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Day 187 – San Juan Skyway, June 2, 2011

We spent the morning tooling around Telluride and took a lovely hike along Jud Wiebe Trail.  The signboard posted at the trailhead did not display a map, thus my knowledge of the trail stemmed from the information provided by the woman at the visitor’s center yesterday and a two sentence summary from the Trails app on my iPhone.  It started at the top of Aspen Street, it was somewhere between 2.7 and 3.3 miles, and it was ranked as difficult.  With an elevation gain of 1,200 feet, the iPhone app suggested that I allot 1.5 to 2.5 hours.  It took me every bit of 2 hours to cross Cornet Creek, climb the steep path above town, enjoy the shade of aspen groves, admire the view of Bridal Veil Falls, chat with some locals, cross another creek, and finally descend along a rocky road to town.  I can’t believe Petey made it!

From Telluride we headed south through a plateau of high grasslands, over Lizard Head Pass, and down through emerald green valleys dotted with yellow wild flowers as snow capped mountains towered above.  Runoff from melting snow streamed down the mountainside into the powerful Dolores River.  We reached Rico around lunchtime to find a tiny town with only a few businesses open, including a gas station, a liquor store, and a restaurant.  Many of the remaining buildings of this once booming mining town were for sale or lease.  In 1891, when the Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived in Rico in a route that connected Durango and Ridgway, the town boasted a population of nearly 5,000 people which supported 23 saloons, 2 churches, 2 newspapers, a bank, a theatre, a boarding house, a mercantile, a brick county courthouse, and a thriving three block red-light district.  I only stopped in an attempt to find a cache nearby some mining remains, but I was unsuccessful.

I continued on to Dolores where I stopped for a look at a Galloping Goose of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad which was also a virtual cache.  The Galloping Goose was devised after the stock market crash of 1929 in an attempt to save the Rio Grande Southern Railroad from bankruptcy.  While ore, timber, and livestock hauling by truck was becoming more favorable and less expensive, the tracks and trestles of the railroad were falling into a state of disrepair.  Running heavy engines on the line would only continue to damage the infrastructure; therefore, a new lightweight, gasoline-powered rail bus was designed to replace the steam engine and transport light freight, passengers, and mail.  For twenty years, seven different rail buses and a maintenance goose operated on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad until eventually the railroad was abandoned in 1951.

Just south of Dolores, I took a half-hour to explore the Anasazi Heritage Center.  The National Monument features a variety pottery excavated from Anasazi ruins that now sit beneath McPhee Reservoir, a photography exhibit of Ute Indians, a photography exhibit of pictographs and petroglyphs, and a nature walk to a few remains of ruin.  Archaeologists use the center’s database for their research.  I think visitors need to have an extreme interest in the Anasazi culture to enjoy the center.  Personally, I could have skipped this stop and gone straight to Mesa Verde National Park where countless ruins can be found in remarkably good condition.

From approximately A.D. 1 to A.D. 550 the Anasazi were semi-nomadic.  From A.D. 550 to A.D. 750, the Anasazi’s settled areas and built pithouses.  From A.D. 750 to A.D. 1200, they advanced to building single story and multi-story villages.  Between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1300, the tribe constructed cliff dwellings before abandoning the area, most likely due to a twenty year drought.

Pithouses generally consisted of two rooms, the antechamber and a larger room with a storage pit and a fire pit.  The rooms were dug a few feet into the ground and were covered by a wood and thatch roof approximately head high.

The Anasazi also dug kivas, an underground religious room.  The kivas include a bench, a Sipapu, a firepit, and a deflector stone.  The Sipapu is a small, circular hole in the floor which symbolizes the entrance to the underworld.

In addition to the pithouses and kivas, Mesa Verde National Park is home to numerous cliff dwellings, some very well preserved.  The park allows entrance to a few dwellings on a self-guided basis and few others via a ticket purchase and ranger tour.  All of the dwellings can be seen from overlooks as well.  Petey and I visited a handful of overlooks such as the Square Tower House Overlook, the Sunpoint View which provided views of several dwellings including the Cliff Palace, and the Sun Temple.

Standing 26 feet high, the Square Tower House is the tallest structure in the park.  The four-story tower is part of an extensive, multi-storied unit with about 80 rooms and 7 kivas.  The Square Tower House represents the final phase of building at Mesa Verde around A.D. 1200.

The Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling and requires a one-hour guided tour for up close viewings.  Petey and I arrived very late in the day, so we just observed it from above.  I’ve been to so many of these dwellings over the last few months, I didn’t really feel the need to walk through the ruins, though I will say that Mesa Verde National Park may be one of the better places to explore ruins for those who are interested in the history of the Anasazi.

Unlike the haphazard design of the cliff houses, the Sun Temple appears to follow a pre-conceived design.  Archaeologists believe the massive construction of the D-shaped symmetrical design required a community-wide effort.  It is also believed that the structure was never complete as there is no evidence of a roof.  Though the structure appears ceremonial, the Sun Temple was erected without doors, windows, or firepits, thus its function remains a mystery.

After completing both the Mesa Top Loop drive and the Cliff Palace Loop drive through what looked like dead cedar trees, we returned to the Chapin Mesa Museum and the Spruce Tree House.  The Spruce Tree House is the most well preserved dwelling in the park.  I had planned on taking the self-guided tour through the Spruce Tree House, but it closed at 6:30.  I was ten minutes too late.  I didn’t think about a trail closing, but I can see that the park would close trails to ruins in order to protect them.  Oh well, I got a view of it from above and then drove another 15 miles toward the entrance of the park where I found a campsite for the night.

This national park is very unique.  The campsites are a bit more expensive than most other national parks, but the showers are free and the bathrooms have flush toilets.  The restaurant by the campground even offered an “All you can eat” pancake breakfast for $5.95.  If only free wi-fi were available!  Camping services at many of the other national parks I have visited have been more primitive.  Off to sleep…ETB

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