Day 8: Mesa Verde to Moab, Utah

Hermosa, Colorado—Mesa Verde National Park—Moab, Utah

I awoke early today (this is becoming a habit) to the sound of a steam engine whistle. Durango is one of those old western towns and has an old coal fired steam engine that pulls tourists from Durango to Silverton (a 47 mile trip) all day. I heard this train early, before I was out of the tent. The train apparently was the reason for the town's existence. Durango was founded in 1879 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. The railroad was constructed to haul mine ores, mostly gold and silver, from the San Juan Mountains. If you want to locate the train in town all you have to do is look for the steam cloud that rises above the roofs of the buildings.

We were out of the child-infested campground by 9:30 A.M., dined at Denny's for breakfast, then headed to Mesa Verde National Park. I wasn't feeling too good today and I don't think Andy was either. I think we got bad water somewhere in the last day or two and it has taken a toll on us. We headed west on US 160 and in about 35 miles we were at the turnoff for the park. We were going to the Chapin Mesa ruins which was a curvy 21 miles from the park entrance. The road is very scenic, it basically follows along the north rim of Mesa Verde, which is a giant mesa. The elevation on this mesa is above 7,500 feet. As we drive in, to the north and far below is Montezuma Valley and the town of Cortez. The road is extremely curvy and is one hairpin turn after another.

We stopped at the Far View Visitor Center to get some information. There was a line around the building (which is circular) for the ranger guided tours. We by-passed the line and went inside and said, "What can we see here by ourselves?" The ranger questioned why people would stand in line when there was so much to see on your own. So she filled us in and we walked back to the car. The literature we picked up warns that "park visitors can be the target of professional thieves who rob campsites and locked vehicles." We weren't trying to prove anything but we did leave the car door wide open the entire time we were in the visitor center. Perhaps the thieves only rob locked cars?

After taking a brief inventory, we were off to see the ruins on Chapin Mesa. Our first stop was the Museum at the Spruce Tree House. The museum was interesting, describing the Anasazi culture and how and when they lived in these houses. Here is a quick overview of the history of this area. The first settlers were called Basketmakers and were here around 550 AD. They replaced hunting and gathering with farming and they lived in pithouses which were clustered into small villages. The pithouses are just that, pit houses. They are squarish and sunk a few feet into the ground. There was a roof supported by timbers and covered with mud. They also had firepits, an air deflector, and storage chambers carved into the earth walls. By 750, the population grew and the villages became larger. From this time on these people were known as Pueblos. By 1000, the Anasazi had mastered stone masonry. The most prosperous period in Anasazi history was between 1100 and 1300. The pithouses were no longer being used now. They were building large stone structures sometimes two or three stories high. Inside these walls were kivas or ceremonial rooms. This is a room sunk underground and covered by a roof like the pithouse but more sophisticated. The kiva had a fire pit and an air deflector but also had a ventilator (a chimney that goes into the ground and comes out on the surface), benches, and a sipapu or entrance to the underworld (this is convenient). This room was used as a meeting place or a spiritual place for special ceremonies. Around 1200 there was a population shift into the cliff alcoves. The reason for this is not known. Here they built houses ranging from one room to over 200 rooms. By 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. It is known that there was a long period of drought in the last quarter of the 13th century but this does not necessarily provide the answer, so this desertion still remains a mystery. The Pueblo Indians of today are thought to be descendants of the Anasazi culture of the past. This sums up the human history of the area and the Anasazi culture which populated much of the southwest.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde.

Masonry in the Spruce Tree House

Masonry in the Spruce Tree House.

After the museum we went to see the ruins for ourselves. First, we strolled down to the Spruce Tree House. This is down in Spruce Canyon and is a huge cliff dwelling. There were tons of people so we could only catch a close-up view once in a while. We could look into kivas and the huge structures that were built perfectly flush with the top of the rock alcove. Next we hopped back into the car and drove down to the other ruins. They are set up in such a way that as you go to each ruin you are going forward in time. So the first thing we saw was a pithouse dating from about 575 AD. Next we stopped at the view to the Square Tower House. This dwelling contains over 60 rooms and was occupied in the 1200s. Next stop is the Late Pithouses. This trail shows the evolution of the pithouse into the kiva and was built around 675. After this were examples of villages - clusters of these houses. Next we stopped at an overlook into the Sunset House, the Oak Tree House, and the New Fire House. These are all cliff dwellings that we could only see from afar. The last stop was the Sun Temple. This is a D-shaped building that you can climb a ladder to and walk around on the top of the walls. The original tops of the walls fell in but now there exists a 7 to 9 foot wall that people walk on to view the inner structure of the temple. After this we were on our way. We did stop at Park Point (8,571 ft), an overlook into the Montezuma Valley. There was a fire lookout station here but the guy up there was not very talkative.

Square Tower, Mesa Verde

Square Tower, Mesa Verde.

View from the Oak Tree House overlook

View from the Oak Tree House overlook.

We left and headed for Cortez, CO on US 160. Got gas here and headed northwest on US 666 toward Utah. Stopped in Monticello, UT to get some groceries and film. The entire town lies beneath the Elk Ridge which consists of four mountain peaks covered in trees. This is the Manti-La Sal National Forest. I really had a desire to drive right up this road that could be seen far in the distance disappearing into the trees below the 10,000 foot plus summits, but I didn't. Instead we kept to the plan and headed north on US 191 to Moab, UT. On the map this is 55 miles from Monticello and is the largest town in what looks to be the entire southeastern corner of Utah.

Along Utah Route 128 outside Moab

Along Utah Route 128 outside Moab.

Looking in the opposite direction along UT 128 with the Colorado River hidden behind the cottonwood trees

Looking in the opposite direction along UT 128 with the Colorado River hidden behind the cottonwood trees.

View from our camp. Sunset on a butte across the Colorado River

View from our camp. Sunset on a butte across the Colorado River.

We went to the visitors center in Moab to get some information on local camping. All the nearby parks were full, which we expected, and because of severe fire potential, we were directed to the state run campgrounds which were near water. We went north of Moab and turned on UT 128. This is said to be one of the most scenic roads in the United States and I would have a hard time arguing. This road never strays more than 100 yards away from the Colorado River. The rock formations are like nothing I've seen before. On one side of the road are cliffs of smooth rock, not broken, weathered rock, but one smooth gigantic sandstone rock. On the other side of the road is the river and the southern boundary of Arches National Park. While the rock that lines this slender canyon is exposed, the canyon floor is covered with grasses and cottonwood trees that surround the river. We chose one of the campgrounds along the river (there were several). The facilities weren't that great but the view was excellent. I walked down to the Colorado River (a stones throw away) but the water was a bit green so I didn't step foot in it, although there were people rafting in it. The river is very narrow and shallow here and one could walk across it with ease.

Too many ants in this campground.