Now we’re off for another national park I’ve never heard of: Mesa Verde. The trip through southern Colorado is beautiful, along great pastures, through Wolfe Pass.
We stop for an awesome breakfast at The Roast Cafe in Alamosa. I absolutely loved this coffee roaster/restaurant. Great industrial vibe, wonderful food and coffee. When I Googled “best breakfast in Alamosa” a whole bunch of options came up but when I saw the name of this place, I just set a course for it. It’s the same way I often pick my horse at the races. I’m glad I had better luck with the breakfast than I do at the track.
After a few hours we change course again, out of the mountains and across more plains with huge high, rocky plateaus to the south. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I can’t wait to get up close, which doesn’t take long because we have to go 4 miles into the park and a couple thousand feet up just to get to the campground.
The campground is first-come (just like the Great Sand Dunes) so we waste no time getting a site. We set up camp and head back to the visitor’s center to get the lay of the land. Visitors must drive to the various Anasazi cliff dwellings and overlooks. The roads are twisty, coming around canyons and up one mesa or another. It takes about an hour to get 20 miles into the park. The ranger tells us the only way to get inside the cliff dwellings is to take a ranger-led tour.
We sign up for a late-afternoon tour of Balcony House, billed as the “most adventurous” due to its ladders, stairs and short tunnel crawl. There are several overviews on our way so we take our time.
The ladders aren’t anything to us; we’re actually happy to be able to climb them without packs like we had in New Hampshire and certainly the stairs are nothing compared to Maine’s Perpendicular Trail . We laugh to each other that what makes other people nervous – there are two women who are afraid of heights and worried about the ladders – doesn’t even register with us.
The ranger-led tours are all very interesting. In addition to Balcony, we tour Cliff Palace and Long House. We actually get to hike down into the remains of the dwellings carved into the cliffs. The views out are pretty amazing as well.
There’s a park viewpoint that has 100+-mile views in all directions that is stunning.
We manage to squeeze in one day hike, the Petroglyphs Trail. It’s a 2.4-mile loop that takes us down into a canyon and then back up. Since the trails are so well marked and easy to follow (no “lush foliage” here), we don’t bother with a trail map. I haven’t paid much attention and have zero clue where the petroglyphs are supposed to be.
Walt and I are really enjoying the hike, walking along the rocks with gorgeous views out the canyon. We see some large birds – hawks of some sort? – soaring the thermals and stop to watch them before heading back up the trail. We’re right below the canyon rim, just 30 or 40 feet shy of the top. We head up into the hot sun and realize that, somehow, we have missed the petroglyphs. How is that possible? These type of trails are always well marked. We were sure we’d see a sign pointing them out.
A few hundred yards later we come to a huge smooth rock overlooking the canyon. An older gentleman with a big camera and binoculars points out a very small cave dwelling across the way, handing us his binoculars to look.
Walt and I exchange glances and Walt bites the bullet: “Where are the petroglyphs?” The man, who turns out to be a volunteer at the park, obligingly tells us that they are just a few yards past that steep up we just climbed. He tells us there’s a sign but “It’s very small.”
We decide we’ve come all this way, what’s another short down and up? Back we go. Downhill, around a corner and there’s a very prominent sign that says “Petroglyphs. Do not touch.”
How did we miss that?
We feel incredibly stupid. We spent a mile and a half looking for these drawings and they were here with a very noticeable sign?
We recognize the two huge trees on either side of the petroglyphs. This is where we turned to watch the birds. We must have come down this little descent and turned to look at the birds with our backs to the sign. Then we turned back to the trail without ever looking to the left! We could have touched the stupid sign!
To make matters even worse, we run into a ranger at the end of our hike, who tells us the birds we had been watching raptly were turkey vultures. Seriously, we missed obviously marked petroglyphs because we were watching vultures?
Other than that, we really enjoyed our Mesa Verde stay. Pictures don’t do it justice. And even though we were at 7,000+ of elevation, the camping was the warmest we’ve experienced anywhere on our trip.