The drive from the Great Sand Dune National Park to Mesa Verde National Park was delightful; interesting sights, little traffic and a good lunch at a Leornado’s Restaurante in Center, CO. Shortly after leaving the sand dunes, we saw an alligator farm. I was surprised with the location but I wasn’t surprised when I spotted the ‘for sale’ sign. I wondered what the proprietor was thinking when he opened the place. The terrain was flat plains used for cattle grazing and some farming. We saw irrigation canals for watering the arid land and several circular fields already planted. When we drove thru Center, we saw the restaurant, which had two signs, neither matching the other, so we were unsure if it was a Mexican restaurant or a burger joint that served bison. It didn’t matter, as we were hungry and there was no other choice. I found out later, it was named Leornado’s and but knew from our first step into the place that it served Mexican food. There was an extensive buffet, all you can eat for $10.00 and we happily indulged ourselves.
After we sated our appetites we continued our drive, into the beautiful Rio Grande National Forest and the San Juan National Forest on State Road 160. Quickly the elevation rose, alpine forest surrounded us and we saw dozens of cabins and resorts for the Colorado-loving outdoorsman. Rushing creeks, waterfalls from cliffs and in higher elevations snow covered the ground. As we arrived in Durango, the alpine had given way to a valley and an old mining community was transformed into a tourist destination complete with Starbucks and JCrew.
Mesa Verde National Park is just west of Durango and although the drive to the national park turn off was flat, the 17+ miles trek up the mesa was a two-lane road with switchbacks every 1/2 mile or so. The climb wasn’t difficult until the wind picked up and then it was a bit more of a challenge and included a tunnel that had no lighting at all. There was significant damage from fires, with swathes of land charred from the 2000, 2002 and 2003 fires, all caused by lightning. We were staying at Far View Lodge and once we arrived we were quick to decide there would be no going back out for the night. We enjoyed dinner in the Metate Room with a 180 degree view of the mesa and valley below.
In the morning, we purchased tickets for two ranger-guided tours at the museum in the park for $6.00. Each tour lasted about an hour. Balcony House was first and was reached by descending a 150 feet on metal stairs, then following a short path before climbing a 30 foot wooden ladder into the dwelling. It is believed that Balcony House was a special dwelling, possibly used as sacred space and although they aren’t sure what was the balcony’s purpose, I believed it was because the view from there was spectacular. People have always loved a good view!
There was so much to learn about these cliff dwellers. The Pueblo people were in the area for 700 hundred years as farmers and it was only around 1200AD that they built the cliff dwellings, living in them for a few generations before abandoning them entirely. They were farmers who grew squash, corn, and beans. They hunted game with bow and arrow and used plants such as the yucca for everything from paint brushes, to rope to medicine. They traded with other tribes for items such as cotton and had an elaborate religious life. The kiva, a circular room built below ground, was the school room, the sacred space, and the family room. This room was entered via a ladder near a well-vented fire pit and included a sipapu, a small hole about a foot or more deep that led(symbolically) to the underworld(Mother Earth).
It’s not known why the Puebloans left and went further into the southwest, but it was probably a combination of drought conditions and no game. Our guide reminded us that though these dwellings are empty, the Puebloans are still here, in areas of Arizona and New Mexico. We left Balcony House just as the original inhabitants, on our hands and knees via a tunnel and then climbed the three ladders provided by modern day engineers of the National Park Service.
Our second tour was of Cliff Palace, which is the most photographed of the cliff dwellings. It was a larger dwelling where several families lived and had many kivas. It was easier to enter, climbing down a few sets of stairs. As we exited on ladders provided by the National Parks we could see the hand and foot holds in the rocks that the original inhabitants utilized. We stayed at the park for lunch and enjoyed a Navajo taco of fry bread filled with beans, salsa, beef, cheese and chiles. Delicious and filling so that we didn’t need a food stop on our drive to Moab, Utah.