Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mesa Verde National Park

Last autumn, my husband and I drove to a family wedding in the Phoenix, Arizona area. We wanted to drive, instead of fly, in order to see more of this beautiful area of country.  One of the places we stopped to see on our two day drive to Arizona was Mesa Verde National Park.  The park is located in southwestern Colorado, midway between the towns of Cortez and Mancos, off US 160. From the highway to the park headquarters it is 21 scenic miles -- about a 45 minute drive.

Mesa Verde means "green table" in Spanish, named after the forest that covered the mesa. The Mesa Verde National Park offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. (All photos will enlarge for easier viewing if clicked on)

About 15 miles from the highway is the Far View Visitor Center. The visitor and research center opened in mid December of 2012 and replaced the old facility. It houses a state of the art research center and is a storage facility for the park's archives and museum collection of over three million objects. It also features exhibits that focus on the contemporary American Indian cultures in the Four Corners area. The visitor center is also the area to pay the park entrance fee and buy tickets to enter some of the cliff houses on a ranger led tour.

After stopping at the visitors center to see the exhibits, we began our drive up to the top of the mesa, at an elevation of 7,000 to 7,500 feet.

The views along the long drive up were magnificent!  The park recommends at least a 6 hour visit to see all of its features. We were arriving in late afternoon, so we knew we would have to condense our visit as much as possible to just see the park's highlights.

Once we arrived at the top of the mesa we were amazed to see the deep open canyon that cuts through the park!

The very first archaeological sight we viewed was the Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace is an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants.  It is thought to have been a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.

The Cliff Palace contained approx 150 rooms, and 28 kivas, and had a population of around 100 people. The Kivas are round or rectangular rooms used for ceremonial purposes. The detail of the buildings was very well preserved considering their vast age

Two cowboys discovered Mesa Verde, specifically the Cliff Palace area, in 1891.  You can read their story on this link.  Mesas Verde was made a National Park in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Next, we drove to the viewpoint for the  "House of Many Windows."  Can you see it in the wall across the canyon?

Please click on the photo above to enlarge this placard at the site that explains more about the House of Many Windows

I zoomed in to see this remarkable structure. Isn't it amazing that this structure was built right into the walls of the canyon?

A closer zoom to see more of the detail.  Supposedly the windows  were really doors, that were once covered with animals skins or a stone slab. There are eleven rooms and a kiva on a 19 foot wide ledge.

The next area we visited was a structure called the "Pit House." The Pit House was a structure partly dug into the ground, and covered by a roof of some sort. It provided shelter from the weather and was also used to store food and for cultural gatherings and celebrations.

If you click on the photo collage above you can read area placards that tell more about the Pit House structures and their uses.  Most of the ancient Pueblo people lived this way on the mesa top, until they began to build the cliff dwellings the last 75-100 years of occupying Mesa Verde.

Look closely, and in the middle of the rocks in photo above, you can see our next stop--a view of the Navajo Canyon Overlook. Navajo Canyon is 700 feet deep and 15 miles long. It contains 60 cliff dwellings.

Next, we visited "Sun Point View."  As you can see by these photos the late afternoon sun was shining very brightly on the structures.

Close up of Sun Point View.  Archaeologists theorize that the ancient peoples that built these structures did so for protection against enemies, as well as storms and other environmental hazards. One can see how secluded, and hard to reach, that they were within the canyon's walls.

Click to enlarge this photo to read about our next stop, "Oak Tree House."

Oak Tree House held about fifty rooms and six kivas. It was multi level and made the most use of its alcove space.

Another structure that was still standing on the mesa top, was the "Sun Temple."  According to modern Pueblo Indians, the Sun Temple's features classify it as a ceremonial structure. Construction of this structure does not appear to be finished and it is thought that the ancient people left the area around that time.  By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability, and severe and prolonged droughts, the people began to abandon the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico.  By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended.

We had almost made a full loop around and we saw the sun was beginning to get low in the sky, so we hurried along to see as much as we could.

Now instead of being at a view point next to the Cliff Palace that I showed earlier, we were directly across from it.

 From this perspective you can see how well protected and hidden the structures are from the top of the mesa.

A closer look at the structures.

The last area we viewed was "Spruce Tree House."

Spruce Tree House is the third largest cliff dwelling.  It was constructed between AD 1211 and 1278. It consisted of about 120 rooms and eight kivas, and built into a natural alcove measuring 216 feet at its greatest width and 89 feet at its greatest depth.  It is thought to have housed 60 to 80 people. As you can see in the photos above there was a ranger lead tour going on in the buildings. We hope to return one day to spend more time in Mesa Verde and take some of the cliff dwelling tours.  Visitors have to climb up and down steep vertical ladders to do this, so being in good physical condition to take the tours is important.

Although our visit was short, we really enjoyed our visit to Mesa Verde National Park, and we know we will return to see more of it in the future.

Our drive back down the mesa was lit by the glorious golden glow of the setting sun, and we were soon in our hotel room in Cortez, Colorado. The next day we were going to drive west to Navajo Nation where we were going to visit the Four Corners.  Please come back to read my next post to see the corners where the states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet!

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Before leaving SW Colorado on a holiday trip, my husband and I took a side trip to West Central Colorado, to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  We entered through its main entrance, five miles northeast of Montrose, via US 50 and CO 347.  I had heard that this canyon is one of our country's most breathtaking sights to see, and I was soon to learn that fact was not an exaggeration!

The day we drove into the park, in late November, it was overcast and misty, and cold enough for snow flurries. We knew that the park was already basically closed for winter, as the weather can be severe here, as the top rim of the canyon is over 8,000 feet elevation.  The south rim's visitors center is open year round, however, and we were excited to see as much as we could of the park.

The first point we reached along the south rim road was Tomichi Point overlook.  Tomichi is the Native American name for the Gunnison River below. There you can see this map of the park--please click on the photo to enlarge.  There are eleven viewpoints along the road from here to High Point, 6 miles away, but only this one and the next were open.

Here, we had our first look at the immensity of the canyon!

Sheer walls of stone rise from 2,000 to 2,722 feet above the swift and turbulent Gunnison River below.  Deeper than it is wide, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has been carved out over 2 billion years of water erosion by the turbulent Gunnison River. The canyon is so narrow as to allow only the midday sun to reach the bottom, for about 30 minutes a day, thus giving it a dark black appearance.

Next stop was the park's visitor's center at Gunnison Point.  The park protects the deepest 14 miles of the Black Canyon gorge, about 75 miles upstream from the Gunnison's junction with the Colorado River.

Once we walked outside the park's visitor's center we were met by more spectacular views.

The viewing platforms were full of snow and ice, so we gingerly walked around them on a trail.

The weather was improving and the canyon began to glow as the sunlight hit its walls.

Click to enlarge this photo of an informational placard about the geological formation of theses canyon walls over a million years ago.

The metamorphic rocks exposed at the bottom of the canyon are nearly two billion years old! They date from the Precambrian, or oldest, era of the earth. At its widest the canyon is 9 miles across, but only 40 feet wide at its narrowest.

Seeing the high peaks of mountains in the distance made me realize what a high elevation we were standing at as we looked down the canyon gorge.

Light and shadows danced among the walls.

It really was an amazing sight to see! The thought that the river carved only one inch a century through this rock is mind boggling as the bottom of the canyon is some of the oldest exposed rock on earth! To see a list of the rocks and minerals that make up the canyon, click on this NSP link.  The greatest descent of the Gunnison River, in feet per mile, is 240 miles as it flows through the park. The Gunnison's average drop as it flows through the park is 95 feet per mile.

Please click to enlarge

We returned to the visitor center where we enjoyed seeing exhibits and a movie about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the history of the explorers and attempts to navigate the Gunnison River and build a railroad at the bottom.

We hiked the relatively easy, one mile loop Rim Rock Nature Trail that follows along a rim of the canyon, not far from the visitors center.  There we could hear the river below and saw sagebrush, Gambel oaks, pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

There are unmaintained hiking trails on the north and south rims of the canyon, which take about two hours to hike down, and four hours to hike back up. All inner canyon descents are strenuous and require Class 3 climbing and basic route finding skills., plus an official permit. Most visitors to the park view the canyon by the various scenic overlooks.  In winter, snowshoeing and cross country skiing trips along the canyon rim are conducted by the rangers.

The short  YouTube video above will give you an overview of what the canyon looks like in summer, and the various viewpoints that were closed for winter during our visit.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was declared our country's 55th National Park in 1999.  It is definitely worth a visit to view this magnificent feature of nature and one of the marvels of Colorado, and our country.  I hope to visit the park again sometime in the future, when all the viewpoints are open for the season.  I hope you will also put it on your list of National Parks you'd also like to visit.  A good resource as to what to see and do and where to stay when visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison can be found on this link.

Only 26 days till Spring! We have had some unusually warm weather this past week on the Front Range of Colorado. We broke a record at 73 degrees in Denver one day! I know that winter weather will return soon, but it has been nice to have a break. How has the weather been in your area this winter?

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