Saturday, June 12, 2010

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK

1. At about 150 miles away, we reached Page at about 6.30 pm and as it was getting late checked into Holiday Inn at US$125 a night. The next day, 9 June, Day 23, on way to Mesa Verde National Park, we decided to make a brief stop at Carl Hayden Visitor Centre to see Glen Canyon Dam and lunch at Lake Powell.

2. Behind the Glen Canyon Dam, water of Colorado River and its tributaries are backed up 185 miles to form the very scenic Lake Powell. Completed in 1966, the dam fulfills its goal of water storage and power generation, as well as providing recreation opportunities. With the advice of the Duty Ranger, we had lunch in Rainbow Room of Lake Powell Resort and Marina, with an excellent view of Lake Powell. It's interesting how it was possible to allow all the recreational activities in the water (saw water skiing and jet boating while we were lunching) while maintaining the quality of the water.

3. After lunch, we continued our journey to Cortez, near Mesa Verde National Park, first along Highway 89A, then Highway 160. We planned to stay the night at Cortez before visiting Mesa Verde the next day. Along the way, we planned to make a fun stop at the Four Corners National Monument. Here, if you could arch into a push-up position, you could be in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, all at the same time. To reach the point, we have to get in and out of New Mexico momentarily. Unfortunately, the monument was closed for renovation. We decided to follow the crowd and go in anyway. It was a work site and work was on-going. We didn't miss much.

4. It was more than 200 miles from Page and we reached Cortez at about 5.30 pm and booked into Ute Mtn Motel. We had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and had an early night.

5. Next morning (10 June, Day 24), before leaving Cortez for Mesa Verde, we had breakfast at a charming little shop which served great coffee called Let It Grow. I can't really say what kind of business the shop is as it sells many things - flowers and plants, gardening tools, toys, old books, gifts, and etc. I suppose the proprietor may have intended the merchandises to revolve around the theme of "growing". What differentiated the shop was its friendly intimate atmosphere, its coziness and its bright colourful flowers. We enjoyed the relaxing breakfast in a nice environment.

5. Mesa Verde National Park, 23 miles from Cortez, about 0.5 hr drive, in SW Colorado, was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), both atop the mesas and in the cliff dwellings below. The park includes over 4 500 archeological sites, of which 600 are cliff dwellings. They were built by the APs between 800 to 1400 years ago (around the time of Tang/Sung Dynasty in China and Angkor Wat of Cambodia). For reason which is still unclear, they abandoned the dwellings in late 1200s. Mesa Verde was only discovered by cowboys some 600 years later.

6. Unlike other parks, Mesa Verde's visitor centre, Far View Visitor Centre, is located deep inside the park, 15 miles from the park entrance. It is open only from mid-May to mid-Oct. It was teeming with visitors when we got there and we joined the line to book an organised tour. In Mesa Verde, there are 3 key attractions ( Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House) that could only be accessed by joining paid organised tours. In order to leave time to see other sites, we decided to join the tour to the Cliff Palace only, at a very reasonable rate of US$3 each.


7. Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It was discovered by 2 cowboys in 1888. It is located 7-8 miles further inside the park and when we reached there many visitors were already gathered at the overlook, all ready to begin the tour at 1 pm. Two restless kids were climbing up and down trees while waiting for the ranger to arrive. The ranger leading our tour was a very jovial Tom Wolf - a seasonal ranger here, he was very engaging, who interspersed jokes with information about the history of the APs and the Cliff Palace and got us all regularly laughing, not bad for a heavy subject like history.

8. To get to Cliff Palace, it was down a ladder and a steep flight of steps, and occasionally squeezing between vertical rocks before reaching the dwelling. Some may have difficulty passing through. According to Tom, it was unclear why the APs moved from staying up in the mesas (plateaus) to the cliff dwelling but he suspected that it was for defence against their enemies. I am inclined to agree with him. The attacking soldiers have to be trim and fit. As the APs left no written records and many things had perished since then, it was difficult to establish what actually happened.

9. However, it was clear that over hundreds of years, the APs had become more skillful and sophisticated, moving from staying in small pithouses to 3-4 storeys cliff dwellings, from nomadic life to settled living, and from small groups to organised community. As the largest of the cliff dwelling, the Cliff Palace has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. One source indicated that this dwelling supported a community of 200-300 people. Kivas are circular sunken community space which could seat 10-12 people around the circumference, probably for spiritual purposes. Each cliff dwelling would have its water source; in the case of Cliff Palace from the rock wall at the back of the dwelling. Tom said that this had since been diverted. Building materials were sandstone, mortar and wooden beams.

10. Tom controlled the tour group tightly, moving it along at a good pace to make way for the group behind. It was a busy day. Here, barriers prevented us from loitering into any of the room or kiva. End of the tour involved climbing a steep flight of steps back to the surface. It was over in about an hour.

11. After a quick lunch at Spruce Tree Terrace, we hiked to see Spruce Tree House, third largest of the cliff dwellings but considered the best preserved. About 90% of the site is original, as it was discovered in 1888. Here we could take our time, as its a self guiding tour attraction. Built between 1200 and 1276, the dwelling contains 114 rooms and 8 kivas into a natural overhang measuring 216 ft at its greatest width and 89 ft at its greatest depth. It is thought to house about 100 people. One of the kivas had been restored to allow visitors to descend into it and have a closer look. Its 6 ft down the ladder.

12. After Spruce Tree House, it was a steep hike up to the surface to Chapin Mesa Museum. A must visit to the park, the museum contains various artifacts about the life of the APs. Light condition was not good enough for my camera.

13. Before our departure, we decided to do the 6 miles Mesa Top Loop in our car. Highlights were:

(1) Square Tower House Overlook. Here, the APs had progressed to build structure 4 storey high.

(2) Sun Point Overlook. This location gives a great view of a number of cliff dwellings, communities organised in a larger community, making best use of the geographic features. Steps carved out of the rock surface could be seen in the picture on the right that allowed APs to move from one cliff dwelling up and down to another.

14. What we saw at Mesa Verde National Park was a tiny bit of life in America before Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered it in the 15th Century. Mesa Verde tells us that they were fairly advanced societies, quite contrary to the nomadic half naked Indians superficially depicted in cowboy films.

15. Leaving Mesa Verde National Park, we headed for Durango, about an hr drive away, to stay the night. From there, we would head for the scenic Million Dollar Highway the next day on our way North to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We reached there before dark and booked ourselves into Siesta Motel for US$ 93 a night.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK - NORTH RIM

1. After leaving the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway (Highway 9) at about 8.30 am (8 June, Day 22), we headed for Kanab, Fredonia and Jason Lake before arriving at North Rim of Grand Canyon. Fredonia was a more developed town with more tourist accommodation but was puzzlingly quiet when we reached there. We stopped at a corner cafe along the town's main street for a breakfast break. A check at a timber lodge at Jason Lake revealed that rooms were still available but we decided to see if we could book into the 1928 Grand Canyon Lodge (rebuilt in 1937 after a fire) at North Rim instead even though we were aware that our chance was not high.

2. When we arrived at the car park of the North Rim Visitor Centre and Grand Canyon Lodge in late morning it was clear that we were already getting into the peak summer season. The car park was packed. Also, bus loads of tourists were disembarking. Instantly, we knew our chance of staying at the Lodge was dismally small. While I gathered map and brochures from the Visitor Centre, Li Hoon checked the Lodge. The staff at the Lodge reception desk told us to check again at 3 pm to see if there was vacancy. We agreed that we would check again but we also agreed that our chance was more like 0.0001%. The views from the Sun Room of the Lodge and the nearby lookout points were just awesome.

3. The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided gorge carved by the Colorado River in the state of Arizona. It is 277 miles long, ranges in width from 4 to 18 miles and attains a depth of over a mile (6000 feet). The uplift of the Colorado Plateau some 65 mil years ago was uneven, causing the North Rim to be about 1000 ft higher than the South Rim. As a result, the North Rim is cooler than the South Rim and North Rim is closed mid-Oct to mid-May while South Rim is open all year. Although the North Rim and South is just 10 miles apart as the raven flies, it is 215 miles by road.

4. As we had catered one day for Grand Canyon (vowing that we would be back some day), we decided to visit the North Rim only. Our target was to be back in Madison by 18 June. From Zion, it was a shorter distance to North Rim. Also, we were told by a fellow traveler couple that the views from the North were more spectacular.

5. Our first stop at the North Rim was Point Imperial (8803 ft), after traveling N and then E from the Visitor Centre. We had lunch at the picnic area before enjoying the visiting the various lookout points.


3. Traveling along the Rim, our next stop was Roosevelt Point.

4. At the end of this Rim road we came to Cape Royal and Angels Window, hiking a trail of 0.6 mil on a relatively flat paved trail that provided great views of the canyon, Angels Window, and the Colorado River. It was from here that we could see the Colorado River (only a very small section was visible); the only point on the North Rim where this is possible. Here we were, at the Cape Royal Overlook. Standing up there, with steep cliffs falling on all sides was quite an experience. It was scary, especially when the wind picked up speed. The ledge is actually above the Angels Window.

5. Hiking the Cliff Springs Trail was next, after Cape Royal. It took a couple of turnarounds for us to locate the trailhead of the Cliff Springs. The signage board was exceptionally small. It's a 1 mile trail, that would about 1 hr to complete. The path took us down a forested ravine, along a narrow path next to an almost vertical wall before we arrived at large overhang. The spring was on the far side of the overhang, rather small and inconspicuous. Here, it was getting there that was exciting, not the objective itself. Beside the spring was this distinctive tall petrified tree.

video

Along the way, we passed this ancient Indian granary.

6. We were happy that we did this Cliff Springs Trail. It was an interesting hike. It was also good exercise.

7. As we marveled at the scenery from the various vantage points, I wondered if we could hike from one rim to the other. Its 10 miles across but 6000 ft down and up. I understand such a hike is available - 3 days, 2 nights, to cross the canyon. It sounded frightening (esp at my age) but tempting. Who knows, maybe next time, to be able to look up the canyon walls from the floor and Colorado River. After seeing Zion, I could try to visualize the magnificent sight.

8. It was close to 4 pm when we returned to Grand Canyon Lodge. As expected, it was full. We expected it so we were not disappointed. We had coffee at the nearby Cafe and decided to press ahead to Page, near Lake Powell, to stay the night before proceeding to Mesa Verde National Park the next day. We expected to reach Page before 7 pm.