Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde

Ever since I was a young adult, I’ve wanted to visit ancient cliff dwellings in the southwest.  I’ve seen pictures over the years, but I wanted to walk in and amongst the dwellings and to understand the scale of these homes perched high above the ground.  Because we temporarily skipped visiting New Mexico due to the unforeseen demise of our not-so-trusty traveling companion, our first opportunity to visit these dwellings was at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  We decided to spring for two nights in their lodge, which turned out to be a great idea given the intense thunderstorms that struck in the evenings during our stay.

In order to visit several of the more popular dwellings, visitors need to attend a ranger-guided tour and must descend, and later ascend, several ladders.  Since none of this sounded appealing with a two-year old, we took him to the more accessible dwellings and took turns taking a tour of Cliff Palace so we could each get up close and personal without worrying about our toddler underfoot.  We weren’t sure how much there would be for Van to see, but there turned out to be so many places for him to explore with us that we shouldn’t have ever been concerned.  And since it seems that most visitors stick to the guided tours, we had much of the park to ourselves.  We visited at least ten sites with Van, and probably saw fewer than ten other visitors at all of those sites, combined.  It was only when we went to see Cliff Palace that we were reminded that we were not lone travelers who just happened upon these sites during our wanderings.

The dwellings, built by the Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s and 1200s, are built into cliff alcoves.  The cliffs above serve as protection from the elements and the cliffs below serve as a foundation for their homes.  These dwellings are essentially hanging on to the side of cliffs that are almost vertical.  And this pre-dates baby-gates!  The strength and ingenuity of the individuals that built these structures and called them home becomes even more impressive when you spend time climbing down to and walking around the structures.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde - notice the soot on the rock above the homes

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde – notice the soot on the rock above the homes

We were lucky enough to be able to descend into a kiva during our visit

We were lucky enough to be able to descend into a kiva during our visit

While the cliff dwellings get all the fanfare, there are over 4,000 archaeological sites in the park, many of which are mesa top sites.  Because these sites are less well-known, these were the sites we were able to enjoy in peace and quiet, giving us time to absorb the atmosphere and try to imagine a people much more skilled than ourselves living and working amongst the harsh elements with only sporadic access to everyday needs.

All in all, almost every aspect of our visit was fantastic – from the peacefulness, to the history lessons and unparalleled views.  The only down note was the Navajo Tacos, which were both expensive and terrible.  I love Navajo Tacos.  Anytime I have the chance to order one, which isn’t nearly often enough, I do.  These were probably the worst I’ve ever had, but I had to try – especially since we had a $50 gift card burning a hole in our pocket that was only usable at the Mesa Verde concessions (we received it when booking two nights in the lodge).  We were much happier eating dinner the second night at the swanky (but no dress-code, thank goodness!) Metate Room.

We were originally planning to spend a third night in the park at their campground, but severe thunderstorms rolled in during the afternoon of our third day in the park, and we decided to ditch our idea of relaxing in the campground and doing laundry, and booked it all the way up to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, thus ending our two month stint in Colorado.

The Storm on the Horizon

The Storm on the Horizon

Telluride, Ouray, and the Million Dollar Highway

Twenty-five dollars a night is pretty steep for a campground that doesn’t provide free showers, but with no other good options available (apparently, the campgrounds in the area fill up fast in the summer months), we stayed at what wound up being a very nice walk-in campsite in Ridgway State Park.  The park is between Telluride and Ouray, which positioned us well to check out the two towns we were interested in exploring in the area.

We spent our first full day in the area checking out Telluride.  We had wanted to hike up to Bridal Veil Falls, but due to a road failure earlier in the season, the road to the trailhead was closed, as was the trail.  We parked our car at the construction zone, proceeded to walk directly through the construction zone (Van was in heaven) and walked as far as we could to glimpse a view of the falls.  Although we disappointingly missed out on hiking to the falls, we did spy the large white house perched on the cliff above.  We wondered to ourselves, and with a couple of folks from New Mexico who had also made their way through the construction site, who was crazy enough to build a home and live in it on that cliff edge.  A little later in the day, we learned that the pretty white house was not a residence, but was instead a power plant.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more attractive power plant and I’m not sure I ever will.

Since we were excited to do some hiking, we simply turned around and hiked in the other direction.  Our hike eventually lead us right into the center of town.  Fortuitous, indeed!

Views Along Our Hike in Telluride

Views Along Our Hike in Telluride

We wandered around town for a while, and while looking for a spot for lunch, Alan spotted a small sign pointing down a street that said Free Gondola.  What?  Free and gondola in the same sentence?  Well, actually the sentence was only two words, but still.  As soon as we finished lunch, we headed in the direction the sign pointed and a few short minutes later we were walking right onto the gondola and heading up and over the mountain.  Van was wide-eyed for most of his first gondola ride and was equally excited to ride a second time back to the center of Telluride.  Definitely a must-do if you ever find yourself in this beautiful mountain town.

Van's First Gondola Ride

Van’s First Gondola Ride

Downtown Telluride

Downtown Telluride

After a full day in Telluride, we spent the next day exploring Ouray, which is also known as Little Switzerland.  It’s in a beautiful location and I understand how it received the moniker, though I hate when things are referred to as “little (something more famous)” or things of the like.  I think it cheapens the place and makes it less special.  Ouray is a tourist town with steep, imposing mountains rising on both sides.  The location is great, but we weren’t enthralled by the town.  We spent the morning checking out a nearby waterfall and taking a walk around town, but decided the afternoon would be better spent running errands and getting Van to nap in the tent.  Van normally naps in the car, but we were excited to actually get him down for a nap in the tent with the bright sun shining through.  The nap was short-lived, though, as a thunderstorm rolled in and the lightning was handily breaking the 30/30 rule (less than 30 seconds between lightning and thunder).  We wound up spending a fair amount of the afternoon sitting in the only safe place nearby – our car.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was just a harbinger of things to come for us over the next week.

Ouray

Ouray

A Happy Life!

A Happy Life!

Falls in Ouray

Falls in Ouray

Falls in Ouray

Falls in Ouray

Stacey and Van Enjoying the Falls in Ouray

Stacey and Van Enjoying the Falls in Ouray

Falls in Ouray

Falls in Ouray

We awoke on our last morning in Ridgway State Park, excited for our drive down the Million Dollar Highway to Durango.  We were right to be excited – it was beautiful!  Every turn provided exciting new views, completely different from what we had just driven through.  Towards the end of the drive, we drove through the western town of Silverton, also touristy, but a whole lot cooler looking than Ouray (at least according to us).  Enjoy the photos below from our drive over the aptly named highway.

Curecanti and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

We spent three nights camping just above the Black Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area.  On our first full day, we explored Crested Butte and partook in one of the most magnificent hikes ever.  On the second day we decided to stick closer to home and explore the surreal landscape of Curecanti.  Although not far from the prototypical Colorado mountains, Curecanti is a beguiling landscape of desert plants, mesas, reds, oranges, and a large blue pool of water that looks just as out-of-place as it is.  The juxtaposition is right out of a storybook or a fantasy movie.  What was once an arid area with a fertile valley where the Gunnison River once ran is now a boaters’ paradise.

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti

We began our exploration with a several mile hike to the Dillon Pinnacles.  It was a beautiful day and the trail was deserted.  It appears that almost everyone that frequents this park does so with a boat and/or the inclination to get on the water.  That leaves the trails blissfully empty.  As we were hiking to the scent of sage and eventually pine, I was checking out the footprints of the hikers that came before us.  Apparently, many deer like to hike the trail, as well as a few people.  When we were almost to the turn-around point, Van started making his cat noise.  He almost never makes his cat noise unless he sees a cat, so we immediately start asking him if he saw one.  A cat out here on this deserted trail almost assuredly means one thing – a mountain lion.  They’re not frequently seen, but Van has a way of spotting things that is uncanny.  I often think he should be a tracker when he gets older.

As two-year olds tend to do, he will not answer our question about whether he saw a cat.  I’m not sure we’d believe him one way or another anyways.  So, we continue down the path amongst the pines and the pinnacles until I look down and see the unmistakable print of a large cat.  We’ll never know if Van actually saw a mountain lion or if he was just making sounds for fun, but we knew that it was time to turn around and not find out for ourselves.  On the return leg of the hike, Alan commented on how much faster of a hiker I am with the threat of a mountain lion in the vicinity.

Dillon Pinnacles in Curecanti

Dillon Pinnacles in Curecanti

View of the Blue Mesa Reservoir from our Hike

View of the Blue Mesa Reservoir from our Hike

After a morning in the full sun and a sprinkling of adrenaline, we found a rare shaded picnic spot, right next to the boat inspection station.  Van was in heaven.  He loves boats, so to get to watch boat after boat pull up while he ate lunch was a real treat.  We spent the afternoon hiking down into a narrow canyon and along the water, and then later, playing along the shore of the Blue Mesa Reservoir.  We, however, did not get decked out in white mud like the gentleman we saw making an escape through the grasses.

Nope, not a ghost, just a man fully clad in white mud

Nope, not a ghost, just a man fully clad in white mud

Cooling Off in the Blue Mesa Reservoir

Cooling Off in the Blue Mesa Reservoir

 

Our last and final day in the area was spent in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  It’s hard to see in photos, but this canyon is DEEP and narrow.  We couldn’t even get a good gauge of how deep it was when we were looking right into it.  I was shocked to learn, as I teetered on the edge of the deepest portion, that the Empire State Building would only come up halfway.  We hiked around the rim a bit and marveled at the sheer drops and the beautiful cliffs, before heading off to find our next camping spot.  This turned out to be a bit more difficult than we anticipated, but we eventually found a great (but not cheap) spot in Ridgway State Park.  It’s in an ideal location, centrally located so that we could explore Telluride and Ouray on different days without having to pack up camp.  More on our fun in those locations in a future post…

On the Road to Shangri-La

And off we are, once again, with the open road before us and no home awaiting our return.  We drove west from Denver, heading over the Independence Pass to check out Aspen.  The drive over the pass and to Aspen was gorgeous and looked to be a hiker’s paradise.  If we were planning to stay in the area for the night (we weren’t), we definitely would have checked out a couple of the trails in the area.

The View from Independence Pass

The View from Independence Pass

Instead, we headed to downtown Aspen to find a spot to picnic and check out the town.  Alan predicted I wouldn’t think much of Aspen.  He was right.  So on we drove to Carbondale, a town we visited briefly a few weeks earlier.  As we got out of our car, we heard the not-so-distant sounds of a funk band.  Following the music through some backyards and alleyways, we found our way to a park with a large playground for Van.  He played and played and clearly got over his temporary fear of slides while we listened to the funk band warm up for the evening’s concert.  After Van was thoroughly played out, we walked out of the park between a heated croquet game and about fifty or sixty folks doing yoga.  It turns out you don’t need to cut through backyards and alleyways to get to the park, so we took a much more direct way to the main street and did a little wandering before getting back in our car.

Our original plan was to camp for a night just south of Carbondale, but given Van’s mood (it was good), and where we wanted to get the next day, we decided to make today a long driving day and just drive all the way to Curecanti.  We arrived just before the sun was setting, set up a quick camp, and feasted on a smorgasborg of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, crackers, and raisins.  Living the high life, I know!  The campground left some things to be desired for tenters, but it was practically deserted and overlooked the Blue Mesa Reservoir, so we couldn’t complain.

After our first of three nights in Curecanti, we hit the road to check out Crested Butte.  How do I describe this area in a blog post?  Shangri-La comes closest, but it’s hard to describe in words or in pictures – you kind of just have to go there.  The day after we were in Crested Butte we met a family who had been there the same day as us.  As we were sharing our stories of the hikes that we each took, our new friend told us that if she had seen a unicorn, she wouldn’t have been surprised.  This, my friends, is the perfect description of Crested Butte.  Crested Butte: the native habitat for the elusive unicorn.

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

We started our day in Crested Butte hiking along a river, through wildflower meadows, and up a hill to aspen groves.  Every few steps I proclaimed this to be the most beautiful hike I had ever taken.  And then it would proceed to get more beautiful.  This is the Colorado of postcards and magazine advertisements.  I wanted the hike to go on forever.  But, as all things naturally come to a conclusion, so did our hike.  But not before we waded into the river to a gravel bar in the middle to play and eat lunch.  It was a perfect morning.

We spent the afternoon poking around town and checking out the library, both to entertain Van and to read up on how to change the light that went out on our car just hours after leaving Denver.  The town did not disappoint.  The people were friendly, the architecture was perfect for the location, and the sun was shining.  Now I just need to find someone who has a vacation home in the area and needs a caretaker.

Where There’s Smoke…

What began as a short camping trip to explore the Great Sand Dunes National Park and nearby Alamosa, quickly turned into a lesson on the impacts of wildfire.  It goes without saying that wildfires have been a huge problem in the western United States yet again this year.  After last year’s disastrous fire in Colorado Springs, another, even more destructive fire broke out, known as the Black Forest Fire.  That fire, along with several others in the state, garnered a fair amount of attention on the local news.  With this in the back of our minds, we set out to drive southwest to one of our nation’s newer national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It is the home of the tallest dunes in North America and one of the strangest natural sites I’ve ever witnessed.  The dunes seem to arise mysteriously out of the valley against a backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Since we didn’t have reservations (we never do), we opted to head straight to the park campground and claim a spot.  After battling the wind to set up our tent, we decided to check out Alamosa that afternoon and then explore the sand dunes early in the morning when they wouldn’t have absorbed as much heat.  As we were heading down the long straight road that would take us toward Alamosa, we drove right by a bush that was on fire.  Just one bush, completely engulfed in flames.  Given its proximity to the road, we concluded that it was likely the result of a careless and inconsiderate driver who threw a cigarette out of the window.  Luckily we had cellphone reception and were able to speak with a 911 operator to let them know about the fire.  As we continued on down the road, we eventually saw a water truck and then a fire truck coming towards us, about fifteen minutes after we made the call.  They got there pretty quickly considering how far the burning bush was from a town.  When we drove back by the spot to reach our campsite later in the day, we were completely shocked at how large of an area had burned in the short time between the single burning bush that we saw and the arrival of the water truck and firefighters.  It just goes to show how quickly a wildfire can spread with the right weather conditions and plentiful fuel.

A portion of the burned road-side just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park

A portion of the burned road-side just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park

After our burning bush sighting, we had a relaxing afternoon in Alamosa playing on the playground and grabbing an early dinner at a local brew pub with, what seemed like, everyone else in town.  But, the whole time we were there, we kept eyeing the smoke coming over the mountains from the southwest, surprised with how imposing it was.  We didn’t realize that the largest wildfire in the state was burning right over the mountain range, the West Fork Complex Fire.  We would be much more acquainted with the fire as the evening progressed.  Just as the winds blew the sand over the San Luis Valley to a natural pocket in the Sangre de Cristo mountains to create the Sand Dunes, the winds blew the smoke from the West Fork Fire to the same pocket, right where we were camping.  Breathing in fairly thick smoke all night did not make for a relaxing night, but with no alternatives, we toughed it out and i thought of all the folks who have to breathe in this smoke on a regular basis.

By the time we awoke, the smoke had begun to clear and we packed up our campsite, ready to explore the dunes.  Alan and I had very different reactions to the dunes.  He thought they were cool, but nothing worth going out-of-the-way for.  I cried the first time I saw them up close.  Yes, very different reactions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

We had a great morning walking across the sand to begin climbing up the closest dunes.  Van and Alan loved running down the dunes and I gave sliding down on my butt a try.

After we were tired and ready to head on, we drove east, puzzling at the smoke coming from the southeast, an area that was perfectly clear when we had driven through it yesterday.  Again, unbeknownst to us, a new wildfire had begun overnight, now known as the East Peak Fire.  We passed a number of TV crews setting up to get shots of the smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks as we passed through La Veta and felt like we were in a game of pin the tail on the donkey.  Blindfold us, spin us around, and whichever direction we walk in, there will be smoke.

Smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks from the East Peak fire

Smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks from the East Peak fire

As of July 4th, over two weeks after we visited the Sand Dunes and a month after it began, the West Fork Complex Fire has burned over 110,000 acres and is only 20% contained.  Also as of July 4th, the East Peak Fire has burned over 13,500 acres and is 95% contained.  These are only two of the many wildfires that have raged (and continue to rage) in the west this summer.  Please keep the brave firefighters and local residents in your thoughts as they continue to live with the threats and discomfort of these destructive fires.