Final National Park of this Trip: Mesa Verde

Finally, after only visiting the parks in shoulder or off-season, we’ve reached a National Park in high season. We’re surrounded by families with children and international visitors from everywhere. Not so bad after all. Plenty of room for everyone in this 52,000 acre park.

Signed up for the three formal cliff-dwelling tours (the only way to see Mesa Verde’s major ruins is on tour with a guide): Balcony House – the most adventurous to reach; Cliff Palace – the biggest ruin; and Long House – the most in-depth ranger guidance.

Balcony House required scaling a 35-foot wooden ladder to reach the dwellings, three “squeezes” through progressively smaller and smaller claustrophobia-inducing passageways, and two more ladders to get off the cliff. The ruins were decidedly worth the trouble.

Long House was a wonderful combination of multi-storied cliff dwellings and pit houses all together in the same sandstone alcove, showing remarkable evolution of building techniques by the same group of people.

The Cliff Palace tour was a twilight event, with only 8 of us along. The sun was at its most golden, and shadows were long. The well-informed ranger took time to tell us how important trade networks and intellectual/technology transfer were, the passing of knowledge and technique to the Ancestral Puebloans from the Toltecs and Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula. We also got to witness ravens flying back to their nests to feed their young just above the ruins, which was very cool indeed.

Mesa Verde offers half a dozen self-guided tours as well, and we combined those with hikes on the mesa top. But there are at least 5,000 sites in the park, including 400 cliff dwellings, and it’s gratifying to know how many lie protected and untouched, for future generations of scientists and visitors to discover. The peaceful repose of the Ancestral Puebloan spirits, for now, is somewhat assured.

Decoding the secrets of these dwellings, their architects and the long-since migrated residents of these beautiful canyons is a task that will never be complete, but it’s best attempted over months, if not years. One compressed week of observation here, front-ended by our visits to Crow Canyon, Sand Creek Canyon, Aztec National Monument and the Ute Tribal Park, has started the learning process, but we will be sorting out the physics and metaphysics for a long time. Reading “The Cliff Dwellings Speak” and other reference guides that blend the archaeology and anthropology with native perspectives helps. Time helps. Building an understanding and appreciation is not, as a friend used to say, “like making instant coffee.” We will come back to these deserts. They have much to teach.

During our time in SW Colorado, the most amazing display of swifts and swallows has been on display in the canyons. On every hike that includes a precipice view from the mesa top into the valleys, dozens of acrobatic little birds can be seen and heard: black with black wings, black wings with white bodies and brilliant tourmaline-colored iridescent backs. Swifts and swallows are, as noted earlier, among the world’s fastest fliers, but they are more than that. The artistry with which they soar, their razor’s edge turns and the thrilling parabolic arcs they cut while pulling up into the sky or plummeting 100 feet down to scoop up dinner in mid-air is thrilling – they are such amazing creatures, at less than a single ounce. They buzzed us today at close range, with such chipper songs and no apparent fear. Could have stayed there for hours watching the show.

At least a dozen massive forest fires have devastated the mesa tops and slopes of this park, as recorded since the 1920’s. All ostensibly started from natural causes, they have been whipped up by strong winds to strip large sections of acreage. The most tragic part is that they destroy 800-year-old stands of juniper and pinion pines, in some cases even sterilizing the earth so that nothing but grass will grow back for decades.

Recently mutilated acreage sits next to swaths of new forest recovering from the 1920 firestorm. Your eyes become trained to estimate a landscape of devastation: “This probably burned in the 1990’s. At least it has sagebrush and rabbitbrush now.”

It takes pines and juniper at least 100 years to start to regenerate. Imagine how many species this displaces and for how long. The ravaged landscape looks littered with bleached bones. Seemingly empty except for the bones and birds. But there are dormant seeds in the soils.

And so tomorrow we start the rapid recompression back into civilization on the road home. Goatrekking Adventure #3 has been glorious. It’s added to the refinement of our camping, hiking, exploring and activity selection techniques. Looks like we’ll indeed be able to achieve two major goals through these trips: to see nature with continuously sharper focus and insight, and to never stop learning, stretching, growing (and suppressing arthritis!). Amazing how many people we meet along the way who are also on an encyclopedic tour of national parks – losing oneself in the wilderness means finding oneself, and an endless supply of wonderment.


A few final glimpses of SW CO:

If you go at this time of year, here are some of the flowers/plants/trees you can find along the Colorado Mountain Trails:

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Quaking Aspen (a massive grove of thousands of trees = 1 organism)

Blazing Star

Cactus Blossoms (prickly pear, barrel and claret cup)


Cardinal Plant

Chapin Mesa Milk Vetch



Douglas Fir

Engelmann and Colorado Spruce

Gambel Oak




Hayden’s Gilia


Indian Paintbrush

Indian Rice Grass

Utah Juniper and Rocky Mountain Red Juniper



Mariposa Lily

Monarda (Bee balm)

Mountain Arnica

Mountain Mahogany

Mountain Wild Rose

Mountain Thistle

New Mexico Spiny Star

Oregon Grape


Pincushion Flower

Prairie Smoke


Rocky Mountain Maple

Sagebrush (both black and big varieties)



Thistle (both Shale and Canadian varieties)

Wild Gooseberry

Wild Iris

Wild Phlox

Wild Sweet Pea

Wild Violets


Black Canyon of the Gunnison – a very spiritual place

 A most extraordinary place, the Black Canyon National Park is a 48-mile narrow gash in the mountains that gives you butterflies in your stomach, no matter where your viewing point is. The rock that lines the narrow (less than 40 feet across in some places) canyon is at least 2 billion years old, composed of metamorphic schist, gneiss and pegmatite rocks. When the ancestral Ute tribes migrated through this territory, they found it too overwhelming to make it to the bottom or across — one feels the presence of spirits, both current and past, in the quiet canyon walls, the raging Gunnison River at the bottom, and the constant flow of wind currents and birds throughout the air.

The name Black Canyon comes from the dark shadows that haunt the canyon walls most hours of the day, and the deeply dark rock. You can imagine that peering into its 2,000’ depth (twice the height of the Empire State building) sometimes with only 40 feet from side to side, you don’t get much sun exposure, and the walls look like charcoal.

We hiked 5-6 short paths to the canyon rim on both the north and south sides, each time breathless at the vertiginous drop along the edge. Next door is the National Conservation Area, called Gunnison Gorge, where we took an enchanting hike along the Chukar Trail to the bottom of the canyon – after a grueling 7-mile downhill drive over extremely rugged terrain (top speed: 2 mph).

The afore-mentioned trail rapidly drops about 400 feet into the canyon bed, where we walked next to mind-bending geological formations along the canyon walls and marveled over the rocks that had dropped from on high. This is what we imagine slot canyon hiking to be, and wish we hadn’t been forced by the clock to turn back before we’d gotten our fill.

Loving (Y)Ouray and its mountains

The lovely town of Ouray, named after Chief Ouray of the Ute Tribe, is pronounced YOU-ray. It ranks right up there with Creede and Durango in terms of charm, personality, worthwhile hiking and beautiful nature. We came here to find challenging paths and a bit more warmth than what could be found in Silverton or Telluride, and it did not disappoint, even though the nights still get down to 30 degrees at the end of May.

Today we tackled Bear Creek Trail just southeast of town, hiked to the Grizzly Bear mine site and then halfway to the Yellow Jacket mine before snow turned us back (six miles total, over an 1800-foot elevation gain). Back in the 1900’s Grizzly Bear produced mostly gold and silver, but was also known to yield copper, zinc, bismuth, lead, barite and tungsten. It is awe-inspiring that the miners could transport their heavy ore production out of this sheer canyon without benefit of modern technology.

Bear Creek was the most technically challenging hike to date, as its first leg quickly climbs 700 feet over slate talus (large, slippery shards that have fallen onto the slopes from higher elevation), and the narrow trail crosses at least six places where water from snowmelt is cascading down the mountain. Hikers don’t get much reprieve from hard exertion until later down the path. Because we hike four-legged (trekking poles always along for weight distribution, upper body exercise and balance), we didn’t feel at risk. Our goats surely would feel at home here.

Only met nine people over the five hours we were on Bear Creek Trail. One is training to hike Mont Blanc later this summer, and four others are used to hiking 14ers in Colorado, so it made us feel in very fit company indeed to be accomplishing this route.  Colorado native hikers are everywhere in the mountains, but there are thousands of paths for them to scatter over, and we have crossed paths with relatively few on this trip. It’s a privilege to enjoy the solitude. George and I are convinced that heaven smells like fir trees and snowmelt water!

Back to Archaeology in Farmington, NM

I failed to make reservations for Sunday and Monday night of Memorial Day weekend, naively thinking that we could do drop-ins at a couple of campgrounds close to Mesa Verde, our next National Park destination. Well, it didn’t happen because half of all Colorado natives are out here at the start of summer. Also, because SW Colorado is in for a bit of cold weather over these two nights, we decided to run across the border to New Mexico, where daytime temps will be in the 80s (versus low 60s in CO), and there were still campsites to be had.

This morning in NM was supposed to start at 5am, getting up to see the sun rise in the Bisti Badlands. That didn’t happen because we were too tired from the drive down here and from hiking nearly every day since before Alamosa (Great Sand Dunes). Good thing, too….Bisti is another indigenous cultural heritage site, this one on the Navajo reservation, where (just like every reservation we’ve been on) you have to really want to see the site badly and endure hard roads and a high degree of uncertainty about whether you’re going the right way or not. It would have been hell to find it in the darkness!

As it was, we arrived at 9-ish in the am and the parched desert landscape was already torrid. Probably a lot like the South Dakota badlands, which are notoriously like Hell’s back porch in the summer.

Hiked 1.5 miles into the badlands to see a variety of hoodoos and eerie, wind-carved shapes in the sandstone. There are no paths, you must guide yourself by compass and the sun. The landscape is so bereft of vegetation, you feel like you are in Death Valley. There is obviously a lot of desert life below the surface of the tiny arid plants in and around the washes, but it is one of the harshest landscapes we’ve ever seen. Could not stay nearly as long as we wanted (there is quite a bit of petrified wood here, but further along), because of the heat and concerns about sunstroke.

Instead, we headed to the so-called Aztec National Monument, in Aztec, NM. Early Spanish colonists/conquistadors thought the Puebloan ruins they found there were Aztec in origin, and they named everything thusly. Who listens to them today?? Why the National Park Service hasn’t renamed the monument by now escapes us. It is a lovely ancestral Puebloan site from 500 to 1200 AD, and a very large ruin, with over 500 rooms and numerous kivas. It’s in great shape, unlike some national parks and monuments that have been so starved for funds that they are falling down. We especially liked crawling through the doorways of 10 contiguous dwellings (presumably for a single clan), noting the skilled masonry and seeing how their living spaces were aligned with the path of the sunlight as it travels throughout the year.

Long-lost friends meet up at Great Sand Dunes National Park

We’ve known Dave and Lennie since early days in the Twin Cities (30+ years), but our careers, childrearing and geographic moves have kept us apart in the last 15. So a reunion weekend in the GSDNP was just the ticket since they now live in Denver.

Friday night’s grill-out at our campground turned into a chill-out amid snow flurries and high winds. But Saturday dawned just cool-ish and sunny, so we hustled over to the Mosca Pass Trail, a heavily-wooded trail that climbs 1500 feet over 3 miles in and 3 miles out in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The hike was pure magic, and at the top as we crossed over from BLM/National Preserve land to “plain old public land” at the summit, I spied a boatload of olivine rock lying all over the ground and hills. It was thrilling to take some specimens to share with my rock buddies (as we were no longer on federal park land), and was my first time finding this ancient (280M year-old) rock in the wild. For those curious, olivine is a magnesium silicate mineral that is the source of the gemstone peridot. It is found in igneous rocks like basalt. Ok, ok, enough rock-talk. Just remember: no rock collecting in national parks!

We also saw a plethora of flowers along the way, many of which we hadn’t seen elsewhere. The floral riches included pink springtime aster, helleborus, claret cup, artemesia, candytuft, solomon’s seal and just-emergent columbine. Mosca Pass is a good deal more protected from the wind than other hiking venues, and with strong sun, the flowers were in their glory. Pacifica juniper and douglas fir were also magnificent.

After the descent, we joined hundreds of other day-hikers reveling in the sand dunes for which the park is most famous. The dunes tower 755 feet high, and the winds blowing from the west side over the San Luis Valley continually deposit and shift the sand to the east of the park boundary, and into the creeks to be washed downstream again. We are so fortunate to be here in the springtime, when Sand Creek and Medano Creek are at their highest levels and the temperature on the sand is only 65, not its maximum of 130 in the summer. The “surge flow” of the rivers is so cool to watch, and is a very rare phenomenon globally. By the way, there is a lot of dark magnetite crystal mixed in with the quartz crystals in this sand, so it looks darker than the sand on Lake Michigan, and if you drag a magnet through it, you can collect the dark magnetic grains on the magnet. What a cool thing for kids to experience (and geo-nerd grandparents!!). This day was a peak experience.

It was great fun to hike with our friends. We move at slightly different paces, they being more acclimated now to the altitude than we flatlanders, but we greatly enjoyed seeing the paths through four sets of eyes. Sunday’s hike halfway to Zapata Lake took us to a new personal best in altitude: 10,350’. Lungs were very sore afterward, but the views made it worthwhile. Just can’t get enough of the clear air, smell of fir resins, gorgeous geology and challenging but thoroughly engaging terrain.



Creede hosts the youngest mountains in Colorado, and richest silver mines

The two of us moved on from Alamosa to Creede, on the edge of La Garita Wilderness and one of the most heavily mined areas in Colorado. After arriving we strolled around this town of 800, which is now my personal favorite small town in the state. Charming and funky, authentically kept in 1880 style without being pretentious or snobby, such a lovely personality with a great mix of restaurants, live theatre, gnarly and polished retail wares, town dogs and a hardware store from 1890!

We had intentions of going up CR 503 to the Trailhead for San Luis Pass to hike across the Continental Divide. Drove up past 6 closed silver mines, seeing eye-popping mountain scenery along the way, and came to the final 2 miles of road only to admit defeat in the face of 3-foot snowdrifts. Ah, well, lunch in the car and a drive back down CR 504 were wonderful consolation, as 504 completed the “Bachelor’s Loop” tour of all Creede’s former silver and zinc mines. In early days the valley boasted 10,000 residents, with 300 new inhabitants arriving DAILY! Talk about unsustainable growth!

A bit of detective work: George noticed a large number of beaver dams on Willow Creek, which flows along Bachelor Loop. We wondered if they were from previous years, as we saw no aspen trees for them to use in building them or for winter food. A short hike along the creek gave us the critical clue: freshly-clipped willow bushes all along the river banks and barkless willow branches in the deep pools next to the dams. Aha!! The beavers are still going strong, and subsisting quite nicely on the bushes! They are using young spruce and juniper trees for the main architecture of their dams, with bush branches filling in. Clever.

Back in Creede for the evening, I just had to stop in at the General Store, an old and shabby shop owned by a former miner himself and stocked with all manner of rough, slabbed and/or polished specimens of the amethyst, agate, silver, zinc, citrine and lead that came out of the mines. The proprietor was quite the storyteller, and had the missing fingers, gravelly voice and aged body to bear witness to his past in the caves and shafts. He knows the mining activity is never coming back to Creede, even if silver gets above $30/oz (it’s currently at $8). We bought three stones, his first sale of the season!

Silverthread Historic and Scenic Byway (Hwy 149) from Creede to Blue Mesa – got to Hike Continental Divide anyway!

Colorado puts out a great milepost road guide to accompany drivers along today’s route. It points out glorious wonders of nature every five to ten miles. We knew we wanted to stop for North Clear Creek Falls, reputed to be magnificent. But the guide told us there was so much more, including the mysterious mountain that looks imported from Britain’s coastline, Bristol Head, and many overlooks above the gorgeous Rio Grande (hence the highway’s name of Silverthread, which is what the RG looks like from above).

Spring Creek Pass at 11,200’ – which was a confluence of the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails – enticed us to take the CDT hike we had missed yesterday — so glad we did. Just two miles’ worth, but every step enjoyable. Definitely a peak experience.

In addition to jaw-dropping views from the path, we saw firsthand how badly Colorado’s mountain spruce population was devastated in the past 15 years by the Spruce beetle. Huge trees by the millions stand grey and dead on most mountain slopes. But when you hike through the forests, you also see the most remarkable and hopeful thing: baby fir trees, both the native Colorado spruce and the Engelmann spruce, proliferating in nurseries around their dead mother trees, and they are alive and well and reaching for the skies. I’d read in the Hidden Life of Trees that when mother trees are under assault or infested to the point of dying, they pump their last nutrients into the ground through their roots to support their offspring. Here seems to be incontrovertible evidence. Go babies, and brava, mothers!!

I will not plague you, dear readers, with repetitive detail of the subsequent and awe-inspiring overlooks on display through the end of this drive, but it must be said that Colorado Hwy 149 ranks among the world’s most superb mountain drives. We hope to see it again sometime in a late summer or fall season.

Just for kicks, here are the animals we’ve seen so far in CO:

Antelope                                 Bald eagles

California quail (or Chukar partridges)

Cattle and goats of all varieties

Canyon wren                           Clark’s nutcracker

Collared lizards (brilliant turquoise)

Common side-blotched lizards, prairie and sagebrush lizards

Dozens of bluebirds, red and yellow finches

Elk scat and tracks; mountain lion scat; huge dung beetles

Female Gunnison sage grouse and a male Gunnison sage grouse in flight (what a treat!!)

Golden eagles (yay!)              Gray jays

Grazing yaks, emu and buffalo

Grey fox                                  Horny toads

Black and white-throated swifts (among the world’s fastest flyers)

Magpies                                  Marmots

Mule deer                               Peregrine falcon

Pine grosbeak                         Prairie dogs and ground squirrels

Red-tailed hawks                    Ring-tailed cat (wild)

Say’s Phoebe                           Small green snake

Turkeys                                    Violet-green Swallows

Western tanager                    Wild horses

Crow Canyon Archaeology

Following the Ute Mountain Tribal Park visit, we went to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (CCAC) outside Cortez, CO. to take a deeper dive into the scientific research and knowledge accumulated by professional archaeologists and native cultural experts about the Puebloan peoples of the past 2,000+ years.

On the way, a slice of the old west: cowboys herding cattle across the road. Have now seen this twice, with black and red angus. A sentimentally favorite scene.

Our guides, Tyson (archaeology) and Michelle (cultural anthropology), drove just the two of us to a newly-started dig on a site that had been in private hands for decades, recently acquired by the CCAC Board for partial excavation and protection.

It is often the case in western lands that historically significant sites are first privately owned after colonization, and when artifacts are found by the owners, unfortunately they are simply dug up and sold to the highest bidder. All knowledge of what the artifacts were, who lived there and what significance it has for our understanding of ancient peoples is lost.

Such was the case with the Haynie site to the north of Cortez, which contained at least two kivas, an unknown number of residences, and possibly a great kiva. Much has been looted and lost, but there is still much to be discovered. There are 22,000+ such sites in Montezuma County alone (where Cortez, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park and Mesa Verde are all located).

It was great to see the grid quadrants at Haynie that had recently been opened to reveal evidence of ancient hearths and walls. We conversed with our guides at the site for about 90 minutes on site, until cold and rain drove us back to the research center.

We also got to see the lab where artifacts are washed, examined for microscopic evidence of foods, human DNA, etc., and where technicians pore through sifted soils clinging to potsherds, stones, tools, etc.

George got to try spear-throwing with an atlatl (ancient throwing lever that predates bow and arrow), and we both got to try starting a fire with an archaic fire friction kit.

So much to learn about in the laborious and highly-trained fields of archaeology, as well as the findings of the past 25 years in the field. A great deal has changed since our last brush with this discipline – really exciting to think what lies ahead, and to come back for the CCAC’s multi-day Cultural Exploration and Archaeology programs in the Four Corners area!!

Who knew? Southern CO is Pie Paradise!

Wow, SoCo must be the destination for retired breadmakers and pastry chefs! Great Piemaker Bakery in Cortez, with fabulous cream scones and fruit pies. In Pagosa Springs, great Pagosa Bread Company sells yummy cookies as well as frozen Rugulach to bake at home!! Black cherry and apple pies!! Whole grain and fruit breads! Someone has also referred us to a reputedly fabulous bakery in Lake City, not far from Gunnison (where we found fabulous pizza!). I’d say that is a good bakery/mileage ratio of 1 to 150! There’s hope after all!

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