The Rio Grande Southern Hotel is a wonderful place to stay. I should put that out there to start with. It falls into a “don’t judge the book by its cover category.” Or its title page (the inside cover). The outside of the Rio Grande (and its web site) make it look like a sweet, charming, turn-of-the-century hotel with impeccably decorated rooms. It is not that. The inside cover (the living room/lobby) make it look like a cluttered and disorganized business opportunity gone awry. It is not that either. The Rio Grande is a gorgeous home built in 1893, with an addition added in 1902. It was the first hotel in Dolores, Colorado and is now the oldest building in town. There are nine bedrooms upstairs and a restaurant open the public on the first floor.
The Rio Grande has always been an “Eating House,” welcoming day-travelers coming in on the train, as well as overnight guests, including Teddy Roosevelt. For a while, it was the only Eating House on the road between Durango and Rico. Breakfast is included for overnight guests, but Sunday Brunch is a popular meal for restaurant-only guests. We happened to be there on a Sunday and came downstairs to a full house. Within a few minutes, though, Sheila seated us and took our order, and Don got working on our meals.
Reflecting a bit on what led us here to the Rio Grande, I have noticed that there are some nice-looking chain hotels in Cortez. They would have been an option for us for this stop at Mesa Verde. I think two things motivated me to investigate the Rio Grande: price & variety. Our Room #1 has a Queen bed, the sink for the bathroom (oddly convenient and inconvenient, all at the same time), a ceiling fan and a window fan on exhaust. The house doesn’t have air conditioning, but the fans made the rooms very comfortable. The price is $75 per night, or $85 per night on weekends. Wow. You just can’t do that anywhere else. We added to that the kids room with 2 Full beds, with the bathroom in between, at $65 per night. We still spent less money at the Rio Grande than we would have at the Days Inn or Best Western for 2 Queens. In addition, we had quite a different experience at the Rio Grande. Interestingly, it felt more private than hotels we’ve been in. Once inside our little suite, we didn’t hear any noise from anyone in the house, though we could smell the pancakes and bacon as we woke up in the morning. It reminded me of staying at my grandmother’s house, if my grandmother lived in a turn-of-the-century Eating House, that is. It even had a pedestal tub. My Grandma & Grandpa Kuhlmann had a clawfoot tub, but the pedestal was close enough.
Our little friend, Winnie, wasn’t around this morning, but we enjoyed breakfast nonetheless. With Sheila and Don cooking, though there was a menu, we could pretty much order what we wanted to. I had a pancake (huge! The short stack was just one pancake and it was plenty.) and a side of bacon. Austin had a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. Aidan had a pancake and a one-egg cheese omelet. Haley had the Continental Breakfast: her pick of cold cereal, toast, and juice. Hal had his typical omelet with a pancake, hash browns, and bacon. In fact, we ordered enough bacon that Sheila just brought us out a plate to share. Sheila was attentive and efficient as she popped in and out of the kitchen, managing all of her guests.
We were excited to head into Mesa Verde for the day. We realized by the end of the day that this Park experience would be very different than all the others. Each of the other National Parks were focused on natural, God-made beauty, while Mesa Verde’s focus is the cliff dwellings built by Native Americans 700-1500 years ago. We were ready for a change of pace.
Do you remember learning about the Anasazi Indians in your grade school Social Studies text? I recall learning about theis cliff-dwelling people who disappeared from the Southwest around the year 1300. I recall the idea that no one really knows why they disappeared.
We learned at Mesa Verde that this isn’t exactly true. Yes, they were cliff dwellers. Yes, they lived in the area for several hundred years. But, they did not disappear; they moved on. And now their descendents mostly in Arizona and New Mexico. They are the Hopi and and the Zuni and other Pueblo People. These ancestors lived in what is often called the “Four Corners” area, where Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico come together. Mesa Verde is not the only ruins of their civilization, but it is one of the best known. Anasazi is a Navajo word that means something like “ancient foreigners,” “ancient ones who are not like us,” or even “ancient enemy.” It seems that originally, archeologists used the Navajo word, but as they have come to understand where the descendents of these people went, they have chosen to reference the people in a way to that connects them to their descendents because they a) in fact, they are not foreigners, and b) they were not warring people, so were not enemies. They are now known within the Park primarily as the Ancestral Puebloans or simply The People.
The landscape at Mesa Verde is a series of mesas and canyons. “Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish, and there are multiple green mesas in the area. The gate to the Park lies close to the beginning of the Park, but the Visitors Center lies 12 miles into the Park, over and around several of these mesas. You reach them by winding switch-backs up and over and through the mesas and the canyons. We didn’t find the Visitors Center particularly helpful, but that’s probably because we had gotten the map, the newspaper and tour tickets the night before. With some research already completed, we knew where we were headed and what we planned to do. If we weren’t sure what we wanted to do, the Visitors Center would have been very helpful. I will add again, though, that if you come in the night before and want to pop in for some information, try stopping by the Morefield Ranger Station. It is only 4 miles in from the gate and is open until 8:30 pm, unlike the other information facilities that all seem to close around 6:30 pm. We’d had a lovely conversation with Ranger Ali at Morefield the night before, just before she closed up shop. We were glad to not stand in line for tickets and information the next day.
Mesa Verde has ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan culture in several stages. The earliest structure we saw was a “pit house” built around 575 AD. Prior to this, the People were likely nomadic. These modest homes were built on the top of the mesas by digging down a few feet and then creating walls and a roof with wooden poles, leaves and mud. A fire pit was always evident near the center of the main room. Both in these homes and the ones built much later, it was interesting to see a stone slab posed upright next to the fire to deflect drafts and draw the smoke up and out of the roof. Food and firewood was stored in the “antechamber,” off the main living area.
The next stage were single-story and then multi-story dwellings also built on the mesas. This is where we first see evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans’ masonry skills. These villages were built around 750-1100 AD and are the first structures that show obvious evidence of these being the People of the Pueblo. One of the most interesting aspects of these mesa-top communities was the “kiva.” These circular structures are thought to be gathering places for community meetings and religious ceremonies. They contain a fire pit, the traditional deflecting stone, and a ventilation shaft because they were typically built at least partially underground, with the entryway being a ladder down through the roof.
In the late 1100s, the Ancestral Puebloans began to reside in the cliffs alcoves, below the mesas. They continued to farm their staples of corn, squash and beans, which grew well on the mesa tops. They began to build multiple cliff-dwellings, some of which likely housed hundreds of people. It is these cliff-dwellings that Mesa Verde is known for, and they are fascinating to see.
The canyons in the Four Corners area are lush with pinyon pine and juniper trees. As we drove the windy roads through these canyons, we began to notice the little doors in the canyon walls that point to areas where the Ancestral Puebloans built their cliff homes. Many are excavated; some offer tours; others are self-guided. And many others are just there, in the cliff walls, the little 18” x 30” doors (that look like windows) the only external evidence of their existence.
There are two main areas to see the dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans: Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. Long Mesa, Long Canyon, and Wickiup Canyon lie between the mesas. In our day at Mesa Verde, we didn’t make it over to Wetherill Mesa. Though not too many miles apart, they are likely an hour apart by car because of the switchbacks winding their way up and down the canyon walls. I understand that Wetherill Mesa has a tram bus ride that would be a great way to see some of the cliff dwellings. We focused our efforts on this trip on Chapin Mesa because it had more of what we wanted to see that day.
With a little time to kill before our tour, we stopped at the Chapin Mesa Museum because Aidan and Haley were working on a project. When we stopped at the Morefield Ranger Station the night before, we were impressed with Ranger Ali for several reasons. First, Aidan expressed interest in purchasing a wildlife tracks guide. He was going to use his own money, but Ali had an idea. “Just a second, she said. I have an idea for you.” Ali went in the back and brought out a cute little kid-sized backpack, a Junior Ranger Pack. She said we could sign out the backpack for the time that we were at the park (it only required my name and e-mail on a log sheet). Inside the backpack was everything a child at a National Park could want: binoculars, a map, and lots of hiking and tracking resources, including the wildlife tracks guide. Ali suggested that Aidan borrow the pack for a couple days, see if he wanted to keep the guide, and then purchase it if he did. What a terrific ranger! In addition, Ali offered Junior Ranger activity booklets to whomever wanted them. Haley and Aidan took them and immediately began working on them. The fun part was that, once they were completed, they were eligible to become Junior Rangers. They had lots of questions to answer and activities to complete that required us to go to various places in the Park, including the Museum.
There are three cliff-dwellings that require tour tickets: Long House, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Long House lies along the walls of Rock Canyon, on the far side of Wetherill Mesa, so we didn’t make it over there. We had done some reading comparing the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours on various travel web sites. There seem to be a lot of warnings from the National Park Service regarding safety on the tours, especially the Balcony House tour. However, previous visitors to the Park indicated that they had brought young children and done just fine on the Balcony House tour. Many people had also said that the Balcony House tour was significantly more interesting to kids because of the adventurous nature of the tour. We decided to go on the Balcony House tour, which is $3 per person. Even once the day was over, we were glad we’d done Balcony House, but partly for a different reason: it is not visible from the mesa. Cliff Palace, on the other hand, is easily visible from the mesa, so we got to see it from a distance.
Balcony House’s “obstacles” are: a 31-step ladder to enter the dwelling, a tight squeeze at the entryway (18” across), and a crawling tunnel at the end (18” x 18” x 10′). Our guide, Wendell, taught us a lot about the Ancestral Puebloans, their daily lives, their culture and belief system, and how we know these things from their dwellings. The ladder was high, but not impossible. The two tunnels, including the crawling one, were very do-able for our family. We didn’t check this out, but apparently, there is a model of the crawling tunnel at the Visitors Center where you can test whether it will work for you. A few things struck us about the People on our tour: they were a lot smaller than us (women were less than 5′ and men were just a little taller); they were very nimble, scaling the cliffs and climbing regularly in their daily lives; and they lived in very close proximity to one another.
Our 2:30 Balcony House tour ended in a thunderstorm. Tour completed, we raced for the car, fairly drenched, and decided to drive around the Cliff Palace Loop a bit more, while we dried off. We were delighted to be able to see Cliff Palace from the overlook, even though we didn’t have tickets to tour. Cliff Palace is a much larger dwelling than Balcony House, so it is quite impressive, even from a distance. We left the Loop and headed back toward the Chapin House Museum area. We had lunch at Spruce Tree Terrace, right near the museum. It was a late lunch and very welcome. Haley made a quick purchase at the gift shop and we headed over to Spruce Tree House, one of the dwellings that does not require a ticket. Our friend, Graham Jackson, grew up in Colorado, and told me that he had taken school trips to Mesa Verde. What a cool school trip! Graham tweeted me that his favorite cliff-dwelling was Spruce Tree, primarily because you could tour it on your own. It was a must-see then. I would definitely tour Spruce Tree, if you have the time. It was fun to explore the dwelling and talk as we went, wondering about the people who had lived there.
After the Spruce Tree House, we drove around the Mesa Top Loop to get some final answers for Haley and Aidan’s Junior Ranger activity books. This is where we saw the pithouses, mesa top villages, and a sun temple and put together the full history of the Ancestral Puebloans. The Park’s map identifies the overlooks and short trails to walk to. The signs at the sites are very informative and give a good sense of the history and culture. We were glad we did this driving loop, hopping in and out of the car several times. It gave us a fuller picture of the People who had lived in this area.
We had one final task at Mesa Verde National Park. Haley and Aidan had completed their Junior Ranger activity books and were eligible to become Junior Rangers. We timed our exit from the park to arrive back at the Morefield Ranger Station before 8:30 pm, closing time. We were delighted to find Ranger Ali working again that evening. She reviewed Haley and Aidan’s answers in their activity books and swore them in as Junior Rangers. Having promised to take care of national parks by staying on the trail and not picking wildflowers, they each received a badge to certify their new role. If you are traveling with children to Mesa Verde, absolutely ask for the Junior Ranger information. They kids had a lot of fun with it and definitely learned a lot more than they would have without the activity book to guide them.
As we left the Morefield Ranger Station, we were greeted by two mule deer, nibbling on bushes nearby. They casually watched us as we snapped a few pictures of them. It has been amazing to see how comfortable the wildlife is with people at national parks.
We decided to head back into Cortez for dinner again. Though we really enjoyed Tequila’s the night before, we decided to try a different restaurant. Ali had recommended Lotsa Pasta Thatza Pizza, but unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday nights. We ended up closing down J.Fargo’s, a micro-brewery & restaurant. Kylie from Oregon was a terrific waitress, serving us burgers, a Navajo Taco and pasta, as well as a delicious brownie sundae to share for dessert. She even let us know that because we were staying at a hotel nearby, she could give us 10% off of our bill. Now, that’s service!
We drove back to Dolores, to the Rio Grande, having enjoyed learning all about the Ancestral Puebloans. My head sure felt full of new information.