Weekend Adventure: Mesa Verde National Park

Kevin and I were able to take Friday off last week so we could have an extended weekend adventure at Mesa Verde. We left Wednesday afternoon and returned Sunday. It’s a 6 hour drive (but does not feel like one) so it was nice to spend a few extra days there before having to drive all the way back home.

Day 1 – Wednesday

Ideally, we wanted to get to the park at a reasonable hour (before it got dark) and we managed to leave by 2:30pm on Wednesday afternoon. We didn’t hit any traffic and — despite stopping several times for me to pee — made it to the park before 9:00pm. We stayed inside the park at the Morefield Campground and had been able to reserve our campsite a month in advance. Although you are able to make a reservation, you do not get to reserve a specific campsite — so we had to drive through the tent camping area and find one that was open.

Already, we were having a much better camping experience than we had the week prior at The Needles. We were staying somewhere much higher in elevation than the Utah desert, so the temperature was much better for camping (about 85 during the day, cooling off significantly at night to around 45). We set up our campsite and went to bed shortly after since we’d both been up early that morning and were planning to be at the visitor’s center at 7:30 the next morning to sign up for the guided tours.

Day 2 – Thursday

We made it to the visitor’s center by 7:45am and there was already a huge line to sign up for the tours. I think we waited in line for about an hour. The morning times were already full but we weren’t stressed about it since we were going to be there until Sunday. We ended up signing up for two guided tours that afternoon, and one on Friday morning. Since we had some time before our first tour, we headed back to camp to make breakfast (Mountainhouse Breakfast Skillet is a 10/10) and get ready.

Mesa Verde is huge and everything is really spread out, so it was a 20-mile drive to the area where our tours would start. We drove over there early so we could stop at some of the viewpoints along the way and also check out the museum. Of course, the museum had a video playing so we had to sit and watch that. The museum had a lot of really cool artifacts and information about the archaeological sites. If you’re into that sort of thing, you could easily spend an hour at this museum. It’s not very big but it’s packed full of cool stuff.

We had some more time to kill so we drove along the Mesa Top Loop, where you can look at some of the early Ancestral Pueblo sites. These sites are pit houses — homes dug into the ground — and while they are super fascinating, there are a ton of them. If you’re not interested in reading the specific information at each site, you probably don’t need to stop and take a look at every single pit house.

Our first tour was Cliff Palace, one of the most popular tours. We had about 40 people in our tour group and a great ranger guide (shout out to Ranger Pete!). The tour is an hour long — and tickets for these tours are $5 a person — and it’s only about a half-mile long. Essentially, you’re walking down steep steps to the site and then walking back up. Most of the tour time is spent looking at the site and listening to the ranger tell the story of the site. It was absolutely beautiful — and amazing that it’s been preserved so well over time — and I love the feeling of being transported back in time and imagining how people lived back then and what their daily life was like.

Our second tour was Balcony House, another popular and more challenging tour. We had an hour in between tours to drive over to the next place and eat a snack. We had another amazing tour guide and again, about 40 people in the group. I think the tours are capped at 50 people, but there are early bird and evening tours that you can reserve online (for a higher price) that are smaller groups, but they were sold out online. Balcony House was really fun because it involved climbing a 32-foot ladder and crawling through an incredibly small tunnel. It also allowed us to have a more intimate look at the house, walking behind it as well as in front of it.

If you’re going to Mesa Verde, I would highly recommend doing both of these tours.

After our second tour, we finished driving around the Mesa Top Loop and headed back to camp, stopping along the way to check out the Farview Sites. Back at camp, we enjoyed free, hot showers and cooked beer brats over the fire. We also had watermelon (my fav) and chips and dip (Kevin’s fav) to complete our little 4th of July dinner.

There was a ranger talk at 9pm that Kevin really wanted to check out, so we drove over to the Amphitheater. The ranger started out his talk by making everyone sing, which was hilarious because you could tell that nobody wanted to but we all felt like we couldn’t tell him no. I was amazed that even the kids were shy — I feel like when I was a kid I would have been singing at the top of my lungs. We sang about four songs and then he began his talk, which was about the history of the national parks and what we’re leaving for the future. It was a great talk — particularly for the 4th of July — and it helped me to focus on the things that America has actually done well (i.e. preserving this land and creating National Parks and National Monuments so that future generations can enjoy them). I feel like it’s so easy to focus these days on what’s not going well or the ways in which we’re failing as a country — and it’s important to continue to work on these things and not turn a blind eye to them, but it’s also important to appreciate the things we’ve done well in the past and hopefully will continue to do. It felt so much more patriotic to me than any 4th of July I’ve ever had — plus I really don’t get the big deal with fireworks. They’re cool but I really only want to see a fireworks show every few years.

Day 3 – Friday

We had a tour at 10am, so we got to sleep in a little bit and then head out 20 miles to the other side of the park. Our last tour — long house — was probably my favorite tour. It’s a longer tour — about 2 hours — and requires hiking about 2.5 miles round-trip. It’s a much more in-depth tour and you’re able to walk throughout the house and really feel like you’re immersing yourself inside it and trying to picture what life was like when the Ancestral Puebloans lived here. We thoroughly enjoyed this tour and would highly recommend it.

One thing to note — about all 3 tours — is that they are somewhat redundant. Of course, they are 3 different archaeological sites so each site has a different story, and each ranger has their own style of storytelling, but by the time we got to our third tour — a lot of the information we were hearing we’d already heard before, especially the questions people were asking. So just keep in mind that you might hear information you’ve already heard — and it might be someone’s first tour even though it’s your third — and you can still ask your own questions and appreciate the new information you do learn on each tour.

After the tour, it was around lunchtime. We walked down to Step House, which is a self-guided hike very close to Long House, and that was a really cool site to check out but a very steep climb in and out. There are two ways you can get down to it and the option on the left is a more accessible paved trail, while the option on the right has steep stairs. Definitely a worthwhile hike, and fun to be able to explore yourself without a tour guide. The other self-guided hike, Spruce Tree House, was closed due to some rockfall hazards but you can still see it from the viewpoint. I would definitely want to do that hike if we come back.

We did stop at one of the restaurants/cafes near the Farview Lodge to see if we could get some lunch but the food was incredibly overpriced so we grabbed a scoop of ice cream and decided to head into town for lunch. We ate at a Mexican restaurant called Tequila’s, which was delicious and reasonably priced, and then we decided to drive to Four Corners since it was only an hour away and we’d never been.

Four Corners is the definition of American tourism. You have to pay like $5 a person to get in, and then stand in a long line of people waiting to take a photo of themselves (or their family) standing on all four states at one time. Yes, we got some cool photos and we can check this off our bucket list but I would not recommend this if you don’t really care about the whole “I stood in all 4 states at once” thing. The reality is you’ll spend an hour in line getting sunburnt just to take a couple of photos — and get asked to take photos for other people. I’m glad we did it but we both decided we definitely weren’t coming back with our kids in the future — they can go as adults if they want, we’ve got cooler places to see! The only cool thing about Four Corners is they do have kiosks all around the square with people selling t-shirts (of course), but also people selling unique jewelry and pottery — and I think that’s really cool and absolutely support that.

We stopped at Safeway — oh how we’ve missed it, there are no Safeways in Utah — to grab some more hot dog buns and of course, s’mores ingredients and more Coronas for Kevin. We had our 4th of July dinner spread for the second time — along with s’mores — and spent some time reading and sitting in front of the fire.

Side note: if you’re allergic to grass or pollen or trees or anything, come to Mesa Verde prepared for an allergy attack. Living in Utah, my allergies really only flare up in June and then they settle down — but I was definitely allergic to some sort of plant in this camground/area and unfortunately became that person who is constantly sneezing and blowing their nose.

Day 4 – Saturday

By this time, we’d pretty much seen everything in Mesa Verde. We’d done all the tours and stopped at the sites and view points. There are several hikes that we didn’t do — we just weren’t feeling it — but I would like to do them if we come back. We decided to drive out to the Canyons of the Ancients visitors center on Saturday and check it out. We met a very nice employee at the visitor’s center who gave us several maps of the area and told us where he recommended we go, since we had the entire day, and we set off on our journey.

We drove to Lowry Pueblo, which was really cool because you could actually walk inside it. Then, we drove to the Hovenweep National Monument area and hiked to three structures — holly, horseshoe, and hackberry — and also did a 2-mile loop hike behind the Hovenweep visitor’s center where you can see several structures up close. We also played some Pokemon Go during this hike — we haven’t played consistently since last summer but it is something fun to do when you’re exploring new places.

After all the driving and hiking, it was about 5pm and we were done for the day so we headed back to camp — after I convinced Kevin that we should just eat the food at camp and not go out to eat again. We found a little surprise back at our campsite — our cooler and one of our totes was missing!

Left behind on the picnic table was a friendly little note from the park law enforcement that our cooler and tote had been confiscated. Thus began our not-so-fun adventure of figuring out how to get our stuff back. After asking a ranger who was in the campground and being redirected to the ranger station, we were finally told that our cooler was in the back of some law enforcement person’s vehicle somewhere in the park and eventually that person would drive back around and return it to us but they had no idea when.

We had to wait an hour and a half at our camp — since we had to be there when they returned it, we couldn’t just leave and grab dinner — and it was finally returned to us along with a lovely $80 citation (not just a fine, a federal citation). We found out — after the law enforcement officer had left — that while the cooler was being driven around the park, one of the bottles inside it had broken and we had to clean up the spill and the broken glass, and some of our food was ruined.

So, a friendly PSA to anyone visiting Mesa Verde (or any other National Park in bear country) — the park law enforcement is allowed to take your personal items from your campsite, and they do not care if your food items are in a bear-proof cooler — it apparently doesn’t matter, the cooler cannot be left “unattended” and must be in your vehicle or in their bear-proof storage containers (our campsite didn’t have one of these) — and they will fine you at least $80 (we found out this is actually the lowest fine, the highest is up to $300). And apparently if the cooler had been left inside our tent (our flimsy, not bear-proof tent), that would have also been fine — but it was under our tent’s vestibule — so just make sure that if you’re going to camp in this park, you follow the rules to a T because unfortunately, the money you’ll have to pay will go to the law enforcement, not the park itself (I think if it had gone to the park directly we’d be happy to think of it as an $80 forced donation).

Obviously this was a shitty way to spend the last night of our trip. We were incredibly frustrated, since we had thought we were following the rules with our bear-proof cooler, and embarrassed because we’ve both been camping and hunting since the beginning of our existence. Also, they had literally confiscated all of our food so we were starving by the time we got it back. But, lesson learned — always double-check if you’re not sure what the specific rules are, and don’t just assume that because your cooler is bear-proof that it follows the guidelines of the park, oh and remember that if you’re camping on federal land the law enforcement can just take your stuff.

And a little note to everyone who is thinking, “Well, Sami — this is what happens when you don’t follow the rules and they’re just doing their job trying to keep the park safe.”

I am very appreciative of the rangers and law enforcement who are working hard to keep the park safe for everyone — I just wish that the efforts were more concentrated on the campsites where food was literally being left out on picnic tables, leftovers from breakfast still in the pan and food left out on plates. Also, I’m still weirded out that my stuff was driven around in a vehicle all day rather than being dropped off at a ranger station, but we’ve paid our fine and we did let them know that our things were mishandled and glass was broken in our cooler so we’ve done our due diligence there.

While we probably won’t look back on this and laugh in 50 years, Kevin did find it incredibly funny that this whole ordeal brought out my right-wing, redneck, conspiracy theorist personality that I didn’t even know existed. I spent a few hours ranting about how my rights were being infringed upon and how dare they look through my personal items and, not only that, actually take my shit and this is exactly why people don’t trust the government and won’t give up their guns. It’s possible I was a crazy doomsday prepper who lived on some land in an isolated area and shot at anyone who came within 50 feet of my house in a past life.

And now we can joke about how Kevin’s got a record because of his “unattended cooler”. So there’s that.

Day 5 – Sunday

We left pretty early on Sunday morning and got back home by about 2:00pm, with plenty of time to get everything unloaded, go to the gym (me), play Xbox (Kevin), and wash and vacuum the truck (a team effort). On the way, we stopped at an adorable coffee shop in Cortez, CO called The Silver Bean. It’s a coffee shop inside an Airstream and you can either drive-thru or go inside (we went inside, obviously). Great coffee and such a cute coffee shop — 10/10.

Although it was really fun exploring the nearby areas and visiting Four Corners, we probably could have done Mesa Verde in a shorter weekend trip. Although it was a longer drive and it was nice to have that extra time, there isn’t as much to see and do as some of the other national parks we’ve been to — and we could have easily fit all of the tours and hiking into a weekend trip. So if you’re planning on visiting Mesa Verde, give yourself about two full days and that should be enough. If you want to spread things out and take more time and relax, you absolutely can — we’re just used to packing as much as we can into each day that we forget we can also just hang out at camp and read (which we did and it was awesome).

If there’s one thing I am learning as a part-time traveler, it’s that things are never going to go exactly as planned. Sometimes you’re going to eat out more than you thought, or it’s going to be hotter or windier than you thought, or you’re going to have terrible allergies. For me, this has helped manage my anxiety so well because what triggers me is uncertainty, ambiguity, the unexpected — and what helps me deal with that is knowing that life goes on when things don’t go as planned, and I get to decide how much that affects me. Sure, I could let an $80 fine ruin my weekend or I could be mad about it for awhile and then find ways to laugh about it later.

There is nothing routine or certain about weekend travel — and I’m starting to really love that. No matter where we go or what happens, it’s always an adventure!

Published by Sami Hertel

Oregon native, current Utah resident, blogging about my adventures on lifeafteroregon.com!

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