25 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Mesa Verde

We set off from Telluride rather late, after a disappointing breakfast burrito in one of the trendy coffee shops along Colorado Avenue. The sun was shining on the wet road, but clouds lingered across the sky. The weather forecast was for worsening weather, so we decided not to give the 550 road through Ouray and Silverton a go, as it goes across a pass at 11,018 ft (3,358 m). Instead we continued south on the 145, which by all accounts is a safer road, although obviously not as spectacular. The weather was similar to the previous day - patches of blue sky and sun, but mainly dreary clouds clinging to the tops of the snowy peaks. It was the kind of irritating conditions where the we'd turn a bend to see a striking peak glowing in the sunshine, pull over, get the camera out, only for the sun to disappear behind a cloud, leaving the peak looking grey and dull.

Occasionally, though, the sun would stay out for more than five seconds and it was momentarily glorious.

As we headed further south the peaks and hills began to recede. We drove along a picturesque river valley towards Dolores. To the south-west of us was a huge storm system, but we turned east at Cortez to head up to Mesa Verde National Park. We planned to visit both Mesa Verde and get to the Bisti wilderness in New Mexico in time for sunset, but we hadn't left Telluride early enough and the cliff-side houses in Mesa Verde were deep inside the park; it was going to be rushed. As we approached Mesa Verde there were some large mesas to the south of the road, but I wasn't sure if they were part of the park, as there were no signs mentioning the park on the road from Cortez. The first sign was a mile away from the turn-off, finally confirming that the park entrance was where I thought it was.

Once inside the park the road took us up a series of winding switchbacks, gaining altitude quickly. As we didn't have long we only stopped briefly at a few of the overlooks before driving south to the cliff-dwelling area. At the Park Point overlook we saw the massive storm system that we'd seen earlier, now heading north-east into the mountains; the anvil was one of the most striking I've seen. Fortunately up on the mesa top the sun was now shining. The eerie skeletons of trees damaged by fires lined the paths up to the viewpoint.

We continued south, deeper into the park, towards the cliff dwellings. We took the loop to the visitor centre so I could buy a baseball cap (much needed for the upcoming desert days). We then took the Mesa Top loop, stopping at a few of the viewpoints. Some we found disappointing (the pit houses, for example), but others were very impressive - including the Square Tower house, perched perilously at the side of the cliff, overlooking a huge canyon below (shame about the cars parked along the top!).

We drove onwards to the Sun Point viewpoint where you can see up to 10 remains of houses in the opposite cliffside; some - like the Cliff Palace - are better preserved than others. I tried to get a panoramic shot of the view. Most of the dwellings were - not surprisingly - set back under the overhangs in the cliff.

In order to actually go into one of the ruined dwellings we discovered that you had to buy tickets back at the visitor centre, so we decided to give it a miss - time was rushing by and we still had a way to go to get down to Farmington and Bisti. As we left the Sun Point viewpoint I noticed a snake lying in the road, and had to swerve to avoid it. We got out to have a look, not wanting to get too close in case it lunged at us. It slithered slowly off to the side as we got back into the car, as a large coach couldn't get by. It turns out it was a non-venomous bull snake.

We drove out of the park, the skies above us now overcast, and headed back towards Cortez before saying goodbye to the lushness of Colorado and hello to the desert of New Mexico - a new state for me! The scenery became drier and flatter, with more mesas to the east, the mountains of southern New Mexico and eastern Arizona in the far distance and the striking Ship Rock right in front of us.

Next stop: Bisti Wilderness

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