Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain National Parks - Our Tour de Colorado
“Rules are rules”. On our quest to visit all 59 National Parks, one of our rules is that we must visit and enjoy the Parks together. Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde and the Great Sand Dunes are National Parks we each explored individually long ago; Tom is a Denver native and I was a Colorado resident for nine years. Now we get to explore them together and visit family and longtime friends along the way.
It’s Memorial Day weekend. Tom’s family in Denver has plans, so we grab the white Subaru Outback from his Mom’s garage (very handy), and begin our 915 mile, counter clockwise loop around Southwest Colorado.
Day One and Two - Crested Butte
225 miles southeast via highway 285 over Monarch pass in pounding hail and rain gets us to my friend, Melanie’s, lovely home in Crested Butte. A former mining town (incorporated in 1880) gone ski area, Crested Butte is at the “road’s end” (highway 135) in a peaceful valley surrounded by tall rugged peaks still covered with snow. A quaint Victorian historical district completes this idyllic setting.
We awake to the clear blue Colorado sky and bright sunshine confirming that a hike is on our agenda today. Since snow still blankets anything high, we meander along the Slate River on a nice group of paths and dirt roads (Nordic Trails in the winter) for about five miles among the abundant glacier lilies, marsh marigolds and candy tuffs. An entertaining BBQ with Melanie’s friend, Mike, completes our long overdue visit.
Impenetrable is a word used over and over when talking about the Black Canyon … and for good reason. Erosion created a very dark nearly 3,000 foot sheer rock Canyon. In some spots it’s deeper than it is wide and sunlight rarely illuminates the Canyon floor.
The Park, established in 1999, consists largely of scenic overlooks, accessed by car, NOT particularly enjoyable for someone with a fear of heights (aka me). Hiking down the Canyon is not suggested for most. However, we find a pleasant couple mile hike just south of the visitor center. We walk down through service berry bushes and scrub oak just below the rim to a nice viewpoint. The loop continues back up through a grove of Douglas Fir and Aspen.
A side trip in the Park via East Portal road, takes us to the intake portal of an engineering masterpiece – largely unknown - the 6 mile Gunnison Tunnel, built in 1905, which still continues to divert water to irrigate the Uncomphagre Valley today.
Day Four and Five – Mesa Verde National Park
The exquisite 67 mile drive south via highways 550, 62 and 145 from Montrose to Telluride is one of the best ever with a lush green valley scooping up toward incredibly jagged white peaks which penetrate the clear blue sky! It’s immediately apparent that the “rich and famous” have moved into the lovely but narrow Telluride Valley. Following a brief town tour and delightful middle eastern food from the Caravan food truck, we drive another 148 miles south to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park.
I am excited as we near the Park, established in 1906, having had a “sneak peak” years ago. After checking into the Fair View Lodge, the only hotel in the Park (I chose the re-modeled Kiva room), a short drive gets us to the Chapin Mesa (open all year) where the informative Chapin Mesa Museum displays artifacts (pottery, baskets etc) from the dwellings. We learn that Anasazi is no longer what these people are called. They were neither Navajo nor enemies which the word implies. I think that the new name, Ancestral Puebloans, is too cumbersome! The Ancestral Puebloans (see what I mean) were nomads until about 300 AD, when they became farmers on the mesas. They grew corn (I had no idea it was hybridized in America) irrigated by their sophisticated dams and reservoirs. Above ground pueblos were their homes complete with round, below ground Kivas, thought to be ceremonial rooms.
Around 1,100 AD the civilization moved off the mesas into the open caves (created by oceans long ago in the soft sandstone) where they built the spectacular cliff dwellings for an unknown reason – probably for water (most had springs in the back of the caves). Vessels (baskets, coiled pottery, and then smooth pottery) played a big part in their evolution allowing them to store corn and water. Then, again, for no obvious reason (probably water since there was no sign of hostilities), the civilization moved out around 1300AD. The whole story is so intriguing.
The Cliff Palace is our first tour (tours being the only way to see the bigger dwellings now). The walk down is relatively steep but on a paved path versus the ladders and footholds the Ancestral Puebloans used to enter and exit. Walking among the ancient rooms, seeing the soot left behind, and even seeing a baby’s footprint, they really come to life in our imagination. The Cliff Palace, the iconic dwelling in the Park, housed about 100 people. And, for me, exiting via ladder was easier than it looked.
Toward sunset, we drive the “Cliff Palace Loop”, stopping at each overlook to see the spectacular cliff dwellings across the canyon. It is surreal. Everyone is gone, it’s totally quiet and the setting sun creates magnificent light on the adobe ruins. Once back at the Lodge we enjoy the final daylight and a wonderful meal at the Metate Room Restaurant. There is just something so special about staying in the Parks; you can totally immerse yourself into the environment.
We get to the 10am opening of the road out to Wetherill Mesa (only open in summer) for the Long House tour, the largest dwelling. After another informative tour, we ride the tram around the loop (no cars allowed) and then head to Step House, on a self-guided exploration of a dwelling built in two different centuries. Afterward, we drive back to Chapin Mesa for another self-guided tour of Spruce Tree house, the most well preserved of the dwellings.
By the end of day five we feel fully satisfied and inspired by the Ancestrol Puebloans, their accomplishments and lifestyle. Gazing out on the magnificent Mesas from our deck still imagining what life was like in 1,200 AD is a perfect ending to our 25th Park visit – a favorite.
Day Six – Great Sand Dunes National Park
We begin the 208 mile drive east to the Great Sand Dunes National Park – established in 2000. This Park is about the beach – surprising in Colorado! While there are a variety of landscapes here, the focus is on the two streams which surround and sustain the Dunes, the tallest in North America. High water stream flows in the spring create waves (think man made water park), that kids can ride, caused by the sand damming and then giving way. Beach toys and chairs abound. The vast Dunes cover over 30, seemingly endless, square miles.
A short hike up and into the dunes gives us a big workout - it’s tough going. Sand surfing, which is kind of like snowboarding in socks, is fun to see. The truth is we are now close to 3,600 miles in a car this month and we are just “done”. We get our 26th stamp, call it good, and high tail it back to Denver - 238 miles north via highway 87.
Day Seven & Eight - Denver
Kittens are everywhere. Our longtime friend, Jim, enjoys his volunteer occupation of fostering cats through the Dumb Friends League. I requested kittens for our visit – very cute and fun but not with diarrhea!
A lovely day with Tom’s Mom, is followed by another fantastic meal with the entire Robinson gang, Tom’s sister’s family. It’s lots of fun to meet William and Graham, the two newborns, and play with Bradley, now a little boy. The next generation is being brought to us by Tom’s two wonderful nieces and their husbands.
On our last day, the Subaru goes back in the garage as usual, and we fly home to Seattle. The Parks are such special places which continually intrigue us, especially the Anasazis (oops, no, the Ancestral Puebloens) on this trip. Equally as satisfying, is time spent with family and friends on our travels; thank you all for your hospitality!
If you go:
Rocky Mountain Park is the fourth National Park in Colorado, established in 1915. If not hiking or backpacking, Trail Ridge Road is a great way to see the majesty of the Park and its spectacular peaks and wildlife. We enjoyed this drive with Tom’s Mom and Sister a couple of years ago and had a wonderful lunch at the Historic Grand Lake Lodge (always a favorite of mine) overlooking Grand Lake prior to entering the Park. (It was so disappointing to see the beetle kill which has destroying most of the wonderful pine trees surrounding the Lake). Trail Ridge road is 48 miles long, 11 of which are at 11,500 feet or more; usually it opens in June and closes in October.
Check out other National Park visits on our way to reach our goal (now 61) below:
We like to give back to the National Parks through the National Park Foundation.