Colorado – Part 2




Park Point at Mesa Verde NP

Mesa Verde National Park

OCTOBER 11, 2010


I’m continuing from the Utah – Monument Valley entry. After settling in at the RV park in Mancos, Colorado we headed over to Mesa Verde. It was about 5:30PM and the Visitors Center was closed. The ranger at the gate gave us some general information on the ranger led tours to the ruins. There are a few sites that you can do self-guided tours. The best sites are done on ranger led tours only. We were told that the office opens at 8AM for ticket sales and that we should be there a bit ahead to ensure getting what we wanted when we wanted it.

Then we decided to take a drive through the park. The gate is at the foot of the mesa. You climb rapidly 2,000’ on a curving road. The Visitors Center is 15 miles from the gate. We checked out the campground for future stays. We couldn’t stay there this time as it was closing for the season the next day. Then we drove to Park Point which is the highest point in the park at 8572’. This gave us a wonderful view of Montezuma Valley below. This is also a favorite stargazing spot. There is a photo there taken by a visitor of the Milky Way and a meteorite that is fabulous.

It was late and we decided to drive back to Cortez, CO for dinner. We chose a restaurant with a micro brewery. On the way home we stopped for gas and a few things at the grocery. Here’s a tip for your next trip. City Market is a large chain in Colorado. We’d been in the store in Grand Junction but hadn’t gotten their customer card. This time when we checked out the clerk asked for the card. When we said we were from NC she said if you have cards from there we can scan them and see if they work. Steve handed over his cards and three of our cards (Harris Teeter, Bi-lo and Bloom) all worked. I never would have thought of that. From now on when I travel I’ll ask them to scan my cards.

We set the alarm for the second day in a row so we’d be up and in the park by 8A.


OCTOBER 12, 2010

 Well, we almost made it by 8AM. We were in line by 8:15AM. We purchased tickets for the Cliff Palace tour at 9:30 AM and Balcony House at 11AM. After buying our lapel pin, we headed over to the meeting spot for the first tour.

Ranger Clyde

Cliff Palace #1

Cliff Palace #2

Cliff Palace #3

Cliff Palace #4


Our ranger was a Navajo named Clyde. He’s a natural at public speaking and has a way of connecting with people of all ages. If you visit Mesa Verde ask if he’s doing tours. We both enjoyed him tremendously. He was very knowledgeable and kept the tour moving but he took time to relate some of the spiritual aspects of the Ancestral Puebloans lifestyle and compare it to today’s Native Americans and us as well. Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde with 151 rooms. The cliff dwellings were used for a short time from 1100 – 1300 A.D. The Ancestral Puebloans had been in the area first as hunter-gatherers, then basket makers since 200 A.D. The reason they moved from the top of the mesas to the cliffs is unknown. Several theories are need for more crop space, to be closer to water sources or the need to protect themselves. The entire region was vacated during the last half of the 1300s due to severe drought and a cooling climate.

Puebloan Masonry

Looking Down at a Kiva

They were master masons and the construction of the dwellings shows this 800 years later. How many of our homes will be standing in 800 years?  Mesa Verde was never lost. Native people always knew it was here. In 1886 two cowboys rediscovered it. Besides being a National Park, Mesa Verde is also a World Heritage Site. Direct lineage from the cliff dwellers is known in the Zuni, Hopi and other tribes along

Beams Supported Second Story Construction

the southern southwest and Rio Grande. To do the tour you walk down 100 stone steps. To exit you climb a short ladder and go back up the steps.

Balcony House

We were late getting out of the Cliff Palace tour and just made it the 2 miles to the next tour meeting place. The Balcony House tour is listed as the most strenuous of the tours in the park.

Balcony House Windows

The "Front Door" to Balcony House

Chari Climbs On Up

It’s called Balcony House because it can only be accessed by a ladder … a 32’ ladder! As I stood at the bottom I silently hoped I could make it all right. I found the rungs were spaced very comfortably and climbed up without any difficulty. This time we had a female ranger who also was very good but Clyde had spoiled us. To exit Balcony House you must crawl through a 12’ tunnel. I fit just fine. Steve had to work a bit to fit in. (It was my shoulders that were tight… not my belly!   sm) Then up an 8’ ladder, climb out on a rock with “steps” cut in the stone for 10’, up about 20 steps cut in the hillside with a chain on one side and a flimsy wire fence on the other. I just didn’t look down. There was one more ladder and back on top. I felt very good that I’d made it without difficulty.

The "Back Door" to Balcony House

...And Up the Ladder, Then Over the Rocks

All of this exercise had given us an appetite. We stopped at the Spruce Tree cafeteria before going to the Museum. On recommendation of someone on our tour we tried a Navajo taco. It’s a taco salad on Fry bread. They had raved about fry bread they’d eaten at Monument Valley. Neither Steve or I were too crazy about it. We went to the museum and watched a 25 minute movie then spent another half hour looking at exhibits. This is one of the best museums I’ve seen at a National Park.

Back to the trailer to pick up Opal. Since we’d enjoyed other National Forests, we set off for a drive in the San Juan National Forest. There was a mountain we’d seen from a distance that still had snow on the North side. We followed a road that was headed toward the mountain. We stopped several times to take pictures. Finally we came to an overlook with a great view of the mountain. Until now we didn’t know what mountain this was. We learned this was Hesperus Mountain. The Din’e (that’s what the Navajo call themselves) believe that when the first man and woman came up from the underworld they brought with them 4 mountains. The mountains were placed at the 4 directions and Mt. Hesperus was placed at the North. We also found some beautiful RV sites for boondocking.

Hesperus Mountain

There’s a lot more to do in this area than we have time for on this trip. Again we say, “Next time …”

OCTOBER 13, 2010


A leisurely morning and time to pack up and head for Arboles, CO. On the way we passed through Durango, CO. This is an area I want to spend some time in on another trip. We stopped at a shopping center so Steve could buy some new jeans. He’s lost so much weight that his old jeans were really sagging. I’d kidded him about being my “Homeboy”. He didn’t know what that meant. When I explained he wasted no time in getting some new clothes.

On the road, we passed by a pole barn loaded with hay for winter feeding the horses.  Just making silly idle conversation, I said, “Gee… someone stole that guy’s walls.”  Without missing a beat, Chari replied, “I guess he’ll have to go to WalMart.”  (Wall Mart, get it?)

When I was researching this trip, I found Navajo State Park. Navajo Lake is on a tributary of the Colorado River. It is called Colorado’s answer to Lake Powell. The lake crosses the border with New Mexico. Only 25% of the lake is in Colorado and 75% is in New Mexico. The drive there was only 1.5 hours. The afternoon was sunny and in the high 60’s. We took off for the National Forest to collect firewood for a campfire. Opal got some run time as well. We had to have the kayaks inspected for zebra mussels and get a launch permit. Apparently, Lake Powell has just been given a “clean” lake rating after being clear of infestation for three years. That explains why they were so thorough on the inspections.

The temperature really dropped as the sun set. We were sitting outside with the campfire. I had put on my fleece pants and jacket. Steve was just wearing a flannel shirt. I was a bit chilly but didn’t want to be the one to say “Let’s go in.” Steve finally said “I’m freezing.” I agreed.


OCTOBER 14, 2010

No alarm today. A very leisurely morning. Our schedule has been packed for the last 5 weeks. It was time for a day just to unwind. I have had a special coffee cup for about 10 years. I remember years ago when my sister-in-law Ann was looking for the Ultimate Picnic Basket. This was the Ultimate Coffee Cup. This morning as Steve was hanging it back on the hook disaster struck. The handle separated from the cup. He made a fantastic save. If the handle was going to separate, it’s a good thing it wasn’t full of hot coffee. So now in our remaining time we’ll add the search for a replacement Ultimate Coffee Cup. The criteria are: must have a thumb rest, must be able to slide my whole hand in the handle and grasp the cup and it must have a thin lip that allows you to sip not gulp.

It was in the low 40s and windy this morning. We’d planned to kayak but decided that this afternoon would be better. We drove down to the New Mexico side of the lake and got some information on that Navajo Lake State Park. The park on the Colorado side is very nice. Our full hookup site is level and has a shade roof over the picnic table. Being mid week and off season there are only 5 RVs here and 2 of them belong to the boat inspectors who are here for the season. On the way back from NM we took a backroad trying to go to a place called Simon Canyon Natural Area. We never did get there. The road went through gas and oil drilling areas. To be honest, it was rather dull countryside. We didn’t see anything green until we were back in Colorado.

By then it was 1PM and the temperature was in the high 60’s. We put the kayaks in at the marina and paddled for about 2 hours. We saw several western Grebes on the lake. We tried to quietly paddle close to take a pic. Every time I’d get within 60‘ they’d dive and swim away.  I always feel so relaxed after I paddle. This is a beautiful lake in the off season. We only saw one other boat. Steve’s still trying to come up with a good way to get his kayak on snuggly and be able to open the rear door fully. We spent some time modifying that after the paddle. We took a walk in a wildlife viewing area before dinner. We didn’t see anything. I think they were hiding behind the trees just waiting for us to leave.

On to Antonito, CO tomorrow where we’ll be for four nights.

OCTOBER 15, 2010

This won’t be a long entry, today was basically a traveling day, and probably for the first time on the entire trip, we took nary a photo.  Not that we didn’t have lot’s of things to shoot, but we were pulling the trailer, and just decided to enjoy the views as we went along.

 We left the Navajo Lake area late in the morning, after having a leisurely breakfast.  We had a couple of hours to drive, so there wasn’t any particular hurry to leave.  We headed east on US160, then hit US 84, which took us down into New Mexico, then took NM 17, which turned into CO 17 to Fox Creek, Colorado, and the Conejos River Campground.  The entire drive was a drive we’d have taken just to enjoy the views, even if we weren’t heading from point “A” to point “B”.  First, we were driving through the foothills of the taller mountains that we hit later.  In the lowlands, in Colorado, lowlands means in the 5000 to 6000 foot range, there were a lot of Gambrel Oaks.  These are relatively short oaks, maybe fifteen to twenty feet tall tops… most were shorter.  The Oaks in the east generally turn a kind of maroon color in the fall, and a few of these did, but most were kind of halfway between green and yellow.  Also in the lowlands, were a lot of cottonwoods, and these also have a yellow color.  Neither of them is as bright a yellow as the aspens, but with the sun shining on them, the drive was very enjoyable.  We could see some higher peaks in the distance, and hoped we’d be driving through them, because the mountains were covered with aspens.

We stopped at Pagosa Springs, while still in Colorado, for some groceries.  While Chari was in the store, I waited in the car with Opal, and without running the engine, left the ignition key in the “on” position, to check some things out on the GPS.  A half hour or so later, Chari came out, and when I turned the key, nothing happened.  That’s when it occurred to me that the trailer was hooked up.  When towing, the trailer battery gets charged from the car, and without the engine running, it was draining the car battery.


Lesson learned.


Chari wanted to call AAA, but I had jumpers handy, and waved down a couple of guys in a pick-up who were happy to give us a jump.


Anyway, shortly after that, we turned onto US 84 which took us into New Mexico, then at  Chama, we picked up NM 17.  That’s when the ride really got beautiful.  We climbed up and up, eventually hitting 10,300 feet.  We were driving through forests of pine and spruce, and into groves of aspens that were at their absolute peak of autumn gold.  The green of the pines, the blue of the spruce, and the gold and sometimes orange of the aspens was breathtaking.  Even Opal had her head out the window taking in the view!


And we never stopped or even slowed down to take a picture.


We made it to Fox Creek, back in Colorado, by mid-afternoon, and pulled into Conejos River Campground, which is a Good Sam approved trailer park.  The owners are very friendly, and when we mentioned that we planned to do our laundry after supper, they told us they’d leave the door unlocked for us… they usually lock up at 6:30.


The RV park borders Rio Grande National Forest, and about a hundred feet from the trailer, we can go through a gate to get into it, which is great, because we can let Opal off-leash there.  She loves it.  And just a short walk down the hill is the Conejos River, supposedly one of the better trout fishing streams in Colorado, and very scenic.


Actually, one of the reasons we didn’t stop for pictures on the drive (besides the fact that stopping on mountain roads whilst pulling a trailer isn’t the best of ideas) was because we’ll be in this area for three days.  Tomorrow, we’re planning a trip on the Cumbres – Toltec Scenic Railroad, which will take us back over the mountains we crossed to get here.  We’ll have lot’s of opportunity to take pictures from the train.  While here, we’re also planning on going to Great Sand Dunes National Park, about an hour and a half drive from here.  And the third day is up for grabs.  We may just get in the car and go back into the mountains and find some back roads to drive.  So there will be lots of photos to come.


We put some sweet potatoes in the MW to bake, and a ham steak on the grill for supper, then hit the sack early.  Big day tomorrow.


OCTOBER 16, 2010

When I was planning the trip, I went through all of my folders for ideas of what to do. I had cut out an article on the Cumbres-Toltec Railroad several years ago. This is the highest and longest narrow gauge scenic railroad in the USA. It runs from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM which is 64 miles. When we called for reservations we found out that we could just do a round trip halfway to Osier, CO because of a bridge being out from a forest fire. This would be a 6-7 hour ride and fine with us. This was the last weekend the train was running for this season. It runs from mid-May to mid-October. The train leaves at 10AM. We arrived at 9:35 which gave us time to pose for some photos by the train. It is a Registered National Historic site and a National Civil Engineering Landmark. If there is a next time, we’ll do the route coming from Chama, NM.

Cumbres-Toltec Steam Engine

She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain...

A bit of history on this line. The railroad as it exists today is a remnant of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Originally the railroad was built to service the mining operations in southern Colorado. This meant laying track through the Toltec Gorge at 10,015 feet. Later a passenger service was added. Economic changes and the Great Depression led to a slow decline in use of the railroad. Most of the narrow gauge railroads were abandoned by the 1950’s. This line continued to serve the gas and oil fields into the 1960’s. The Rio Grande wanted to abandon the line in 1967. Fortunately a joint venture between Colorado and New Mexico created the scenic railway. It began service in 1970.

Along the Toltec Gorge

This year marks the 40th anniversary.

Our Railroad Car

We were in car 13 seats 3&4. There are four coach cars, a concession car, an open view car and two upgraded view cars and caboose. The engine is a coal fired steam engine. We found out that the cars are replicas that were built in the 1980s. The route we took went across the CO/MN line 10 times.

 At Osier which is a preserved station we were served lunch as part of the ticket price. Steve chose a turkey dinner and I had meatloaf. Both were very tasty and ample portions. The mountainous countryside and the aspens as Steve described yesterday were beautiful. We were lucky this year. They are having an Indian Summer. Normally by this time, the aspens have lost their leaves and the first snow has fallen.

As I’ve mentioned before, a trip is wonderful on its own but the people you meet make it even better. Today was no exception. The couple seated in front of us was from Mt. Airy, NC. They were also touring some of the National Parks and we exchanged information. They were going on to Santa Fe and Albequerque. I was able to tell them about the walking tour in Santa Fe and Sandia Peak Tramway. The lady behind us was with her seven year old daughter. She found out her camera battery was dead. We offered to take their picture and send them any of our photos that turn out well. She’s a professor of political science at Alamossa Junior College. She has just applied for a Fullbright scholarship to do some study in Greece.

Then while on the open car on the return trip we had a conversation with a man from Australia who was touring in an RV with two of his friends for a month. We started talking about photography and he shared some photos with us of a trip he took to northern Australia last year. Here’s your trivia for today: Did you know that Australia has more wild camels than any of the middle eastern countries? They were brought to Australia years ago by Afghan merchants and turned loose or escaped. He had some pictures of them.

We got back to the trailer about 5PM. Opal was very happy to see us. We all went for a long walk in the woods. She spotted a herd of mule deer but didn’t chase them. Even though we weren’t very active today, I feel ready to turn in.

OCTOBER 17, 2010

Before I begin relating the events of today I want to say that this is the second anniversary of the day Steve and I met again after 40 years. The day that changed both of our lives. We’d talked about going out to dinner but since we returned to the trailer at 8:30 PM, we just had leftovers warmed in the microwave. I guess you call that being flexible! We’re postponing our celebration dinner until we’re in Carlsbad.

OK, now on to today’s events. The newest National Park is Great Sand Dunes NP and Preserve just north of Alamosa, CO. That is 1.5 hours from where we are staying. It had been a National Monument previously. We learned that a National Monument can be established by Presidential Decree but a National Park is created by an act of Congress. The term Preserve means that it was formerly under another agency (in this case the Forest Service) and that hunting and other similar activities are allowed. Sometimes this is done (for example in Alaska) because native people have used the area for food for centuries. Eventually the hunting will be phased out here as there are mountain lions and bears to keep the deer population controlled.

Cottonwoods and Sand Dunes

The Visitors Center has a good orientation movie and exhibits. Dogs are allowed in the park on leash. Opal loves to play in sand and had a great time. The sand dunes cover 30 miles and reach as high as 750 feet. There is an area that is open to climbing, sledding, snowboarding and in Spring when snow melt lakes form even swimming well more like wading). Other areas of the park include wetlands, alpine highlands and grasslands. There are many hiking trails. The only road to the more distant dunes is drivable by 2 wheel vehicles for 1 mile to a place called Point of No Return. After that only 4 wheel vehicles with low gear are recommended. After that point the sand gets very deep. We drove to the Point and had lunch. Then we walked down the road to see if our car could handle it. Steve very quickly said no way. We walked about 2/3 of a mile and took photos of pristine dunes without human footprints. Then we sat on a hill and enjoyed the solitude for about an hour. We were waiting for the sun to set. It was getting chilly so we walked back to the car. We found a place to wait for sunset. The clouds were quite heavy so the sunset was disappointing. We did see several mule deer coming out to eat at dusk. There is a lot of wildlife in the area and I think it’s a place we could return to many times and see different things each time.

Fall Color at Sand Dunes NP

And More Color

One more day in this area. We plan on a scenic drive tomorrow down into northern New Mexico.

OCTOBER 18, 2010

Today’s entry will be split between this section and New Mexico. We set out on a scenic drive beginning in Antonito, CO where we stopped to see the oldest church in Colorado. The original church was a frame structure built in the early 1800s. The existing building is 100 years old. The front door was added to my collection of old doors and windows. Heading eastward, we drove through Manassa, CO whose claim to fame is as the birthplace of Jack Dempsey. Steve tells me he was called the Manassa Mauler. Until now he didn’t know why. The Jack Dempsey museum was closed. We took photos of the statue.

Continued on the New Mexico entry.


About vagabondpress

Recently retired and "hitting the road". Hobbies include travel, nature photography, kayaking, hiking, good food and good friends.
This entry was posted in Colorado, History, photography, Travel USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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