After spending one week in Santa Fe, NM (check out my TR for Santa Fe & Nearby Hiking), we drove to Colorado and stayed one week in Casa Cielo (VRBO listing 322770), a rental home in a rural setting near Dolores, a 25 minute drive to the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park. If you want a well-stocked, spacious home, in a quiet, tranquil setting, I highly recommend this rental!
Day 1 (Sunday) Drove from Santa Fe to Dolores, Colorado, via the Aztec Ruins, which was our planned picnic lunch stop. However, just as we arrived the Aztec Ruins parking lot, the thunderstorms put on a lightening show with torrential rain. We ate our picnic lunch in the car and drove on to the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor's Center at the main entrance. We tried to purchase tickets on-line for Tuesday for the ranger guided tour called "Wetherill Mesa Experience", however it was already sold out. This is a tour that is only offered on Tuesdays and Fridays. Since the Wetherill Mesa is closed to the public at this time of the year, taking the tour was the only way to see it and Long House. We booked the tour on-line for Friday. We purchased our tickets for the tour of Balcony House (Tues. at 9 a.m.) and Cliff Palace (Tues. at 12:00) at the Visitor's Center. Next stop the City Market in Cortez to get groceries to take to our Casa rental home.
Day 2 (Monday) Mesa Verde. Arrived at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum at 8:30 a.m. and watched the 25 minute movie which is shown on the hour and half-hour. Then we did the short walk to Spruce Tree House (this is a self-guided tour). Next we hiked the Petroglyph Trail (2.4 mile Loop). Be sure to get the $1 Trail Guide (at the trailhead) since it explains the large petroglyph panel you will see, and points out a rock that was used for ax sharpening. Most of the brochure is about the plants, shrubs, and trees. We did this hike from 10:00-12:00 and it was quite chilly, being in the shade for a good portion of the hike. We thought this was a GREAT trail with narrow slots to go through between huge boulders and great views of the canyon. All the rangers we talked to said this was one of their favorite trails in Mesa Verde and I can see why. After the hike, we drove to the nearby picnic area and ate our lunch. Then we drove the Mesa Loop Road, stopping at all the points of interest. Be sure to get one of the brochures at the first stop on the road, since it explains about all the upcoming stops on the route. On our way back out of Mesa Verde, we did the half-mile loop trail to see the farming terraces and the Park Point Overlook Trail (0.4 mile RT). Definitely DO the Park Point Overlook Trail where you get to be on the highest point in Mesa Verde with gorgeous views of four states (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, NM). We left the park at 3:45 p.m., a beautiful sunny day, but with a chilly wind. ONE NOTE OF CAUTION: Lots of cars were being stopped by the park police, most likely due to speeding violations. Many areas in the park are only 25-35 mph.
Day 3 (Tuesday) Mesa Verde. It can take 1 hour to get from the park entrance to the Balcony House. We allowed plenty of time to drive to Balcony House for the 9:00 a.m. tour. We had only 9 people on our tour, plus the ranger. The ranger said that the First Tour of the day and the Last Tour of the day are the least crowded. This was a GREAT tour, especially with such a small group! They do warn you about this tour when you purchase the tickets and again before you start the tour. You will climb up a ladder this is 3-stories tall and crawl through a tunnel that is 18-inches wide and 12-feet long. It was FUN! Next we had our picnic lunch back at the picnic area near the museum and then visited the museum displays. At 12:00 was our Cliff Palace Tour. What a difference in the number of people on this tour! There must have been 50, the maximum allowed! Lots of talking done be the ranger on this tour, since the tour group that is ahead had to move on before you can move on. Some people in our group got really hot during the talk since they were sitting in the sun. Even though this is a short walk, bring water due to the sun. After our tour, we hiked the easy Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (took us 35 minutes for 1.2 mile hike) and visited the Far View Sites (Three-quarters mile of walking). We left the park again at 3:45 p.m.
Day 4 (Wednesday) Castle Rock and Sand Canyon Trail. The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores has a flyer called "Sand Canyon & Rock Creek Trails" which has a map of the trails and tells about the points of interest along the trails. We hiked in on the Sand Canyon Trail (McElmo Canyon trailhead on County Road G) and did all the spur trails to see the cliff dwellings. This is another GREAT hike with views of the canyon and close up views of cliff dwellings (eight in all!). Even though they aren't as big and spectacular as the ones at Mesa Verde, it is still cool to see them without a tour. We figured we probably hiked in-and-out for a total of 6-plus miles, from 8:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m. (including our lunch stop). Lots of sun on this hike - it does get Hot! I am told this trail does get busy with mountain-bikers on the weekends. We only saw hikers.
Day 5 (Thursday) Navajo Lake Hike near Telluride in the Lizard Head Wilderness (1 hour from Dolores on 535 West Dolores Rd.). This was the BEST HIKE of our entire 2-week trip! Spectacular views of some of the fourteeners (mountain peaks of 14,000'). Spectacular alpine lake! We happened to arrive at the parking lot just as the Thursday Telluride Hiking Group was preparing to do their hike. They graciously invited us to join them. Thanks Telluride Hiking Group for leading the way to the spectacular Navajo Lake. We made it to the lake in 3 hours, rising from 9,320' elevation to 11,154' elevation for our COLD-WINDY lunch stop! This is a round trip hike of 9.2 miles. We hiked back on our own so that we could stop along the way and take pictures. It took us almost 3 hours to get back down. Be prepared for much colder on top than what it feels like at the trailhead parking lot. We LOVED this hike! It reminded us of the scenery in the Canadian Rockies. The aspens were showing their fall colors along some of this trail.
Day 6 (Friday) Mesa Verde "Wetherill Mesa Experience" ranger led tour booked on-line (only offered on Tuesdays and Fridays, through Oct.4). This day started out extremely foggy, some rain, some sleet pellets, and some snowflakes! The tour is limited to 14 participants. We were all prepared with rain gear. I also had a fleece hat, mittens, and instant "hot hands" hand warmers. It was really cold for most of the tour since the sun did not come out till close to the end of the tour. The tour lasted from 9:00-2:30, but that included the drive time from Far View Terrace to Wetherill Mesa. We drove our own personal vehicles and followed the ranger. After a bathroom stop at Wetherill Mesa, you get out to do some walking to views of various cliff dwellings, going from the least impressive to the most impressive, Long House. We walked to about 4 sites, supposedly 4 miles total. We took a break at lunchtime to all eat our lunches (you bring your own) on some rocks overlooking one of the cliff dwellings. I was thankful for the "hot hands" warmers in my pockets to warm up my hands while eating a cold lunch. After lunch, another bathroom break before continuing on to our tour of Long House. It was really nice being in a small group for this tour. It always seems so much more personal. We really enjoyed our ranger. She did a great job pointing out pieces of pottery and part of a scraping tool along the trails and pictographs and petroglyphs in a few places. We were glad we did this tour, since Wetherill Mesa is closed at this time of year. Originally we had thought about doing the hike/bike of Wetherill Mesa scheduled for the next day (Sat.), but that ended up being cancelled due to a water main break on Wetherill Mesa Road (this actually happened during our tour!). After the tour, we walked the easy Knife Edge Trail (40 minutes RT). It is in the Morefield Campground area. The trail has sweeping views of the Montezuma Valley.
Day 7(Saturday) Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah (2 hour drive from Dolores to Natural Bridges Visitor's Center). We took the trail from Sipapu Bridge parking area to the canyon floor. Then we continued on the trail over to Kachina Bridge. This is considered an unmaintained trail and it was a bit hard to follow due to recent flood damage. You have to be good at looking for footprints to show which way to go. The trail into and out of Sipapu Bridge is steep and has ladders. And the canyon floor is soft sand making walking a little more difficult than usual. The hike through White Canyon has GREAT scenery, GREAT petroglyphs (look for the Wall of Hands), and Indian Ruins. Originally we had planned on doing the longer loop, going on to Owachomo Bridge and then back along the Mesa top for a total distance of 8.6 miles. However, we could never find the trail that continued on from Kachina Bridge. So we decided to just backtrack along the canyon back to Sipapu Bridge for a total of 5.8 miles. We spent 5 hours on this trail (9:30-2:30) including a lunch stop and rest stop. It was chilly in the morning, but got quite hot in the canyon later in the day. The beautiful yellow flowers of the rabbitbrush were in full bloom along the canyon trail! After completing the trail, we drove the loop drive to see the Owachomo Bridge and then continued the 2 hour drive back to Dolores for a much deserved pizza dinner at the Dolores River Brewing Company
Day 8 (Sunday) Drive back to Albuquerque for one night stay in motel before early morning flight home. Shopped at REI and ate dinner at Rudy's-yummy!!
We've concluded it was a GREAT TRIP!!