Mesa Verde is an old friend. Iâve been here many times. But I still have lots more to see. Itâs one of those places where you could spend a lifetime and still miss some of it.
In 1906, Congress wrote legislation and T.R. signed it. Mesa Verde was the seventh national park and first to be designated wholly for the preservation of ancient ruins. Although the first thing that pops into most peopleâs heads when they think of Mesa Verde are the famous cliff dwellings; only 600 of the park's 4,500 archaeological sites hang on cliffsides. The rest were pithouses or surface dwellings. It was only toward the end of occupation here that people moved to what apparently were more easily defensible homes. And, as usual, no one knows exactly why, although ideas abound.
Because of the fragile nature of the ruins and the parkâs extremely heavy visitation, entry into most archaeological sites is restricted to ranger-led excursions. Tickets for ranger tours are a flat $4 per head, regardless of age. Sorry, Golden Geezer and other passes donât count. (Although they do, of course, for park admission.)
Tickets may be purchased at the visitor center located just inside the parkâs only entrance. They are also available at a couple of other locations, but the easiest and quickest seems to be at the new VC. When I picked up my tickets, I noticed that tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House were limited to 50 per trip and trips start every half hour each day.
I was fortunate to make this trip just before Memorial Day when things are still relatively quiet. I couldnât help noticing the signs of what a mad house this must be in mid summer. At the Chapin Mesa museum, for example, are enough parking spaces to accommodate all the citizens of a small city, and the maze of barrier ribbons leading to the ticket counter in the VC was just plain intimidating. (By Sunday, however, things had become much more busy although they still were far short of what summer must bring.)
But it appears that things are very well-organized, even though it must be an incredibly labor intensive operation. There were at least three, and probably four, interpreters working at Cliff Palace Friday afternoon. With a walk starting every 30 minutes, two rangers were on the trail and one was gathering the next crowd of visitors at the trailhead. Another was trying to grab some lunch beside a government vehicle in the parking lot while answering questions between mouthfuls. There were ranger uniforms everywhere. Honestly, I really donât think I could handle that kind of intense operation for a full summer. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Cliff Palace with ranger Deb Jensen. Not only did she have the normal challenges of shepherding a flock of visitors up and down ladders and along a rather rough trail, she was also trying to work with a tour leader who was interpreting at least some of what she said for 22 German visitors. But she did it.
Given the numbers of visitors to this park, itâs easy to imagine what would happen to the resources without all those rangers working to keep things safely under control. Even at sites with self-guiding trails, one or two rangers are in the ruin all the time.
The archaeological museum at Chapin Mesa is a Park Service classic. I first visited in 1968 when my class of new rangers took a field trip from Albright Training Center at Grand Canyon. The museum dates from the '30s. Displays are spread through several rooms of a classic building designed by Jesse Nussbaum, one of the founding fathers of Mesa Verde. While some other park museums that date to Mission 66 do need to be replaced, this one that predates the Mission should be left alone. If itâs still as cold tomorrow as it was today, I may go back and spend more time there while waiting for my Balcony House tour.
The new visitor center, located just inside the park entrance off Highway 160, provides an excellent introduction not only to Mesa Verde, but to Ancestral Puebloans as well. Using life-size manikins and interactive push-button displays (which were all working the day I tried them), they seemed to catch and hold the interest of all the visitors I saw using them, regardless of their ages.
Another special treat, to my way of thinking, is Wetherill Mesa. Out at the end of a 12-mile deadend that restricts traffic to vehicles less than 25 feet long and 8,500 pounds, thereâs a parking lot where you leave your car and board a shuttle. Ranger-guided tours of Long House are available with tickets, or you may walk the tram route if you wish. There are a number of surface ruins out there you may explore on your own. Bicycles are permitted on the Chapin Mesa road, but are prohibited on the route to Wetherill because itâs a narrow, treacherous road. Even so, Iâm not sure Iâd want to try riding a bike on any of the parkâs roads. Iâm sure that even though the Chapin road is wider, given the volume of traffic in summer, a bike ride would be akin to a Kamikaze mission.
Iâm a camper, but there is other lodging in the park. Far View Lodge is located at one of the high points of the park where the Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa roads part company. As its name implies, the view is spectacular and I think every room has a patio with a view. Iâve also heard rumors of a restaurant somewhere in the park that is celebrated for its cuisine. But Iâm not a member of the class of people who can afford such things. I do believe, though, that there have been some past features in Traveler about those culinary delights.
That brings us to the one sore point I have with Mesa Verde. Aramark is the concessioner, and while they may do a decent job, I noticed some things that kind of set my teeth on edge. Mesa Verde claims one of the largest â if not the largest â campground (267 sites) in the National Park System at Morefield about four miles inside the park. A few years ago, the Park Service apparently handed Morefield off lock, stock, and barrel to Aramark. Aramark installed some full hook-ups for RVs and for those sites charges a base fee of $48 per night. They also took over all the other sites. Plain, ordinary, no frills spots with a fire pit and table. For those, most people pay $32 per night. Iâd heard rumors that Golden Age and other passes were not honored, but was happy to learn that my passport did clip half off the price. It still seems a bit steep, and for normal people who donât qualify for the geezer pass yet, the going rate for these bare bones sites is comparable to a site in a commercial park with all the amenities. Morefield is a product of the 1950s and Mission 66. It shows it. It needs a lot of tender loving care. Is Aramark supposed to provide that? If they are, then they have a long way to go.
However, the showers that used to require a handful of quarters are now included. I was appalled, though, when I read a sign in the shower that said, âPlease do not use shower drains for solid waste. They cannot handle it. Please use toilets in the restrooms next door.â Holy cats, what is with that? I donât think I want to know. Thereâs a coin laundry beside the shower house.
Wi-Fi is available free in the campground. It works well, although there is no security on it.
The camp store, however, blew my poor mind when I looked at a few price tags in the grocery department. Would you believe $16.27 for a package of frozen ground beef that weighed 1.56 pounds? If you donât have your calculator handy, thatâs just a bargain $10.43 per pound! A half-gallon of milk was only $4.05. I had to leave the place. I was feeling dizzy. By the way, the ground beef looked like it had been purchased at a grocery store somewhere else and repriced. The price-per-pound and âsell byâ lines on the original labels had been blacked out and a new price applied on a sticker that had been added.
Better be mighty good ground beef. Maybe itâs gourmet . . . .
Safeway is only 11 miles from Morefield in Cortez. The ground beef I bought there was really good â and I didnât have to sell anything to be able to buy it.
I would really be interested to learn how much, if any, of the camp fees are returned to the NPS. Or is Aramark taking full responsibility for operating and maintaining the camp? There may be some other parks where similar arrangements are found, but the only other one I know of is the big RV park at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone. Was there some kind of Congressional deal making involved here? I donât know. Iâll not try to pass judgment on whether this is a good thing for the camping public or not. Thatâs for others to do.
However, I do believe that the nominal fees charged by the Park Service for guided walks are very much proper and necessary. Keeping this operation going so well, as I wrote earlier, is a labor intensive undertaking. Thereâs probably no way it could be done for free given the current demands to limit spending. Iâm one of those people who believe that if Iâm going to use a special service that other taxpayers may not enjoy â particularly one that is optional and of my choice â then I should be ready to pay for it without complaint. Besides the daily tours to three major cliff dwellings, there are also some other, special, offerings. One is a weekly program called Twilight in the Palace where rangers portray people who were special in Mesa Verdeâs past. Willa Cather, Jesse Nussbaum, and an early archaeologist named Gustaf NordenskÃ¶ld are among them. That program costs $12 and is limited to a small number of visitors.
Today may be the Friday before Memorial Day, but here in this southwestern corner of Colorado, itâs downright cold. Thereâs been a chill wind blowing all day with threats of rain. Mountains off to the northeast appear to have picked up a slug of new snow today. Itâs 45 degrees outside right now. Thank goodness for my trailer's little furnace.
Tonight at nine is the summerâs first evening campfire program at Morefield. Iâm debating. Do I put on every jacket I have and go over to see how many other idiots show up, or do I stay at home?
Darn! There are so many difficult decisions to make when youâre having fun.
Well, there were 15 other idiots there as Ranger Kayla Altland gave the first campfire program of the 2014 season at Mesa Verde. The amphitheater and its parking lot are both ginormous! Like a football stadium. I wonder if those seats fill when summer visitation really gets rolling. Rain threatened to cancel it but stopped just in time, so her talk on trees proceeded. I was glad I went, but it was down to 40 when I got back home.
Saturday was cold, threatening to rain, flashing lightning to the northwest and the kind of day that makes me happy Iâm not in a tent any more. Out to Balcony House with ranger Joshua Pelham for a really good tour and humor-filled presentation. Balcony House, with a number of challenging ladders and tunnels through which visitors must literally crawl, must be special fun for rangers when they encounter those visitors who have jumped into something they canât handle. I was walking through the parking lot when we finished and a lady remarked that she had been here a couple of years ago and Josh had been their ranger at Balcony House then. She said he had been as enjoyable then as he was this time. I suggested she write a letter to the superintendent. She promised to do so.
Sunday was worse, weather-wise. It rained all night and well into the morning, with temperatures hovering in the 30s and low 40s. I spent Sunday driving down to Chapin Mesa again in the morning and then out to Wetherill Mesa for the two oâclock tour of Long House. What a spectacular road! Fog was so bad at times, though, that just managing to stay on the spectacular road was quite a feat. Just before the road ended I topped a rise and found myself looking out to the south where the sky was clearer. Shiprock was displaying itself beneath a dark and threatening stormy sky.
Long House is probably my favorite Mesa Verde tour. Because itâs out of the way and takes some serious effort the get there, it doesnât have as many visitors and those who do make it and survive the drive are a special breed. This trip was led by Ranger Joshua Montanari. He turned out to be a special breed, too. His talk as he led us along the trail and through the ruins was spiced with plenty of humor and fun. He managed to get his group of visitors involved which always makes a tour more much more interesting and memorable. Now I guess I have to write a letter to Superintendent Cliff Spencer to let him know what a fine job is being done by Deb and Josh and Josh.
Iâve also noticed that there are more law enforcement rangers in evidence here than other places. I spotted a traffic stop yesterday in which an LE ranger whose last name I later learned is Mitchell appeared to be running a field sobriety test on a driver. In places like Mesa Verde, where scads of people come to visit, where traffic is sometimes a mess, and where the resource to be protected is so spread out, I can easily see the need for them. One other thing Iâve noticed â I donât believe Iâve seen any volunteers.
I did listen in as one very capable seasonal ranger was answering the common question, âHow do you get a job like yours?â The ranger gave an honest answer in which frustration could be heard and explained how itâs nearly impossible to make the jump from seasonal to permanent these days. Even though the answer included stories of winter unemployment checks and frustration at failing to find even a volunteer spot last winter, there was still pride in the words. I found myself wondering again how the Park Service â and other federal agencies â are still able to find talented and enthusiastic people despite being an employer that mimics WalMart in providing part time jobs with no medical and other benefits and not much future.
On the way back in from Wetherill Mesa on Sunday, I stopped off at the famous Metate Room fully expecting there would be no way I could afford a meal there. It was a pleasant surprise to learn it cost much, much less than I expected. Prices ranged from $16 to $34 for dinners. After a month of surviving my own cooking I decided to go for it. Iâm a guy who thinks fancy dining means Dennyâs so I had to ask for advice from the waiter. I settled on something called Masa Chicken Asadaro. Oh, my goodness! And when it came time for dessert, they didnât just hand me a dessert menu. I was presented a whole passel of desserts laid out on a tray like a bunch of new luxury cars at a dealerâs. I chose the flan, although truthfully I wish I could have said, âHow about all of them?â
Then came the big surprise when the waiter leaned over my shoulder and whispered, âYour check has been paid by another diner who asked that I wish you Happy Memorial Day.â I was stunned, but very happily surprised. The only thing I could think of was that on the climb up the 30-foot-ladder out of Balcony House an older gentleman had trouble about halfway up and I was in a position where I was able to talk him through it. I didnât think anyone had noticed. Then again, it may have been a random act of kindness.
Whatever the case, it was the perfect end of a great visit to a wonderful national park.