While we were approaching Nederland on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, the shoulders were parked full of cars already a mile from town. We were in luck and found a spot at some auto repair shop’s yard, which was just a short walk from lakeside, where we could see people gathering.
On the way there, we were passed by a pale posse carrying a metal coffin.
A little further along we noticed spectators following a sport, where a colorful team was carrying a similar metal coffin, this time with someone in it.
We knew what was going on, but it was still hard to believe a festival like this was real. It’s a long story, and it begins when Norwegian Bredo Morstøl died from a heart condition while cross-country skiing in his native country. His grandson Trygve Bauge did not want to give up his grandfather and instead transported him to California, where the body was deep-freezed in a local cryonics facility.
After a couple years in California, Trygve together with his mother (and Bredo’s daughter) Aud transported grandpa to Nederland, where they were planning to build an earthquake-, bomb-, fire-, wind- and flood-proof home. Unfortunately Trygve’s visa expired and he was deported, so the home was never finished, and grandpa’s body was left laying in a shed behind the construction. When Aud was evicted – apparently it’s illegal in Nederland to live in a house without electricity or plumbing – grandpa’s future seemed more and more uncertain.
Aud contacted the press, and suddenly grandpa was an international news story. City council quickly prohibited keeping dead bodies on private property, but grandpa Bredo was “grandfathered” in and allowed to stay. A local radio station together with a Tuff Shed distributor decided to sponsor a new and better shed for grandpa, and Trygve hired a caretaker – “Ice Man” – to bring in dry ice.
Seven years later, in 2002, the town had gotten over its shock and was ready to see the humor in it. Someone got an idea to celebrate the town’s most known inhabitant, and Frozen Dead Guy Days was born.
At first, it looks like any other festival: tents, music, beer, lots of people in good spirits. Except other festivals don’t have frozen salmon tossing, frozen T-shirt or slushie drinking (Freeze Your Brain) competitions. I almost brought with me the left-over turkey from Thanksgiving that had been sitting in our freezer, so I could participate in frozen turkey bowling. Theme of the program seemed to be “anything dead or frozen, preferably both”.
Inside the tents, local craft breweries were selling beer, each at their own table. I thought I knew the local beer scene pretty well, but these breweries were so small I hadn’t even heard of half of them.
The festival goes on in every weather, and in March in Colorado, that can be anything from freezing cold and snowstorm to balmy almost-summer. Dress accordingly.
Frozen Dead Guy Days in March. There’s a festival bus from Boulder to Nederland, and it’s around an hour’s drive from Denver.
National Park Service is by far the best government agency in the US – and possibly the whole world – and national parks are its crown jewels, the pride and joy of the system. Colorado is proud to have four of these gems, which are all worth a visit:
Great Sand Dunes National Park
When my family roadtripped around Colorado in the 90s, this place had yet to gain its park status, but that didn’t keep us from hiking up those hills, sledding down the sandy slopes and feeling the enormous heat of the warm dunes through our sneakers. A couple years ago, my husband and I camped next to the dunes, waking up together with the sun to hike to the highest point of the dunes before they were too hot to handle. One of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Our closest national park will always hold a special spot in my heart, and not just because I got married there. This park is a dream come true for any hiker, full of wonderful trails where anyone can find their favorite, be it wildflowers, mountain vistas, alpine lakes or secluded groves. And even if you’re not into hiking, there’s always Trail Ridge Road, the highest altitude paved highway in the US with amazing views of the Rockies.
Mesa Verde National Park
There’s only one national park in the US that was founded mainly to protect human heritage, and that is Mesa Verde. Here you can ponder what forced the ancestral Pueblo people to abandon their homes more than 700 years ago after they had built a civilization on the sides of canyons. You need at least a couple hours for a visit, but we spent a whole day there to explore the cliff dwellings.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon is actually not a canyon but a gorge, one of the steepest and deepest in the US. More than 800 meters deep at most and only around 350 meters wide at its narrowest, it’s probably the darkest gorge around, and that’s where it got its name: at parts of it, sunlight reaches the bottom only 30 minutes a day. We contemplated hiking to the bottom but thought it best to leave it for some other time, as you can always roll down a mountain if you get tired, but a gorge is a whole lot tougher business to hike up.
Hiking used to be a summer activity for me, but in the four seasons of Boulder, Colorado, with hiking clubs active year-round, I’ve slowly started to change my mind and gotten accustomed to winter hiking. Last Sunday I put my winter hiking skills to the ultimate test by attending the Boulder Hiker Chicks‘ Winter Trifecta, a tour of Boulder’s three local peaks.
Rather opt for more clothes than less.
It was around -12C when we started the hike, but the forecast said the temperature would rise above 0 in the afternoon. On the other hand, we’d be walking along peaks and ridges with a chance of high winds. And then again, you’ll get warm when you walk. So what to wear on a winter hike?
I wore a technical T-shirt underneath, because earlier I’d hiked in wintertime with a cotton shirt, sweated it while climbing, and then shivered coming down. Not an experience I’d like to repeat! On top of that, I wore a NorthSky microfleece and a softshell jacket. Because I always take something extra with me in case I get cold, I also packed a Patagonia vest because of its light weight. I ended up putting the vest at the first summit and wearing it for the remainder of the hike, instead removing my jacket when needed.
On my legs I wore Patagonia leggings for warmth and waterproof pants on top of them, plus good quality hiking socks. For my hands, I only had a pair of knit gloves, which proved to be sub optimal when I had to use my hands to support my climbing efforts. Waterproof gloves would have been a better choice in the snow.
We met up with our hiking group at Mesa Trailhead at 8am in the morning, and after a short regrouping we started off to our first goal, South Boulder Peak (2606m). In Boulder’s hiking terminology, “trifecta” means the route that passes through Boulder’s three big local peaks. After South Boulder Peak, we’d continue on to Bear Peak (2579m) and from there on traverse to Green Mountain (2482m).
Completing this route from South to North meant that we’d be climbing to the highest peak right in the beginning. The route through Shadow Canyon felt like it took forever, but finally we started seeing remnants of a past forest fire around us, which meant the peak wasn’t far. The horizon also opened up for a view of surrounding Front Range.
What food and drink to pack for a day’s winter hike
On day hikes, my nutrition is based on a cheese sandwich packed in a ziplock. Since this would be much more demanding than your average day hike, I needed additional sources of energy. I ended up packing:
Half a bag of trail mix, which I snacked on whenever I felt low on energy on the long climbs up.
Mini bag of chips. Chips seem to be a big thing with American hikers, as everybody instructed me to pack them before the hike, and bags were passed around at every peak by fellow hikers. I ended up not eating mine, but it’s a nice backup to have.
As a backup, one Clif Bar. In case I get lost or sprain my ankle, or something, it’s good to have more food than you plan on eating.
In addition, somebody passed around some Clif BLOKS before the last climb. It was either the caffeine-infused snack or the great company, but the last climb wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be.
“Take snacks of every kind, so you’ll always have something you feel like eating on the trail.”
During summer hikes, I drink around half a liter of water per hour, but the winter’s a completely different thing. I packed 1,5 liters with me and ended up drinking less than a liter during the whole hike. One pro-tip for winter hikes: Don’t fill your water bottles with cold water straight from the fridge. It’s not fun to drink water that’s turned into ice slush.
The Ten Essentials
This should be nothing new to anyone who hikes, but there’s a list of 10 essentials you should always pack with you for longer hikes in the backcountry. Normally for a hike on Boulder’s local mountains, I wouldn’t bother with all of these, but this hike was a full day, longer than usual, and sometimes a little far from civilization, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. What I packed for my winter hike was:
Topographical map. I prefer National Geographic maps for hiking in the US. In addition, I had a compass, which I ended up not using on the well marked trails, but which could have come in handy if I had lost my way.
Sunglasses and sunscreen. Colorado sun and the snow pretty much make these mandatory. I still managed to forget both but luckily another hiker had an extra pair of glasses and people passed sunscreen around on the way.
Extra clothing. That vest, which ended up not being extra at all.
Headlamp. Our intention was to get back before dark, and while I managed to do that, part of the group got lost and would have had to hike back in the dark if one person hadn’t gone to pick them up with a car from an earlier trailhead. Delays are always possible, so never trust the sun.
First aid kit. I’ve filled a small beauty box with bandaids, desinfection liquid and other first aid essentials. My husband added in some M&Ms for good measure.
…and extra water.
Space blanket, in case you break a leg and need to wait for hours for help.
Yep, there’s only eight things there. I left out two, another by accident and the other on purpose. I forgot to pack my Swiss army knife – I’ve needed it every now and then, so it’s good to have – and I left out matches on purpose, because Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks prohibits fires.
Everybody has their own taste in hiking boots. High hiking boots are recommended, but since I’ve never sprained my ankle, I prefer the more light-weight low boots from SCARPA. When hiking up mountains, I always use approach shoes that have a sole with better traction. They’re not as comfortable to walk in as normal hiking shoes, which is why I don’t wear them on flat hikes.
On winter, you need traction on your shoes if you’re going to hike any kind of grades. I wore ICETrekkers Diamond Grips, which I’ve found work well on ice, but in slippery snow they were no match for Kahtoola Microspikes that many others were using. In the snow, gaitors would have also come in handy, and while the trails were trampled enough, I got some snow up my shoes a couple times while stepping on the side of the trail to give way to fellow hikers.
The weather gods favored us on our trip, and even though wind on Bear Peak was brutal, I’d say overall the weather was excellent, with blue skies holding on for the whole day. Perfect day for a hike, that is!
We saw other hikers on the way, but even more so we passed (or were passed by) trail runners who hopped around the peaks in shorts. I would never be able to run up or down those mountains in winter – up because of my fitness level, and down because I’d be too scared of slipping.
On top of Green I already felt my feet hurting, and the next day I had trouble moving, but my spirits were high the whole time. Fastest hikers in our group did the route in around seven hours, while I took around eight for the whole trip. 11 miles, over 4000 feet of elevation gain. I had really earned that burger at Chautauqua Dining Hall!
There wasn’t a weekend in November that we didn’t pack our skis in the car and drive up to the mountains to enjoy snow and sun. It’s a blessing to live just a couple hours away from world class ski resorts, but these resorts are worth the trip even if you’re coming from furthere off! Here’s five reasons why you should plan your ski holidays in Colorado right now:
1. Colorado’s Powder Snow
Forget those clumpy slopes with dreadful wet snow. Colorado’s dry climate gives you amazing fluffy powder where riding the hills is pure bliss. Although Utah is trying to claim on their license plates to have the best snow on Earth, the Rocky Mountains are clearly a contender in this category.
2. More than 20 Ski Resorts
Wanna ride the slopes like they did in the alpine world ski championships? Check out Beaver Creek. Wanna get lost in a resort where skiing every slope would take more than a weekend? Vail’s calling. Wanna spot Hollywood stars in the lift line? Everybody knows Aspen. Whether you’re a family, ski bum or snowboarder, everybody’s got their mecca in Colorado.
3. Ski Season from October to June
Arapahoe Basin is the most high altitude resort in the US, where the highest lifts take you well above 13 000 feet. High altitudes bring with them the “Got Oxygen?”-slogans and may force you to head to lower slopes – like I did after starting to feel ill – but one thing they never lack is snow. A-Basin always opens before Halloween and usually closes around June, but closing dates as late as 4th of July are not unheard of.
4. Not Just Slopes
Breckenridge Ski Resort is right next to a century-old mining town with a charming and lively main street. In Steamboat Springs, you can rest your sore muscles in one of the town’s several hot springs – although in my several visits there, I never got further than the condo hot tub, also lovely on a starry night. Many ski towns offer horse-drawn sled rides and guided snowmobile tours, and several boast to be the state’s best resort for shopping. I think the jury’s still out on that.
5. Despite the Price, Still Worth It
Of course, the lift tickets are far from cheap. If you make the mistake of marching up to Vail’s ticket booth some random morning, be ready to pay around $170 per day. American ski resorts tend to be more expensive than their European cousins, and the most expensive resorts in the US are in – you guessed it – Colorado. Still, planning your trip early can save you a penny, and you can rest at ease knowing you’re paying for the best resorts in the US, possibly in the world.
Do you know what’s the difference between a gorge and a canyon? A canyon is wider than it’s deep, like the Grand Canyon, which is almost two kilometers deep but still at least six kilometers wide. Compare this to Royal Gorge in Colorado, which despite it’s nickname Grand Canyon of the Arkansas is actually a gorge: up to 400 meters deep and only 15 meters across! One thing’s sure, though. No matter the name, Royal Gorge is breathtaking.
What makes this gorge close to Cañon City really special are the railway tracks that run through it. Nowadays scenic passenger trains run through it, but more than a century ago when it was being built, it wasn’t tourists that the railroad companies were after but something more precious: silver. The Rocky Mountains were gripped by a silver rush, and Royal Gorge was one of the few viable routes for train tracks, which meant that not only were tracks built in the gorge, but two railroad companies were fighting over them – literally. In June 1879, the men from Denver & Rio Grande railroad company attacked the men of Santa Fe railroad company with rifles, and Santa Fe’s men responded with the help of a cannon “borrowed” from the army. It’s not sure whether anybody died, but this forced the federal courts to step in, and the tracks were finally completed the next year.
Besides silver, the trains also carried passengers of the past century through the gorge, but midway through the century, travel habits started changing thanks to air traffic. When finally in 1967 US Post Office withdrew its contract to transport mail via the Royal Gorge Route, passenger traffic finally came to an end. Not that this kept tourists out of the gorge, because 1929 had seen another wonder built in its vicinity…
Royal Gorge Bridge was not just any bridge but the highest bridge in the world! It kept its record from 1929 all the way to 2001, when it was surpassed by a Chinese bridge, but that didn’t diminish its grandeur – nor its pointlessness. The thing with this bridge is that it doesn’t lead anywhere, never has, and it was only built to lure in tourists, with which it was doing a very good job. Even now, it’s one of Colorado’s most popular attractions, and it’s surrounded by a theme park bearing its name.
Beginning of September was pleasantly warm, but we still kept mostly indoors through our train ride. That was because we’d gotten seats in the Vista Dome cars, which had fantastic views of the gorge thanks to its rounded windows – a big step up from how it was in 1999 when passenger service was first restarted.
First passengers on the newly opened Royal Gorge Route were transported with old vintage cars, just a couple of them per ride, and service was limited to what drinks were found in the conductor’s cooler. As the route got more popular, more cars were added (most of them still with a vintage vibe), and the owners focused their investment efforts on dining on the train.
We took the 3.30pm train – late lunch, early dinner – so Iiro ordered The Big Boy sandwich, and I got a bison burger. Besides a train enthusiast, the owner of the Route is also a big foodie, and the menu had a local emphasis. The bison in my burger had roamed the prairie near Henderson, Colorado – just a couple hours North, near Denver – and Iiro’s Black Angus had grown up in North-East Colorado’s Sterling. The vegetables, too, were mostly local, and overall the lunch was the best food I’ve ever had on a train!
Royal Gorge Route takes around two hours and it’s a there-and-back through the gorge. If you don’t want to spend the whole time inside, you certainly don’t have to. We got out in the beginning to breath some fresh air at the open air carriages. And here’s a sign of excellent service: when our lunch was ready, the waiter found us and informed about it.
We were told to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife during the trip: big horn sheep, black bears, even mountain lions… but this time, we didn’t see any. Instead, we spent the time following efforts of white water rafters coming down the river. All of them seemed to make it though the rapids alright, and we also saw a group that was camping for the night…
This was definitely the most relaxing part of our long weekend, and I can fully recommend it to just about anybody! Just book early, if you’re going between Memorial and Labor Day, because the trains can be sold out during high season.
One of the best things about Rocky Mountains is its wildlife, and here’s my list of the cutest ones.
Big Horn Sheep
Big horn sheep move in small herds. They spend their summers high up in the Rocky Mountains, but when winter comes, they retreat to lower elevations with more vegetation. The ewes’ horns are straight and short, but rams can have large horns that round around their heads like Princess Leia’s hair. The horns also are the key to telling the age of a big horn sheep.
We’ve seen big horn sheep in Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone and Badlands national parks, as well as at Royal Gorge near Cañon City.
Rocky Mountain yellow-belly marmots are larger than their cousins, the European alpine marmots, and it sure isn’t because there’s more food in the Rocky Mountains – there isn’t. Our neighbor guessed it’s because tourists feed the marmots here with nuts, but here’s a newsflash for anybody doing that: if marmots eat food that isn’t a natural part of their diet (like nuts, potato chips, you name it), they gain the wrong type of fat in their bodies and might not be able to wake up from hibernation. Marmot hibernation is a kind of true hibernation, where their body temperature lowers down close to freezing point and their heart beats only a couple times a minute.
You’ll be bound to see marmots almost any time you hike above tree line during summer.
Mountain goats are easily recognizable thanks to their thick fur coats. In the photo, that’s a mountain goat with its summer fur on, so imagine what it’s going to be like in the winter! Mountain goats are larger than your average domestic goats, and they can even be a little scary when defending their young. They spend their days high above tree line but descend to valleys during dusk to eat. Mountain goats are just as good climbers as big horn sheep, and they compete over same territory.
We’ve only seen mountain goats once, while climbing to Quandary Peak.
Pikas are easier heard than seen: a high-pitched “eep eep” sound resonates around the tundra, but these small hamster-sized animals move lightning-fast among the rocks, so you need a real eagle eye to spot them. They’re actually not related to hamsters at all but are closer to rabbits, and a rumor tells they’ve been an inspiration to another lightning-fast animal – Pokémon character Pikachu!
Pikas are only seen on the highest mountain tops, far from tree line.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Another name for the elk is wapiti, which comes from Cree language and means “white rump”. This slightly-smaller-than-moose moose-like animal wanders around the Rocky Mountains in large gangs during summer and descend to the mountain villages during winters. September is the best time to go elk-spotting in Rocky Mountain National Park, because that’s the time of elk rut, when large bull elks clash their horns against each other and tourists block roads with their cars trying to take photos. Elk is the only animal on this list that is often hunted for food, and venison is served in many of the area’s restaurants.
You are almost bound to see an elk if you visit Rocky Mountains National Park and Estes Park, no matter the season.
I like to go to the sauna. I like the moment when water hisses off the stove, a soft heat spreads above the benches, and I hold my arms around my face to protect them from the steam. I like sweating it all out and then heading outside to cool off, take a plunge in the sea, or just sit on the porch with a cold beer in one hand. Afterwards, I like returning back to the dimly lit sauna to calm down, relax, and repeat it all again.
It’s been half a year since I was in a sauna, so it was about time to get to one – and what a great moment that was, right after a long hike, dragging my bag and me up a mountain to an altitude of 3,5 kilometers (11,600ft)!
In Colorado, 10th Mountain Division Hut Association runs a network of mountain huts, most of which are far from any roads. In the summer, you can hike or bike there, and in winters you use skis or snowshoes. Everything you need, you must bring along with you. The amenities in the huts vary, but generally they don’t amount to much: at Janet’s Cabin, we had a gas stove and lights powered by solar panels, but running water we needed to fetch ourselves and purify from the creek nearby.
We had picked Janet’s Cabin as our weekend stay for the sauna, of course. Not every cabin had such luxury, and we weren’t sure how much of a luxury this would be, because American saunas can be weird with carpets and “no throwing water on the stove”…. but luxury it was. A pot for warm water was missing, but otherwise as a Finn, I’d give it an A+ rating. We didn’t have a lake for swimming up near the tree line, so Iiro stepped around in the icy cold creek, I cooled down in the crisp mountain air with a beer that I’d dragged with me to the mountains just for this occasion.
10th Mountain Huts are shared so that they might have several different groups at the same time. For example Janet’s had 16 beds, spread around bunk beds in four bedrooms. On weekends, the huts are usually full, and I’d read beforehand that the guests can be a varied bunch of people, all ages and all group sizes. However this time with our Finno-German group of four, we had 12 retirees, who gathered in the evening by the fire to do puzzles and couldn’t care less for the sauna. That was fine for us, we were happy to spend the evening with just our group.
Huts are $40 per person per night, which might seem first a bit steep for a bed with little amenities. But when you think about the location of the huts, it makes sense: it’s over 10 kilometers to the nearest road from Janet’s Cabin along the Continental Divide Trail. Even if some of the hut’s maintenance is done with the help of pack animals, huge gas tanks and firewood for the winter must be transported through other means…
Waking up in the morning at the cabin, my head was aching in a way that couldn’t have been just because of the couple of beers. At over 11k feet (3,5km), the air is thin enough to cause mountain sickness even if we live at a fairly high elevation ourselves. If you’re from lower elevations, I recommend catching your breath for a couple days somewhere a bit lower.
Janet’s Cabin is one of those huts that are along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), the same route that continues from New Mexico up 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) all the way to the border of Idaho and Canada. CDT is less known than Pacific Crest Trail (recently made mega-famous by Wild), and it’s also more demanding: less than 100 people have through-hiked it. We walked it for only 10 kilometers on a section where it overlaps with much shorter Colorado Trail (CT). CDT is one of the most bad-ass trail achievements out there, but CT is possible to hike through in just 4-6 weeks, and thanks to the Mountain Hut Association, you won’t have to sleep in a tent all the way.
The huts are popular around the year, but especially during winter weekends, when you should start planning your trip already previous spring. Besides Janet’s Cabin, you can find saunas at Francie’s and Shrine Mtn Inn. All come with terrific mountain views!
Summer has advanced to August, but I feel like it has just started. Wasn’t it just a little more than a month ago when I trampled through snow in the mountains? And if last year is anything to judge by, the highest mountain tops are still open to climbers without winter equipment well into September.
So far, we’ve climbed two fourteeners in the Rocky Mountains: first Mount Bierstadt (14,065 ft / 4287m) in June, pushing through snow up to our thighs, and then a couple weeks ago to Mount Elbert (14,440 ft / 4401m) in beautiful sunshine and clear skies. We’ve also climbed our fair share of smaller mounts and trails and bushwhacked our way forward. I finally spotted some wild turkeys in Rocky Mountain National Park, and marmots whisking their tails away have cemented their place as our totem animals. I’ve sled down a mountain on my behind in a state of mild panic to escape a thunderstorm, and I might have developed a mild case of astraphobia, which is only a good thing, because I don’t want to end up a statistic. (On average, 11 Coloradans die each year of lightning strikes.) I’ve filled up my hard drive with photos several times over and munched on too many Clif Bars to count. Every couple of weeks, I’ve made the pilgrimage to REI to get some new topo maps, which should come to an end any moment now, because soon I have them all.
I’ve been meaning to write trips reports from several of the hikes and climbs, but meanwhile you may enjoy some Colorado mountain views that my Instagram followers have seen already throughout the summer. The advice is from a poem by Ilan Shamir.
This week’s been a busy one for me: together with a couple other Finnish bloggers, we started #matkachat, the first ever Finnish travel-themed Twitter Chat! The premiere session on Monday went so well I’m still all smiles, and I’m already looking forward to next Monday’s chat. But that’s not all…
…I also finally launched a much larger project: translating this blog into English! It’s been a lot of work and you wouldn’t believe the amount of technicalities that were involved, both on WordPress and server level, but now the system’s finally set up, and in the future, I’ll publish most of my posts bilingually. If you spot any weird stuff (like some Finnish on the English site), please let me know! Looking forward to your comments…
…and moving on to more personal highlights: last Saturday I finished second in a triathlon! It sounds fancier than it really is – my group only had five athletes – but I’m still proud… and slightly perplexed, since my feelings during the event were more along the lines of “I’m so going to lose”. The bike path’s altitude changes were a bit too much for my gears, but in hindsight, a mountain triathlon must have been hard for everyone…
…and next day it was just the right moment for a little hike to help me recover from the tri. We’d been up Green Mountain once before in winter, and we knew it afforded great views over both Boulder, our city, as well as to the other direction to Indian Peaks Wilderness. (And this all from a city park!!) Last time we’d been tredging through snow, and despite the scorching heat, the route felt easier this time. Check out the difference in the photos below…
…and then to the last good thing: I’m going to catch a red-eye flight tonight! Well no, the sleepless night’s not the good thing, but the destination is: Miami!! It’s been hot enough in Colorado too, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to spend a couple days by the ocean: beaches, snorkeling, boating… The reason for the trip is Elina, my friend whom I met in Luxembourg, and who’s spent the last six months in South America. She’s now on her way home to Finland, and I’m meeting her up in Florida for a couple of days. Iiro’s also coming, and besides Miami, we’ll visit Key West. Any restaurant tips are greatly appreciated!
Like always, you can follow my trip live on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and I’m also learning my way around Snapchat, because the neighbors’ preteen girl told me it’s the coolest thing around, and I think she knows what she’s talking about. If you’re on Snapchat, you can follow my Story by searching @globecalledhome.
Mesa Verden National Park is located in South-West Colorado near the border of New Mexico. It’s the only national park in the United States designated to protect works of humans instead of Mother Nature, and it’s also an UNESCO world heritage site. If you’re roadtripping in the area, there’s no excuse to pass by these magnificent American Indian ruins that the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited centuries ago. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the park – we spent a full 24 hours there – but even a short visit is worth it, as long as you take a little time to plan it.
First: Visitor Center & which tour to take?
It’s always a good idea to start off a national park visit by stopping at the Visitor Center – and especially so at Mesa Verde. This is because Mesa Verde Visitor Center sells tickets to the ranger-led cliff house tours, and this should be the highlight of your trip. You can purchase tickets for the tours up to two days in advance, so if you’re arriving to the area already the night before, it makes sense to drop by the Visitor Center to get tickets fo the next day’s tour. Alternatively, you can purchase tour tickets from Colorado Welcome Center in the town of Cortez.
By the time we arrived at around noon, the two most popular tours had already almost sold out for the day. We managed to snatch tickets for the Balcony House Tour at 4.30 pm (first available slot) and left Cliff Palace Tour for the next morning. These basic tours are $4 per person and can be only bought in person. Specialty tours are sold also at recreation.gov, which I recommend to check out well in advance. I would have personally wanted to visit Cliff Palace at sunset for a special photography tour, but it had already sold out a month before!
Balcony House Tour
Balcony House is the more challenging of the two basic tours: you’ll have to climb several ladders as well as crawl through a narrow corridor that gave me the jitters beforehand. In the end, though, it was my favorite of the two thanks to its active hands-on nature – or rather, hands-off, touching the ruins is not allowed! There are replicas of the ladders and corridor at the Visitor Center, so you can decide for yourself whether the tour’s the right fit for you. The ladders were exactly the same as on the tour, but the corridor was far more accommodating on the tour, which was VERY nice.
Balcony House has around forty rooms, which makes it average in terms of size for Mesa Verde cliff houses. The ranger on the tour told us tales of Mesa Verde history, pointed out details in Balcony House (murals, kivas), and explained in detail the art of dendrochronology, also known as tree-ring dating, which helped the scientists place the cliff houses on a timeline. With the lack of written history from the Ancestral Pueblo people, anthropologists have resorted to studying their descendants, the Pueblo and the Hopi people, to make educated guesses on centuries-old traditions, and the ranger went on to explain a bit about the rites of passage of the Pueblo.
Corn was and still is a staple in the Pueblo diet. It’s a hard day’s work grinding dried corn, and this work is traditionally done by the women. The Hopi Indians’ female rite of passage centered on this practice: girls are locked in small groups in a dark room to grind corn four days in a row. Talking, sleeping and food breaks are allowed, but light is not, and no outsider can lay their eyes on the girls. After four days, the older women wash the girls’ hairs ceremoniously and style them on two buns above their ears, after which the girls can enter the society as women of marrying age. To me, the buns hold an odd resemblance…
Cliff Palace Tour
Cliff Palace was the administrative center of Mesa Verde: 150 rooms, 23 ceremonial kivas, but only around a hundred residents. Not that administrative centers tend to have that many residents… In any case, it’s the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, and the route is easier than the one to Balcony House with only a couple short ladders and no standing on high cliffs.
Our Cliff Palace Tour really brought out the differences between rangers. The ranger at Balcony House was informative, shooting out facts one after another with so many details you had to keep focused constantly on the talk. The Cliff Palace ranger, on the other hand, let the sights speak for themselves, kept moments of silence to “enjoy the views” and philosophically pondered the Ancestral Pueblo way of life. I’m guessing this was due to the fact that the Balcony House ranger was working her 10th summer at Mesa Verde, wheres the Cliff Palace ranger had just started.
Spruce Tree House
If you don’t have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House. In fact, even if you do have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House anyway: Mesa Verde isn’t Mesa Verde with a Spruce Tree House visit. It’s the only cliff dwelling in the area, where you don’t have to take a tour to get up close, and you even have a chance to climb down a restored kiva.
We also thought about hiking Petroglyph Point Trail (4km) that leaves from close to Spruce Tree House, but the rainy weather made us think again. Instead, we popped by Chapin Mesa Archelogical Museum, which I don’t recommend if you’re short on time: you’re here to look at the buildings, not at stuff in vitrines.
Mesa Top Loop
This one-way road can take anywhere from half an hour to two, depending on how much you stop to take a look around. As wannabe-archaeologists, we stopped everywhere we could to marvel at the more-than-millennia-old dwellings, the oldest in the area, which would have looked like holes in the ground without the interpretive signs. This is a good tour to do on a rainy day, since most of the sights are indoors or at least under cover. If you go here, pick up a guide leaflet from the Visitor Center for $0.50.
If you’re too busy to stop everywhere, at least stop at the lookout at Sun Point View, where you have a great view of several cliff dwellings at once.
Far View Village Pueblos
Just when we thought we had already seen everything, here comes Far View. This is the place for Mesa Verde’s largest mesa top ruins, whole village pueblos right next to each other, and many of them were only abandoned at the same time as the cliff dwellings. At this point, we were already a little tired of all the ruins and in a hurry to make it to the next stop on our trip, but we stopped briefly enough to figure out that if we ever come here again, the short walking trail here is a must-do. Highly recommended you leave some time for this.
Best Views: Park Point Overlook
Although Mesa Verde is known for its historical significance, you can’t ignore the nature and the strikingly beautiful mesas. The best place to take these in is Park Point Overlook, the highest point in the park, with 360-degree views to every direction. Because of this, the park’s fire ranger station is situated here, and during dry season there’s a 24/7 guard here to watch out for wildfires. Several large wildfires have scorched the area in the past couple of decades, and long-ago burned trees line the roads.
Eat: Far View Terrace in the park is a good cafeteria-style lunch restaurant with a selection of burgers, hot dogs, and… navajo tacos! Try these out if you haven’t. Spruce Tree Terrace probably has the same selection, but the views aren’t as good.
Sleep: We slept at the Morefield Campground inside the park, where we had reserved a spot – a good choice, because thanks to Memorial Day weekend, the “almost never full” campground was indeed full. Even with the reservation, you’ll need to pick out the spot by yourself in a first-come-first-serve style, so go early if you have a strong preference for it. The campground has decent free showers, and the General Store stocks firewood, food, and other essentials.
The night before we stayed an hour’s drive away at Purgatory Ski Resort’s Village Condos, a real steal outside the high winter season: an excellent studio with a fireplace and a kitchenette cost only $70 a night. Highly recommended if you’re passing by.