An Off-Season Visit to Mesa Verde National Park

Even an off-season visit to this historic place is worth it.

The day’s agenda had one item: Mesa Verde National Park. We had no idea where we were sleeping that night, although we did know it would be someplace with plumbing. We were getting Stinky. Capital S. We smelled like hiking and campfire and multiple hours inside an enclosed vehicle.

This trip sounds enticing, doesn’t it? You’re ready to take off a month and just drive, aren’t you?

By now I was getting comfortable with the whole concept of seeing where the road took us and not fretting when we didn’t have a plan. (It only took me three weeks.) In two days we had to be in Wichita, Kansas, but in the meantime we just drove. A lot.

From the time we left Ken’s Lake on Tuesday until we reached the Wichita Marriott Thursday evening we spent nineteen-plus hours in the car. But you know what? We were so darn happy it was almost nauseating.

The scenery changed every few miles, so I was taking a lot of video, and the conversations that accompanied the visuals were just stupid giddy. We drove by a closed tourist attraction in Cortez in southwestern Colorado.

“Cowboy Town!” we chorused.

“It’s for sale,” I observed.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t need a cowboy town. Do you?”

“No. I travel with my own cowboy.”



“That would be you,” I explained.

“Uh huh. I got that.”

Man, we were in the groove. We were just flowing along, smiling and laughing, throwing puns out like there was an award for the most groan-worthy. Driving through a tunnel prompted “Oh no! We’ve got tunnel vision!” “We’re just tunneling through.” “I see light at the end of the tunnel,” etc. etc.

I didn’t say they were good puns. Actually, they were really obvious and weren’t puns at all, more like statements about what was actually happening.

We were nearing home and we’d survived more than three and a half weeks of constant togetherness and nearly constant movement, of working a trade show, of family time, of uncertainty, and of trying to keep our livelihoods afloat while we were away on this epic adventure. There was this sense of accomplishment already, even though we still had another fourteen hundred miles to go.

I mean, we hadn’t killed each other.

(New anniversary card idea: Dear Love, I’m so glad I didn’t kill you on our road trip.)

A few miles after Cortez we turned onto Mesa Top Ruins Road. It was aptly named, ascending on curves and the occasional switchback until reaching the rim.

This drive was tame; it certainly wasn’t like Burr Trail, and the drop-offs were only on one side of the road. There were even guardrails and occasional pull-outs, which came in handy a couple of times. The speed limit was 35, and we were going to drive 35; we had no problem letting those who didn’t value their lives whip around us.

Before arriving at the park we pulled off at Geologic Overlook. On the way up, we passed a young boy coming down. “Be careful when you get all the way up there,” he said, practically doing a backbend as he stretched his arm as far as it would go to point up the trail behind him. “It’s hiiiiigher!”

The gents we saw in Capitol Reef were fun. This kid was like chocolate-covered candy-coated sprinkles. Adorable.

We followed the path and he was right – it was definitely higher. The air was crisp, as it should be at 8,571 feet above sea level. There was snow scattered about, the trees were bare, and the view was panoramic. We didn’t dally, though. I needed to get to Mesa Verde.

Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde
Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde
Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde
Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde
Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde
Geologic Overlook at Mesa Verde

These cliff dwellings were something I’d wanted to see in person since I was a teenager. Native Americans, their many cultures and their complex history, fascinated me. I don’t know why. It wasn’t something I was taught in school. In mid-’70s to late -’80s Indiana we didn’t learn much about the people who were here before the Europeans.

I think my interest stemmed from a novel my grandma gave me, based on the life of a girl who had been kidnapped by Comanches. I read it over and over until the corners of the cover were ragged and the spine was cracked with rows of thin white lines.

For some reason it made an impression on me; I don’t know if it was particularly well written or if it was because my grandma had given the book to me, or if I found romance in the protagonist’s story. It was alien to my midwestern life, our single-family home with loving parents and bratty younger brother (I was a teenage girl; all younger brothers are brats when you’re a teenage girl), my band practice and Latin club and sleepovers.

In those pages was a young girl ripped from everything familiar, yet she made the new life her own. She grew up with a strange people in a strange land, married the chief, and had three children. Maybe I wondered how I’d fare, if I’d survive half as well.

This was a book I hadn’t really thought of in decades. The title was “Ride the Wind” and the girl it was based on was Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother.

Yep. Quanah Parker. The same Comanche chief who surrendered at Palo Duro Canyon and moved back to what is now the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which has a lake named after him and a campground on its shores called Doris.

Quanah had no connection, that I know of, to the Ancestral Pueblo People of Mesa Verde, but reading the fictional account of his mother’s story and the people who became her family impacted me to the point that I wanted to learn more about the indigenous peoples of America, which is how we ended up in Mesa Verde in the offseason when most of the National Park was closed.

Mesa Verde is the only National Park dedicated to preserving something built by humans; the rest focus on protecting the natural environment. This park is unique because the culture that inhabited this area did so for seven hundred years, from around 550 to the late 1270s. There are over 5,000 archaeological sites in its 80 square miles, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. What’s also noteworthy is that those cliff dwellings weren’t even built until the late 1190s. They were occupied for less than a hundred years before the people who built them headed south to what is now Arizona and New Mexico.

Why did they build their homes in caves on the side of a mountain? Why did they leave? No one knows.

Related: UNESCO World Heritage Sites USA

When we arrived, Spruce Tree House, which was a short hike from Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and normally open, was closed due to falling rocks. We could look from afar, and like the bison in Wichita Mountains, I settled for capturing its beauty with my zoom lens.

Closed sign at Mesa Verde National Park
Closed sign at Mesa Verde National Park
Spruce Tree House in the distance at Mesa Verde
Spruce Tree House in the distance at Mesa Verde
Cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde
Cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House
Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House

I was disappointed, yes, and I knew ahead of time that we wouldn’t be able to see much and that it would be better to come back in warmer weather when more of the park would be open, but we were so close I couldn’t just drive by. I needed to stop, or that teenage girl, who wanted to know more about her country and what was not in her history books, would never forgive me.

There were many places I thought “I’d like to go back,” but I knew deep down that was unlikely. Mesa Verde National Park was a place I’d visit again. And I will. Oh yes, I will.

The above was an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1.

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park Fees:

Park Entrance Fee for Private Vehicles

January 2 – April 30, 2019, November 1 – December 31, 2019: $15.00

May 1 – October 31, 2019: $25.00

Park Entrance Fee for Motorcycles

January 2 – April 30, 2019, November 1 – December 31, 2019: $10.00

May 1 – October 31, 2019: $20.00

Park Entrance Fee for Each Bicyclist and Individual on Non-Commercial Buses

January 2 – April 30, 2019, November 1 – December 31, 2019: $7.00 per person

May 1 – October 31, 2019: $12.00 per person

The fee is good for entrance to Mesa Verde National Park for up to 7 days.

As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.

Where is Mesa Verde National Park?

Mesa Verde National Park is located in southern Colorado.

Where to stay near Mesa Verde National Park?

Cortez, Colorado, is about 11 miles from the entrance to the park. You can browse deals below:

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

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