Category Archives: Colorado Trails

Southwest Colorado Adventures, Days 2-3: Mesa Verde

For the first part of this story, read this post

After lunch with my cousin and her boys in Bayfield and a quick stop for ice in Durango, we headed toward Mesa Verde. As we drove, green hillsides and winding roads greeted us, and then we saw the Mesa projecting above us, and we knew we’d arrived.

We started at the Visitor Center, where we bought our tour tickets for the next day and lingered a while, enjoying yet another stunning vista. Then, we drove up another winding road to Morefield Campground, the only campground in Mesa Verde National Park, where we checked in, then slowly circled, searching for an available spot with a decent bit of shade.

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Once we found a shady campsite, we set up camp, built a fire, and made dinner (this recipe — so good!). After we ate, did dishes, and drowned our fire, we headed over to the two-mile (round trip) Knife Edge trail, which the ranger at the VC had told us we had to hike at sunset. He was not wrong. All along the trail, the entire southwestern corner of Colorado — and beyond — is visible. Distant mountain ranges mark the horizon, smaller hills and mesas dot the landscape below, and unique geology lines the trail and the hills beyond. As the sun sank, its brilliant, then softening, light cast a glow over the entire valley, turning the rocks yellow, then orange, then pink.

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Knife Edge was a short and easy hike, but that view made it one of our favorites of all time. Neither my words nor my iPhone pictures can really do it justice.

We could have stayed at Knife Edge until the sun disappeared entirely, but we also wanted to catch a ranger program at the campground’s amphitheater, so we headed back down the trail as the light faded. The program was focussed on storytelling. It was just okay — the ranger was new and had some kinks to work out in her presentation — but it was fun, and stargazing as we headed back to our campsite and to bed was a perfect way to end a wonderful day.

The next morning, I was woken early by birdsong outside our tent. (Okay, I was woken by a full bladder, but then I heard the birds). When I got back from the bathroom, Jordan and I lay in bed –er, sleeping bags –and chatted until about 6:00, when I rolled out of bed and went for a 20-minute walk-run around the campground. Just down the hill from our campsite, I came upon five deer — four bucks and a doe — nonchalantly munching their breakfast beside the road. They were pretty tame, as National Park deer tend to be, and this one posed nicely for a picture before I headed on my way:

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He posed nicely, but apparently I can’t hold a camera still, so he’s all blurry.

When I returned from my little jog, we ate a quick breakfast, then headed out for another day of adventure, starting with a tour of Cliff Palace, the enormous dwelling that you probably picture when you think “Mesa Verde.” The ranger leading our tour was excellent, teaching us facts and theories about the history of Cliff Palace and its inhabitants.

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Jordan doing the Cliff Palace thing

After Cliff Palace, we drove over to Balcony House, billed as the “adventurous tour.” Of course, I can’t resist anything that claims to be adventurous, so I was really excited for this tour. We again had a delightful ranger leading the tour — he was knowledgeable, interesting, and funny. Even if he hadn’t been leading the tour, Balcony House would’ve been fascinating, sparking my imagination as I tried to picture how people had worked and lived there one thousand years ago. And the “adventurous” parts — the 32-foot ladder and narrow tunnel — were pretty fun, too.

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The remnants of what gives Balcony House its name (and a bunch of other tourists)

After Balcony House, we headed over to the Chapin Museum, where we refilled our waters and ate our usual vacation lunch of PBJs, sitting in the shade overlooking Spruce Tree House. This  was as close as we’d get to Spruce Tree this trip, since it was closed due to a rockslide. Darn.

After lunch, we headed out on the Pictograph Trail (which we learned is misnamed, because it leads to petroglyphs, not pictographs). We were quite hot, since we started the 2.4-mile hike at 1:40 p.m., but we had plenty of water, and the scenery on the hike was well worth a little sweat. The trail is steep in some places, with narrow sandstone steps, which made the crowd thin out after half a mile or so, leaving the trail mostly to us.

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Squeezing through a narrow part of Pictograph Trail

The petroglyphs were interesting, and we were glad we’d picked up a trail guide at the trailhead, as it explained some interpretations of the etchings. The ‘glyphs weren’t the only interesting part of the trail, either: remnants of walls, interesting geology, and unique plants dot the trail, too.

After the hike, we took respite in the air-conditioned museum for a bit, watching the movie and reading all the displays because learning is fun. The only thing left to do on Chapin Mesa then was to drive the Mesa Loop and look at the ruins along it. We did, of course, and while the stops were interesting, they didn’t make for very interesting pictures. Use your imagination.

We returned to the campground sweaty, dirty, and tired — the best way to end a day of vacation. Although it may not really seem “camping-ish” to have showers at a campground, we were pretty grateful for them that day. We ate dinner, showered, and collapsed into our sleeping bags, ready to get a good night’s sleep and do it all again tomorrow.

Have you been to Mesa Verde? 

What’s your favorite National Park?

 

Southwest Colorado Adventures, Days 1-2: Pagosa Springs and Chimney Rock

If you’ve followed my blog for a few years (or if you know us in real life), you know that Jordan and I try to take a vacation every year. We usually try to go for about a week, someplace that we’ve never been before, and our favorite destinations are national parks. We didn’t take a trip in 2016 because we were starting new jobs and buying a house and moving. We’d talked about not taking one this year, either, since buying the house and a car and new windows for the house left us feeling less than flush. But our trips are important, so we decided on a budget-friendly, mostly camping Colorado-cation this year.

Our adventure started bright and early on a Sunday morning. We’d packed all we could the night before, so I went for a quick 2-mile walk-run (I’m still pretty restricted, thanks to this injury), and we packed the cooler, loaded up our bikes, and were on the road around 7 a.m.

Our ultimate destination was Mesa Verde, but since I’m not a good road-tripper, we’d decided to break the drive into two days, spending Sunday night in Pagosa Springs. The drive was beautiful, and we arrived in Pagosa around 12:30 p.m. We parked at the Visitor Center and ate our PBJs by the river, watching children splash and rafters and kayakers paddle past. After lunch, we  explored the town. Turns out, there’s not much to the town of Pagosa, and most of what’s there is closed on Sundays. We popped into the few shops that were open, then decided  to try out the hot springs.

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This coffee shop in Pagosa Springs gets me. 

Pagosa boasts three options for hot springs dippin’, all for different prices. We chose Overlook Hot Springs, the mid-priced choice. Overlook has three levels of pools: indoor, courtyard, and rooftop. The rooftop pools offer a view of downtown Pagosa, the riverwalk, and the mountains. The courtyard pools are one-person tubs — we joked that we felt like that weird commercial with the people in separate bathtubs — and the indoor pools are nice, but nothing spectacular. Overlook was surprisingly quiet: we shared the rooftop pools with another couple for a few minutes, but otherwise had the place to ourselves. The soak was a nice way to loosen up after a long morning of driving, and we appreciated that they had showers to (try to) wash the sulfur smell out of our bodies when we were done.

We rounded out the afternoon with beers and a snack at local brewery Riff Raff Brewing. The beer was good and the chips and salsa even better; definitely stop at Riff Raff if you’re ever in Pagosa.

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We relaxed on the patio for a bit, then headed out to our campground. Our campsite was lovely, right on the river, but a little crowded. Kids were noisily playing ball, riding bikes, and splashing in the river near us, but we didn’t mind; we were glad that they were outside and enjoying nature instead of glued to whatever screen was handy. Plus, they cleared out and quieted down early, so we had a glorious night of sleep listening to the river flowing behind our tent.

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Monday morning, we ate some riverside oatmeal, packed up camp, and headed to Chimney Rock National Monument, between Pagosa Springs and the little town of Bayfield. Chimney Rock offers two-hour guided tours, the first starting at 9:30 a.m. We were glad we’d chosen that first tour, as even at 9:30, the sun was pretty warm on those exposed trails.

Although Chimney Rock is a National Monument, it’s run by the Forest Service, not the National Park Service, which means its tours are run by volunteers, not rangers. The volunteers bussed us up from the parking area to the ruins, and our tour started with the lower loop, The Great Kiva Trail, where we saw the remains of pit houses and, of course, a Great Kiva. The view was beautiful — mesas, hills, valleys, and mountains as far as we could see.

Once we finished the lower loop, we headed up The Pueblo Trail — the part of Chimney Rock that visitors can see only on a guided tour — to a Great House atop a hill and aligned with Chimney and Companion Rocks (that alignment is important: it’s how the Ancestral Puebloans kept track of the summer and winter solstices and therefore knew when to plant).

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Chimney and Companion Rocks (and the very edge of the trail)

The climb was short but steep, narrow, and rocky in places, and some in our group had to quit halfway up and head back down. The view from the top was well worth the climb, with views of the entire valley below. At the top, we explored the enormous Great House, learning from our guide and trying to eavesdrop on the three archeologists who had passed us on the way up.

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After our tour concluded and we headed back down, we wanted to visit the little cabin/museum at the base, but since we were meeting my cousin in Bayfield for lunch, we didn’t have time. I guess that means we’ll just have to go back!

After lunch and a quick stop for ice in Durango, we headed toward Mesa Verde. Since this post is getting long, I’ll save our Mesa Verde adventures for next time. Stay tuned!

Have you been to Pagosa Springs and/or Chimney Rock? 

Your favorite vacation type: camping or hotelling?

 

Hiking Poudre Canyon: Mount McConnell

Hike stats:
Distance: 4.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1327 feet
Time: 3 hours
Fee: $6 to park at the trailhead
Good for: Easy hiking, hiking with dogs

One of the reasons we moved last summer was to be closer to the mountains. We wanted to be able to day hike without spending more time driving than actually hiking. We’d hoped to do some hiking this spring, but our jobs kept our weekends busy right through the end of May. Finally, in early June, we had time to start exploring.

I checked out a book called The Best Front Range Hikes from the library, and we flipped through to find one that wasn’t too far away or too long a hike. We decided on Mount McConnell, up the Poudre Canyon.

I hadn’t been up the canyon since college, and I’d forgotten how lovely the drive is. The Poudre River was full and fast-moving with fresh run-off, and the sparkling water, colorful wildflowers, and green trees made for a nice little drive.
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We hadn’t gotten a very early start (that’s why we moved, remember?); we parked, used the trailhead restrooms, and started hiking a little before 9:00. I was a little worried we’d be hot, but some friendly clouds kept us shaded most of the way up. The trail climbs fairly steadily for the first couple of miles, and it seemed like after every little bend, we just had to stop to take in the next bit of stunning scenery down below.

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There’s a pretty cool rock wall and rock field about halfway up. 
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One of many overlooks. The trailhead is at the campground down there. 

The trail to the summit of Mount McConnell branches off the main trail, but it’s a short jaunt to the top, and the view is incredible.

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Jordan enjoying the summit
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Hi, Mummy Range.

We lingered at the summit for several minutes, enjoying the panorama and the sunshine that had finally decided to reappear. Eventually, we started our walk back down. The trail gives the option of making this a loop hike, and we did, because why see the same scenery when we can see something new? The trail down wasn’t quite as well maintained as the trail up, but it was still easy to follow.  We did take one wrong turn — at a water crossing, the trail we needed was hiding in the shade — but we realized our mistake fairly quickly and were soon back on the right track.

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This stream was a trickster.

Back at the trailhead but not really wanting to leave, we spent several minutes trying to skip rocks and dipping our fingers in the icy river, talking about how glad we were that we’d moved closer to the places we love.

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This was a lovely little hike. Although my new book said this was about a four-hour hike, we did it in almost exactly three hours, including our wrong turn, lots of picture stops, and lingering at the summit. Even starting late, we had plenty of time to hike and dawdle and still had the afternoon free. It’s an easy and uncrowded hike, and the views from the top make you feel like you really accomplished something. If you’re in the Fort Collins area, definitely give this one a try!