Road Trip to Mesa Verde NP

The munchkin and I left Buffalo Creek, CO for our road trip with a special guest appearance by Ian for the 1st couple days, which meant that this was now a caravanning road trip, or gypsy train or something.

Our first stop dictated by a need to whiz was FairPlay. It’s just a teeny town that we had been to before with highlights including a friendly locals breakfast joint, a cardboard cutout of the South Park characters, and a coffee shop that sells less than desirable coffee. We decided to experience the coffee again with this whiz break just to see if it was just as bad as we remembered and it was; Washington coffee snobs.

After Fairplay was a stop into Buena Vista, which for some reason Coloradans pronounce it Beeyyuuunahh Vista. As we arrived the farmer’s market was just wrapping things up for the day. It was quite a small market but the locals were there in droves to support what was available.

We took a little stroll down the historic looking main strip and found ourselves a spot to grab some lunch. We chose the House Rock Kitchen because the patio looked great from the street. It turned out to be even better than we thought because they’ve got endless options to keep kiddos occupied until the food comes. My personal favorite was their PVC pipe/skee ball wall. The PVC pipe was cut in all sorts of lengths and angles and affixed to the wall with magnets, which meant that kiddos could engineer their own skee ball mazes. Fantastic! The food was pretty tasty as well.

Our stay in Buena Vista was brief but yet long enough to explore what the main street had to offer. It’s got a handful of good cafes and independently owned shops to keep the tourists interested for at least a couple days while they explore the outdoor scene in the area.

Speaking of in the area, the town of Salida is just a 30-minute drive down the way and apparently an outdoor enthusiasts dream come true. As we first drove in I wasn’t feeling it because the outskirts of town led me to believe it could be a bit of a junky place.

That must be an intentional tourist deterrent or something because once you get into Salida proper it’s a bustling little town with cute craftsman cottage houses, loads of thrift shops, art galleries, and a bounty of cafes and bars to keep you busy. The river runs directly along the town and they’ve made access really easy for people on both sides of the river. So easy in fact, that we stopped to dip our tootsies in the water.

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Unfortunately Salida was short lived for us also, as we needed to push on for our campsite about 30 minutes south. We arrived in San Luis Valley, which is basically just a big desolate valley with the exception of this one campground. This was a privately owned campground and it was odd.

The check-in was a mobile home in the front of the campground, which was surrounded by random piles of stuff. To check-in you’ve got to go up and knock on the door with dogs barking all the while. We were tenting and so were shown the tenting area which would have been just fine if they were offering 4 sites in this teeny-tiny space that had a handful of trees on it. But they were actually offering about 12 sites and every last one ended up getting filled.

Ian and I were perplexed why so many people were filling up this strange campground. Above all we were wondering how we managed to end up there ourselves! As it turned out a Paragliding festival was taking place in San Luis Valley so that explained why everyone was cramming into this place. I’m still wondering what we were doing there though. I must be honest; this is a time when Yelp reviewers failed me miserably, although I have no room to complain because I depend on reviews but never leave them myself. And it must be said that this place would have been just fine for the RV crowd because the bathrooms were nice and clean. What else do you need?

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That evening the wind was kicking up so we were pretty quick about making dinner. We abandoned all plans to hang out around a campfire because by the time we cleaned up from dinner the wind had become a downright formidable opponent. We even opted to tie our tent to the picnic table to ensure that we didn’t go paragliding ourselves in the middle of the night.

It seemed that the gusting wind decided to take turns with the sheets of blowing rain for most of the evening, but I’m pretty sure that they decided to do a duet at some point in the early morning. You know, to really give us something special to look back on.

Since we had such a peaceful nights sleep the decision was made to seek out breakfast rather than making it ourselves. Plus Ian sounded off our car alarm at about 7am so it was best to flee the scene of the crime for a bit anyhow.

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We drove to Saguatch and ate breakfast at a restaurant on the main downtown block. I do believe it was the only thing open, but even with limited options this was a good choice. It was dry, warm, had indoor plumbing and good food. Plus we got to tune our ears into the local’s conversations. Ian is always happy with the food if it’s smothered in green chiles, which tends to only be offered in New Mexico and Colorado for some reason. If you’re visiting either of those states do yourself a favor and get to sampling.

After breakfast it was time for Ian to head back to Buffalo Creek (BC) while Ani and I pushed onward to Mesa Verde National Park. Not far past Saguatch the highway became lined with wild daisies and it stretched on for miles, it turned a dull piece of highway into something pleasurable.

I zoned out for a while after the daisies and the next thing of note that I remember was getting to the overlook point on Wolf Creek Pass. The overlook affords you some pretty sweeping views of the lush green valley below.

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Ani and I stopped for a lunch break at the bakery once we made it to Pagosa Springs. She was a big hit there with all the Women/Men of grand-parenting age. She gave them her best waves and told them “bye-bye” as we took our exit, leaving many hearts swooning for more munchkin smiles.

Pagosa Springs seemed like a nice enough place and it wasn’t completely engulfed with tourists, at least not to the level of other towns we’ve visited. It’s one of the several places in Colorado offering Hot Springs to soak yourself in.

Hot Springs vary depending on where you are. It may be a several mile hike into a teeny little hot springs pool where people are clothing optional, or it could be a fully developed water park with several pools of varying temperatures that could hold hundreds of people.

Upon leaving Pagosa Springs we drove through some Ponderosa Pine forest until it abruptly turned into Pinyon Pine and Juniper as we crossed into the high desert country. I skirted around Durango rather than going into town because I felt ready to just get where we were going and where we were going was Cortez, Colorado.

I had no desire to brave the elements after the previous night’s insanity so I opted for a basic camper cabin at the Cortez KOA.

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I am torn on KOA camping. It’s fake camping for certain, even if you’re in a tent. However, as a parent traveling solo with a munchkin? It’s pretty damn nice to have accessibility to the basics. Since Ani uses the toilet it’s nice to not have concern that she will fall in because KOA has flushing toilets. If she fell into a pit toilet at one of the real campgrounds I’m not sure what I would do first, vomit in disgust or help her.

After a sound night of sleep Ani and I were ready to head over to Mesa Verde first thing in the morning. Well let’s be realistic, probably 15th thing in the morning. This is life with a munchkin after all! It was reassuring to know that we had a couple days to spend in the park so there was no real rush.

Before you even arrive at the National Park you get a peek at the visitor center, which is visible from the highway and it’s quite beautiful. I’m not sure how long it’s been there but it looks relatively new. The employees of the visitor center were some of the most informative that I’ve experienced out of all the parks I’ve visited; they were really helpful and patient with each person they spoke with. I got some guidance on which cliff dwellings would be best for me to visit given our timeframes and with having the munchkin along.

I purchased tour tickets for Cliff Palace and Balcony House and set out for the 1-hour drive up the Mesa. Due to the descriptions of the cliff dwelling tours I decided to put Ani in the hiking backpack rather than the wrap, but if I had it to do over again? Wrap all the way.

You can go into the park without taking any of the guided tours but you wouldn’t be allowed to go into the ruins on your own. The tour tickets are only a few dollars so unless you’ve got a physical limitation that would prevent you from taking the tour I’d say go for it!

What might the physical limitations be? Well, these are cliff dwellings so if you have a fear of heights this would absolutely not be for you. There are ladder climbs and very tight spaces to get in and out of the cliff dwellings. There was more than one occasion where I had to take Ani off of my back, squeeze the pack shut to slide it through and guide Ani along. I thought it was super fun to get in and out but I could tell other people were not enjoying that aspect as much as I was.

Our first tour was through Cliff Palace. The park ranger was actually an Archaeologist so he was full of in-depth knowledge about the history of the area and I’m quite certain I’ve never encountered anyone who loved their job so much as this guy. He was smiling from ear to ear the entire time and had a general look of whimsy about him.

I found the information to be completely fascinating and felt just as impressed standing in the dwellings here as I did standing atop Machu Picchu. The peoples that came before us were incredibly innovative and built things more soundly than we do today.

 

One part of the history that I took note of was how much work the CCC put into this National Park. For those who are unaware CCC stands for The Civilian Conservation Corps and you can learn more here. Since Americorps was created in the spirit of the CCC legacy (and I am an Americorps Alumnist) I always find pride in seeing the work they put in that has managed to stand the test of time. In Mesa Verde they were responsible for finding ways to access all the cliff dwellings which was a daunting task as one might imagine.

Beyond exploring the Cliff Dwellings the munchkin and I also took a hike out to see some petroglyphs. I was a big fan of the trail to get us there, as we remained shaded the entire way and it brought us through some beautiful and diverse areas.

When I’d seen photos of petroglyphs previous to this trip I always wondered why they drew the bodies so strangely. I have now learned that they were drawing people in climbing position because they did so much climbing back up to the mesa tops. Of course! The petroglyphs along this trail were almost completely unprotected. There is a sign asking you not to touch them and that’s all. You can walk right up to them and really have a good look.

I must’ve stared at them for 20 minutes just wondering why these particular images were of significance in that era, or were they? It may be general artwork of the human spirit. Or perhaps it was like the doodling of their day. I decided that if I lived during that time period I most certainly would have passed some afternoons that way, in-between foraging and whatnot.

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Beyond the couple of days in the park our only experience with the town consisted of stopping into a chocolate/gelato shop in Cortez. They are modern day geniuses in there! I was able to buy a gelato sampler that came with 4 scoops in a little banana boat. I love that concept since I’m someone who doesn’t need a huge quantity but I want to have all the flavors. Good compromise with sanity there.

All in all I was very impressed with Mesa Verde National Park and I truly value its existence.

I wasn’t entirely certain of our next destination when we left Cortez but we were heading up Highway 145 in the direction of Telluride and Ouray (pronounced U-Ray apparently). The first long stretch of highway afforded pretty standard views until we got around Rico. I have no idea what the people of Rico do for provisions because it’s a teeny mining town turned tourist attraction but it sure is beautiful around there. One might say it is intensely beautiful.

The intensely beautiful stretch was lizard pass and I would bet that the Matterhorn and Alta Lakes Campgrounds are pretty magnificent spots to spend some time right in the center of it all. There were Aspen and Cottonwood trees everywhere and I couldn’t help thinking that I needed to get back here in a few weeks when the colors turned for fall. For as much hype as there is around Colorado this stretch of highway actually earns it’s bragging rights.

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Since I had heard from a friend that there was a campground in Telluride I decided to swing in and see if there was any room there. As soon as I began driving through this town that is butted up against a box canyon (dangerous place to build a community as far as wildfire is concerned) my mind kept recycling the same thought over and over, rich. It’s dripping with affluence and it’s one of only a few times in my life where I felt uncomfortable due to the level of wealth I was surrounded by. The campground was full which left me feeling a bit relieved because I didn’t want to be awoken in the middle of the night by the pauper police, busting me for spending too much time amongst the well-to-do folks.

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Telluride, CO

We drove further north to Ouray where we stayed at yet another KOA. I’d found info on a pretty great sounding “real” campsite in the area but it also stated that there were pretty frequent bear visits and I just wasn’t interested in the surprise visitor prospect. So I quickly set-up our tent and we headed into town to find some food and then hit the Hot Springs. The downside to our campsite was the excessive amount of Ants so I decided against making food myself and opted to have someone else do it for me!

I had never been to a fully developed hot springs before so this was a new experience for Ani and I both. The place was set up like a legit community swimming pool. I will readily admit that the entry fee was much steeper than I wanted to pay but I was already mentally committed to the experience.

We dressed down in the expansive locker room and headed out onto the pool deck. The lifeguard was kind enough to explain the temp of each pool so that Ani and I could settle into one that wouldn’t have us come out looking like lobsters.

I think we were both enjoying ourselves quite a bit, just soaking and relaxing in the hot springs when all of the sudden Ani flashed me the poop sign. I sprang out of the pool and rushed her to the toilet but it was too late. She had already begun going in her only reusable swim diaper, which meant that we just paid that hefty fee for 15 minutes of “relaxation.” Ah, the sweet, sweet life of parenthood. After that I got us dried and dressed so that we could hit the playground before dark settled in.

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In the morning I packed us up and we found a breakfast joint called Kate’s in Ridgeway just up the highway from Ouray where Ani sat across from me in a booster seat for the 1st time. All the sudden she seemed like a grown up dining companion and by the look on her face she was feeling pretty grown-up.

Our drive that day was along Highway 50, which took us past the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park as well as the Curecanti Recreation Area. Unfortunately we didn’t have a ton of time to waste; we had a lunch date in Salida to get to with a former co-worker of mine from the Hotshot Crew.

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However, the Curecanti Recreation Area was quite beautiful and it seemed to be a good area for exploring in the future. After we passed through there it was just up and over Monarch Pass until we’d be in Salida. It’s amazing how diverse weather can be when you get yourself up onto a mountain pass. In this instance you can interchange the word diverse with crappy, it was crappy weather people. The temperature dropped by about 20 degrees and I was being blasted with rain and fog interchangeably. So as far as views go? No idea, moving on.

It had been nearly 10 years since I’d seen this long lost friend from the Hotshot Crew and she was exactly the same. Same vibrant smile, boisterous laugh, and sharp wit. She also knows my husband so she got a kick out of seeing our baby and identifying which features were derived from which parent. We had a long lunch but way to short to catch up on 10 years. Visits like those are little life treats. You just don’t get them that often and there in-lies the treat.

After our reunion lunch we continued the drive onward bringing us back to Buffalo Creek for a short while. The next road trip to the Rocky Mountain National Park was right around the corner.