Blue Bunny ice cream, but it was cold and sweet, so we enjoyed it. Then we worked from our van in the shade of a tree at the other end of the parking lot. About 3 pm we headed back to Sun Temple. Nope. We still needed to wait until later in the day. We decided to call it a day and try again the next day to avoid more driving trips to Chapin Mesa. The Sun Temple is about half an hour’s drive from Far View Terrace and about an hour from the campground.
Back at the campground, we worked some more in the nice shade of our site. Dinner was pizza tortillas. We met the people in the camp site next to ours. They were from Puerto Rico. They were sleeping in the back of their hatchback. The man was a 20 year veteran and was curious why we chose a Ford Transit to convert instead of a Ram Promaster or Mecerdes Sprinter. He was considering converting a van himself. We had a lovely discussion of the reasons for our decisions and our experiences with the van. We wish them the best and hope they end up with a van they are happy with. We had enough of a wifi signal to watch a couple of YouTube videos before bedtime.
The following day, we got up early to hike the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail which has the only views of Balcony House. Balcony House faces east, so it has better light in the morning. RB found information on the NPS website about when the best times of day are to photograph the different cliff houses (Mesa Verde Photography Tips). Since the cliff houses are built inside alcoves along the cliffs, they are in shadow most of the day.
We got up at 7:30 am, left the campground at 8 am and were on the trail before 9 am. The Soda Canyon Overlook Trail was 1.2 miles and took us 43 minutes to complete the 120 foot elevation gain. As luck would have it, the sun was behind clouds for most of the hike. However, this kept the temperatures cool for which we were grateful. As we stood there at the overlooks at the end of the trail, the sun would peer out every now and then, so RB felt she got some good pictures. They were definitely better than taking them with the Balcony House in complete shadow. While we were there, there were three park staff in the pueblo. It looked like they were stabilizing some walls. They were running a mixer of some type, perhaps concrete, and a water line was running down the cliff to them from a water tank on the back of a park truck up in the parking lot. As we learned from a Mesa Verde Voices podcast, the NPS has made the decision to keep trying to preserve the cliff dwellings and keep them from deteriorating since their mission is to educate the public. This is contrary to the view of the modern Pueblo people to let the ruins deteriorate and return to the earth as nature sees fit.
We then had a lot of time to kill, since the other cliff dwellings were better to photograph in the evening. Instead of driving back and forth between the Far View area or the campground, we decided to set up camp at the picnic area near Spruce Tree House. We worked in the picnic area until lunch. After eating our lunch, we worked about another hour before deciding to take a break. We drove over to the Spruce Tree House parking lot and hiked the upper Petroglyph Point Trail. We originally were going to skip this hike because the petroglyphs are not accessible before the trail closure where it descends down to the lower part of the trail. However, it was the only trail open, other than the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail that we hiked that morning. Since there were no ruins to see from the trail, we made the most of it and tried to identify the local native plants along the trail. We saw piñon pine, Utah juniper, yucca, mormon tea, rabbitbrush, mountain mahogany, scrub oak, and cliff fendlerbush. The part of the trail that was open was 2.5 miles, taking us one hour and 18 minutes, with an elevation gain of 211 feet. We counted both hikes together as hike #11 of our 52 Hike Challenge National Park Series.
After our hike, we headed back to the picnic area. After working about another hour, we made dinner - french toast with sugar, cinnamon, and blueberries. By the time we finished cleaning up from dinner, it was about 5:45 pm, which was a little bit past the perfect lighting for the Square Tower House cliff dwelling, according to the website. We stopped first at Spruce Tree House, since it was the closest. Yes, part of the dwelling was already starting to return to shadow, but RB took some good pictures. From there we headed straight (as the road allowed) over to Cliff Palace, the iconic cliff dwelling of Mesa Verde. Again, we were about half an hour to an hour later than ideal lighting, but it was still good. After getting her fill of shots of Cliff Palace, RB felt more relaxed. She was afraid they waited around all day for ideal lighting and might have missed it. While we were there, we made one last trip around Mesa Top Loop, stopping at Square Tower House, and Sun Point View, where RB took another round of pictures.
On the drive back to the campground, we stopped to check out the Far View Sites, since we had not stopped there yet. There is more to see there than we remembered. It is about a three quarter mile loop with stone pueblos, kivas, towers, and a water reservoir. RB was really having fun now taking pictures as the late evening sun provided a nice glow on everything.
When we got back to the campground, we stopped to empty our gray tanks and fill up our fresh tanks. A deer was hanging out at the dump station and not running off while we were there. At one point, RB came back out of the van which spooked the deer as it was trying to sneak up to the puddle on the ground near the fresh water hose. Ah, the deer is here for the same reason we are. It wants fresh water. That is why it was hanging so close despite our presence. As we continued driving back to our camp site, we passed a herd of deer, including a buck and two fawns.
After we got our van set up for the night, which took about five minutes, RB walked up to use the restroom. While her focus was on a new sign that was posted on the bathroom door, she turned the corner around a dumpster from the camp road to the short path the bathroom building. A rattling noise stopped her dead in her tracks and she quickly backed up when she looked down and saw a small rattlesnake. She was about ten feet from it, but the snaked coiled itself up. RB gave it plenty of room and watched it uncoil and slowly slither around the building. It went right by the bathroom door. Can it fit under the door? Luckily, it couldn’t. After the snake slithered out of sight, RB felt safe enough to enter the restroom. Of course, when she was leaving, she opened the door slowly, just to make sure the snake was not close by.
Since we had an early dinner, we both wanted a snack. LB finished off the tortilla chips. RB decided to make popcorn. Even though we have been popping corn at home the “old-fashioned way” lately, we had not tried it on the butane stove (paid link) yet. At home, we use 1/3 cup popcorn in a 5 qt sauce pan with two tablespoons of oil over just slightly under medium heat. We don’t know how large our camping pans are, so RB only used 1/4 cup popcorn and set the stove to medium heat. It turned out pretty well, with only a couple of kernels unpopped and a slight char on only a couple of popped kernels. At home, RB normally dumps the popcorn out of the pot and into a bowl immediately when the popping slows down. However, the camping pot was larger than the bowl we had to dump it in, so transferring the popcorn to the bowl was a slower process. RB believes this is when the burning of the few kernels happened. Next time she’ll try using the one size smaller camping pot which better fits the size of the bowl we have with us. After watching a couple of YouTube videos, we turned in for the night.
Since we stayed out on Chapin Mesa the whole day the day before, LB did not get chance to take a shower. So before we left Mesa Verde, we both took showers in the morning. The showers were a little busier in the morning than in the afternoon when RB took her previous shower a couple of days earlier. There was an interesting bus converted into an RV in the parking lot by the showers. It was from Iowa. RB spoke a little bit with the owner. He was traveling with his kids and some relatives’ kids for a total of six kids on the bus. RB did not see the inside of the bus, but the owner said he had several cots and bunks set up for beds for everyone and a wood stove. The outside was decoratively painted and the license plate read “RAGBUS”. We’re assuming the name was related to the annual RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). The word RAGBRAI was still legible across the back of the bus. We’re not sure if the owner painted the RAGBRAI, or if the bus was originally used for RAGBRAI in some capacity before he converted it. It looked like the word had been painted over, but it still showed through. RAGBRAI started in 1973 and is the largest bike touring event in the world. We wish everyone in the RAGBUS a safe journey back home to Iowa!
Many times things don’t go according to plan or how you envisioned them, but that doesn’t mean they have to be bad experiences. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Mesa Verde and felt that we left with a deeper understanding of the area, the Ancestral Puebloans, and the modern Pueblo Peoples. We have visited Mesa Verde a decade or so earlier and gone on the guided tours of the cliff dwellings. Climbing through the cliff dwellings with a guide or exploring the Spruce Tree House on your own are definitely activities we would recommend if they are available. However, also slow down and learn what life must have been like living in the different types of dwellings and learn the history of the area instead of rushing to see everything at Mesa Verde. It is a large park, but you don’t have to see it all to appreciate what it has to offer.
Check out our related video: Mesa Verde National Park