Magic at Mesa Verde and Along the San Juan Skyway

Looking through a window in time in Mesa Verde's Balcony House.

Looking through a window in time in Mesa Verde's Balcony House.

Morgan crawls through the tunnel exiting the Balcony House cave dwelling.

Morgan crawls through the tunnel exiting the Balcony House cave dwelling.

Inside a cave perched high on a cliff face in Mesa Verde National Park, where remnants of rooms built from stone have stood for more than 800 years, I got down on my hands and knees to crawl through a dark tunnel only a few feet high and barely wide enough for my shoulders. I crept forward on all fours like a baby in order to follow an exit from a cave dwelling known as Balcony House, which Ancestral Puebloans built under the overhang of a massive rock. Soon — thankfully — I reached a point where a shaft of light filtered in and the passageway opened up nearly high enough to stand, and I gazed up at a perch where the park’s archeologists theorize a person would have sat guard to stop or allow those who tried to enter the pueblo. Then the tunnel narrowed to a crawl space again, and I took a deep breath to keep claustrophobia at bay before pushing through to reach sunlight and a spectacular view of a canyon.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from our trip to Mesa Verde, but I didn’t expect this: to squeeze between rock crevices and climb up 30-foot ladders, and then to walk through the homes and gathering places where people thrived and a society developed to surprising sophistication in this spot for some 700 years, around 600 – 1300 AD. Never before had I experienced such an intimate and not-entirely-safe visit to a national or state park. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing attractions from a distance, accessed by trams or well-maintained walkways. At Mesa Verde, however, visitors — after hearing repeated warnings about strenuous climbs and narrow passageways — are allowed more access than I would have imagined. Morgan and I kept echoing our kids’ exclamations, “This is so cool!” and “Look!” as we marveled at the ingenuity of the Puebloans and listened with genuine interest to what the park ranger was saying about the history and geology.

The view approaching Cliff Palace. "They look like fallen condos," said Colly. I thought it looked like an intricate sand castle from a distance.

The view approaching Cliff Palace. "They look like fallen condos," said Colly. I thought it looked like an intricate sand castle from a distance.

It’s one thing to view artifacts in a museum or read history in a book; it’s another to stand where those people stood a millennium ago and muse, Would I have been able to weave sandals like that from yucca or paint such intricate designs on pottery made from hand?

The kids gaze at the soot-blackened ceilings of the cave and learn how water flowed through the porous rocks, creating fountains known as seep springs.

The kids gaze at the soot-blackened ceilings of the cave and learn how water flowed through the porous rocks, creating fountains known as seep springs.

Colly and Kyle climb a 32-foot ladder to access a cliff dwelling.

Colly and Kyle climb a 32-foot ladder to access a cliff dwelling.

Our day-and-a-half at Mesa Verde was the high point in a quick road trip to explore Colorado’s Southwest corner. I’m grateful we didn’t try to tour Mesa Verde in just a day, because there is so much to see and the park is so vast. We arrived on a rainy afternoon and checked into the park’s one motel, the Far View Lodge, a collection of one-story boxy buildings likely built in the ’60s that look like dormitories but were clean and comfortable. We spent the afternoon getting oriented at the visitor’s center and museum, then had an unexpectedly gourmet meal at the lodge’s main restaurant, Metate (the word for the stone slab on which the Ancestral Puebloans ground corn).

The next day we toured three of the park’s main attractions: the cave dwellings known as Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree. To see, inches from my face, the stone craftsmanship that constructed those walls and the cave paintings that decorated them, and to peer through the windows to the tiny rooms where families would have slept and cooked — it all left me in awe and grasping for words, to think that generations of people made a living in these caves tucked in these remote canyons, climbing up and down the cliffs to haul supplies and access the fields of corn they grew on the flat mesas high above.

Kyle and Colly try a hand at the matate, used for grinding corn.

Kyle and Colly try a hand at the matate, used for grinding corn.

At day’s end, we headed east about an hour to spend the night in Durango and spent the next 24 hours marveling at the dizzying scenery from there to Silverton and Ouray. (This post — like our too-brief visit — in no way does the stretch from Durango to Ouray justice; these old mining towns, surrounded by red rocks and jagged peaks, deserve pages and pictures on their own.)

If you have kids and go to Durango, then you know (or quickly learn) that the thing to do is take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, built in 1882, to Silverton, a 45-mile trip that takes about three hours because the little old locomotive won’t chug any faster than about 18 mph. The problem is, the train loses its novelty and kids lose their patience on the return trip to Durango, but if you take it just one way, then you’re stuck in Silverton without transportation. We solved this problem by having Morgan take the kids on the train, and I drove to meet them in Silverton.

Morgan and the kids took the train to Silverton while I drove.

Morgan and the kids took the train to Silverton while I drove.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad hasn't changed much since the Victorian era, though now it carries tourists instead of ore.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad hasn't changed much since the Victorian era, though now it carries tourists instead of ore.

They loved the train, but I think I actually got the better end of the deal in terms of scenery by driving Highway 550, aka the San Juan Skyway. After we regrouped in Silverton and wandered around that delightfully authentic,  just-touristy-enough Old West town, we carefully drove over Red Mountain Pass, another precipitous stretch with hairpin turns revealing stunning views. A portion of this road between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway because millions worth of gold and other minerals have passed over it since the mining boom began in the late 1800s. We paused on the descent into Ouray to view the gaping tunnels and rusting trestles clinging to the mountainside, which mark some of the Idarado Mine remnants; then we made another impromptu stop to hike to the base of Ouray’s box canyon falls.The sheer walls of the rock amplified the roar of the water and left the kids speechless and entranced.

At the base of Ouray's breathtaking box canyon falls.

At the base of Ouray's breathtaking box canyon falls.

Of course, no visit to Ouray would be complete without a trip to the famous (and funky) hot springs pool. I used to go there with my family as a kid, and it hasn’t changed except for the addition of a water slide, which Colly and Kyle tested out at least twenty times.

View a slideshow from this trip.

Looking ahead: We leave Telluride this weekend and transition to ten days in Boulder, followed by a quick visit to the Grand Canyon and LA. Then it’s off to Buenos Aires — time to take the training wheels off our travel! More posts to come soon with updates on homeschooling, family dynamics during travel, and our destinations.

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1 Comments

  1. Martha Howard, September 13, 2009:

    Love the slide show feature! Keep the pics coming! I’m flooded with childhood memories but will soon be a stranger in strange lands as I read your blog (can’t wait!). Love you guys – miss you!

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