Mesa Verde’s Tribal Park Neighbor: So Near, So Far, So Different
ac•ro•pho•bi•a (ak′rō fō′bē ə) n. An abnormal fear of being in high places.
Our Ute guide was not really trying to kill us after all, so I relaxed and enjoyed a remarkable tour of precariously perched Anasazi cliff dwellings. I’d seen similar ruins at Mesa Verde National Park just a few miles away, but this tribal park experience was oh, so different.
Her name was Veronica, and she was already giving the introductory briefing to half a dozen tourists gathered in the parking lot of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park visitor center when Jim and I finally made our appearance. Veronica was to be our guide on a tour of Anasazi cliff dwellings in the tribal park. She was the first Ute woman I had ever seen, and this would be my first-ever tour on an Indian reservation.
Jim and I had started the day with an Aramark bus tour of the Mesa Top and Cliff Palace loops at Mesa Verde plus a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace (about which, more later). We were really trucking when we departed MEVE at noon. We had just one hour to make the long trip to the tribal park visitor center, which is located on CO Hwy 160/666 about 20 miles south of Cortez. A fast-food stop that was actually quite slow ensured a late arrival. A few more minutes and we might very well have been left behind. That would have been a shame, because the tribal park tour turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of our Dumb and Dumber Tour.
My old friend Jim Elder and I had been planning our D&D Tour of southwest Colorado for many months. Finally getting to see the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde would be the highlight experience. Seeing similar ruins at the neighboring tribal park tour would be a novel side-trip, “something different.”
Jim, who lives in Nederland (home of the renowned Frozen Dead Guy Days festival) made all the arrangements with the tribal park. This left me to do little but worry. And worry I most surely did.
I am unreasonably afraid of heights, and while I rightly believed that I could handle the Cliff Palace tour at Mesa Verde, I was convinced that visiting the cliff dwellings in the tribal park would take me far outside my comfort zone. I had read someplace that the Utes weren’t too terribly concerned about hardening facilities on the canyon walls, so I didn’t expect to be provided with the bombproof handrails, idiotproof ladders, cautionary signage, and wide, smooth walkways that I craved. A Mesa Verde ranger whose training had included a visit to the tribal park cliff dwellings fanned the flames of my apprehension by warning me that I should not set my hopes too high. She spoke of a high ladder, a crawl along a narrow ledge, and other abominations.
I was quaking in my shoes by the time we arrived at the tribal park. I had told Jim that I would wait in the car if I didn’t like the look of things when we got to the crux of the tour. And I meant it.
There was no time to ponder the matter. Veronica finished with the preliminaries and loaded us in her van with Mike and Terry Woodrow, a couple from nearby Cortez. (This tour was Terry’s Mothers Day gift.) Off we went, pedal to the metal, on a dusty reservation road with a washboard surface. We hit every other bump on the corduroy roadway, being airborne the rest of the time. Three SUVs trailed the van, their occupants chewing dust and wondering if this trip would ever end.
End it finally did. Veronica informed us that we were now at Lion Canyon, and that we had traveled nearly 21 miles from the visitor center. Along the way we had made one quick stop to look at some pictographs, and we had passed exactly one lonely residence.
Upon checking the map, I realized that we were just a few miles from Mesa Verde’s southern border and the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House ruins. We had traveled over 60 miles since we stepped down from the Aramark bus a few hours before, and now we weren’t much more than a good hoot and holler from where we had spent the morning in Mesa Verde.
But my, oh my, this was not Mesa Verde National Park! One look at the pit toilets could have told you that, but it wasn’t the rustic potties that held my gaze. What had my undivided attention was the convex surface of a great hunk of smooth rock leading to the abyss. No stairs, no railing, no comfort for acrophobic wussies. Is that the top of a wooden ladder protruding above the lip of the canyon? Am I actually expected to cross that unforgiving rock surface and climb down that damn ladder? Is Veronica trying to kill me?
Yes, yes, and no.
After rattling off a list of do’s and don’ts that I instantly forgot, Veronica puts on a pair of gloves, walks to the top of the ladder, and promptly disappears over the edge. I am next in line. I can see She House and other ruins tucked into alcoves at several places along the far canyon wall. Surely Lion House, Fortified House, Eagles Nest, and other ruins hidden from view on our side of the canyon must be just as intriguing. It’s too late to turn back anyway, and so I descend this ladder, and the next and the next. I note with a tremendous sense of relief that all three ladders are fairly short and very sturdy. This is not so bad.
We end up on a narrow trail following ledges perched high on the canyon wall. It slowly dawns on me that this rock- and packed earth walkway is the original Anasazi trail. In places we see what appear to be modern repairs (the Anasazi didn’t use rebar to build cribbing, did they?), but these anomalies are few and far between.
The outer edge of the trail is rimmed in many places with a single layer of sandstone blocks set at toe-stubbing height. The stones are there to retard erosion, not to arrest a fall. This is clearly a case of “user beware.” The Anasazi didn’t believe in handrails, and neither do the Utes. (The trail does have one lonely handrail, a very short one, installed at an especially exposed place.)
I am keenly aware that it is a very long way to the bottom of the canyon, but the walkway seems safe enough if you are careful enough. I resolve to be very careful indeed. After about five minutes of shuffling my feet and hugging the cliff, I find myself moving with the flow and thinking less and less of the abyss.
My initial sense of dread gives way to a sense of wonder. The half-dozen or so ruins we encounter along the trail are amazing. Being much less visited than the national park cliff dwellings, and lacking the hardening that is characteristic of the more popular ruins, they seem almost pristine. We find a pile of tiny corncobs in a hidden corner of one ruin. A kiva at Lion House still has a portion of its layered roof in place.
The contrasts with Mesa Verde visitor safety and artifact security measures are startling. Veronica encourages us to explore pretty much wherever we like, and warns us away from only the Eagle’s Nest ruin and a few other unusually dangerous places. We can pick up and handle (but not keep) corncobs, potsherds, turkey bones, and other artifacts. Veronica does not hover over us, nor is she even in sight for long stretches at a time. Some individuals and pairs forge well ahead or behind on the trail, gaining the feeling that they are the only people in the canyon.
Our climb back out of Lion Canyon was a bittersweet experience. It was a relief to be off the canyon wall, but it was hard to leave the cliff dwellings behind and know that I would probably never see them again. The mountain lion tracks we found near the canyon rim provided a momentary distraction.
Veronica drove us back to the visitor center and we bade farewell. With some daylight left, Jim and I set off to see the Four Corners Monument. It was only 18 miles away, you see, so there was plenty of time to visit the Navajo-run monument and take a picture of me with my butt in four different states and three different nations.
Jim missed a turn – the sign was only about as big as a house -- and we ended up going to Four Corners by way of Shiprock, New Mexico. And that’s why it’s called a Dumb and Dumber trip.
Postscript: Although it’s considerably larger than Mesa Verde National Park and has many high-quality archeological and scenic resources, the lightly-developed Ute Mountain Tribal Park has managed to stay pretty much below the radar since its creation in the 1970s. The tribe, which is formally called the Weeinuche band of Utes, seems content to continue its low key approach to visitor-based industry and avoid commercially-driven development. No self-guided tours are permitted, but fees for guided trips are very modest (our half-day tour cost just $37) and special tours or tours to remote areas can be easily arranged. If you think you might want to include the tribal park in your travel plans, you can get further information by visiting the park website, phoning 1-800-847-5485. e-mailing , or writing Ute Mountain Tribal Park, PO Box 109, Towaoc, CO 81334.