Exploring The Parks: Musings From Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is an old friend. I’ve been here many times. But I still have lots more to see. It’s 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 people’s 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.

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A trip to Balcony House is one of the best experiences at Mesa Verde/Lee Dalton

Because of the fragile nature of the ruins and the park’s 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 don’t count. (Although they do, of course, for park admission.)

Tickets may be purchased at the visitor center located just inside the park’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t 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, it’s 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.

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Spruce Tree House is tucked beneath a cliff just a short walk down a path/Lee Dalton

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 it’s 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, there’s 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 it’s a narrow, treacherous road. Even so, I’m not sure I’d want to try riding a bike on any of the park’s roads. I’m 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.

I’m 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. I’ve also heard rumors of a restaurant somewhere in the park that is celebrated for its cuisine. But I’m 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 – if not the largest – 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. I’d 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 don’t 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, “Please do not use shower drains for solid waste. They cannot handle it. Please use toilets in the restrooms next door.” Holy cats, what is with that? I don’t think I want to know. There’s 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.

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The price of burgers at the campstore might just catch your breath/Lee Dalton

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 don’t have your calculator handy, that’s 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 “sell by” 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 it’s gourmet . . . .

Safeway is only 11 miles from Morefield in Cortez. The ground beef I bought there was really good – and I didn’t 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 don’t know. I’ll not try to pass judgment on whether this is a good thing for the camping public or not. That’s 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. There’s probably no way it could be done for free given the current demands to limit spending. I’m one of those people who believe that if I’m going to use a special service that other taxpayers may not enjoy – particularly one that is optional and of my choice – 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 Verde’s past. Willa Cather, Jesse Nussbaum, and an early archaeologist named Gustaf Nordensköld are among them. That program costs $12 and is limited to a small number of visitors.

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Long House tours sometimes are led by Ranger Joshua Montanari/Lee Dalton

Today may be the Friday before Memorial Day, but here in this southwestern corner of Colorado, it’s downright cold. There’s 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. It’s 45 degrees outside right now. Thank goodness for my trailer's little furnace.

Tonight at nine is the summer’s first evening campfire program at Morefield. I’m 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 you’re 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 I’m 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 can’t 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 o’clock 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.

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The trip to Long House takes a little extra effort, but is well worth it/Lee Dalton

Long House is probably my favorite Mesa Verde tour. Because it’s out of the way and takes some serious effort the get there, it doesn’t 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.

I’ve 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 I’ve noticed – I don’t believe I’ve seen any volunteers.

I did listen in as one very capable seasonal ranger was answering the common question, “How do you get a job like yours?” The ranger gave an honest answer in which frustration could be heard and explained how it’s 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 – and other federal agencies – 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. I’m a guy who thinks fancy dining means Denny’s 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 didn’t 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 dealer’s. I chose the flan, although truthfully I wish I could have said, “How about all of them?”

Then came the big surprise when the waiter leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Your check has been paid by another diner who asked that I wish you Happy Memorial Day.” 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 didn’t 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.

Comments

Thanks, Lee! Great to hear of your experiences there.

The campground gives the Senior discount only for sites without hook-ups. There is no discount for sites with hook-ups. I have found this to also be true at other Park campgrounds. The clerk gave me great advice, for my pop up without hook ups, take a site across from the ones with a hook up. Since they have power, the RV's won't be running their generators. Of course not a problem in the tent only loop.

If you love Mesa Verde, pay a visit to another Park - Chaco Canyon.. Far less developed. The campground has no hook ups. The sites are open for visitiation without a reservation though tours are done daily. The last 21 miles into Chaco Canyon are not paved, but the east entry is passable by about any vehicle. Highly recommend visiting before the road gets paved and the Park gets discovered.

Good advice, Robert.

Chaco does take reservations now, though, and it's a very good idea to contact Recreation Dot Gov to be sure you'll have a place waiting.

The east entrance off Highway 550 was really rough for only about four miles last month. Beyond that, the road was pretty well graded by San Juan County and then paved for about the last ten(?) to the highway. The entrance from the south was actually in pretty good shape.

Hi Lee:

I was just there at Mesa Verde as well. We must have just missed each other. It was hot and sunny the whole time.

We hiked the Prater Ridge trail as well. I know-- visitors don't come to Mesa Verde to hike.

Danny www.hikertohiker.com

Hi Lee:

I was just there at Mesa Verde as well. We must have just missed each other. It was hot and sunny the whole time.

We hiked the Prater Ridge trail as well. I know-- visitors don't come to Mesa Verde to hike.

Danny www.hikertohiker.com

Thanks for providing a good and detailed perspective on Mesa Verde. I was there once, years ago, but the last time I was in Cortez, Colo., circa 2010, it was for mountain biking, so I drove by the park entrance and headed on to Durango.

One of my daughters and I did a daddy daughter vacation to Mesa Verde. Amazing. About a 9.5 on a ten point scale. Campground ok is all. Showers ok also. Price for the campground is unreal, grocery is robbery, an actual shame. Please do not let the out of line prices stop you from this amazing site. During the busy season you can only do one of the top two hikes. Only fair because there are so many who want to see it. Tickets for the day are usually gone before noon. Breakfast in the main Cafe was ok. Help and attitude form the rangers was very good. The Aztec ruins are about an hour away and also well worth the stop. Not as impressive as Mesa Verde but few things in the US are.

I just discovered a story about Jesse Nussbaum, one of the founders and early superintendents of Mesa Verde. It's fascinating reading and may be a good introduction to an excellent NPS history related website for readers who are interested in such things.

Here's a link to the Nussbaum article:

http://npshistory.com/persons-of-the-month/person-of-the-month-0614.htm

And, Theo, thanks for your comments. They are spot on. I find myself wondering -- does anyone know when Aramark took over the campground? Was this by chance part of the Bush Administration's efforts to "privatize" our parks?

I asked a few people in MEVE when I was preparing the article, but no one seemed to know. Probably because I didn't go far enough up the food chain.

Hello Lee,

Sorry I missed you at Mesa Verde--I didn't work that weekend--but I'm glad you had a good experience here. I remember working with you at Zion in the early 80's. I think we may have attended seasonal training together in 1980--I was an SCA, and you were a "mentor" to me and the others. Glad to see that you're still enjoying the National Parks. If you return to Mesa Verde, look me up--my office is in the museum.

Jill Blumenthal

Darn, Jill, I wish I had known that. I do remember you as one of our most capable SCAs -- you and Greer Chesher who went on to a career in Zion and who is now an accomplished author.

A lot of time has gone by, but I don't think of you as being a museum piece ;-)