(Note: Sorry for the delay, we know it has been a while since we posted. We’ve had an extremely busy couple months with some pretty big changes. That said, we still have some amazing posts in the works about the past couple months and we want to do the locations justice. So please bear with us while we get the photos edited and the posts written. It should hopefully be worth the wait!)
We had a couple options for how to get from Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon, but we knew it was going to take us a couple days to drive the 7+ hours for us since we could only drive a couple hours after work each day. So we decided to take I-40 as we knew we’d have cell service and there looked to be a number of free or cheap campsites along the way. Petrified Forest National Park also just happened to be about half way and we would get to bag another National Park.
So the first night out of Santa Fe, we stopped at an the Dancing Eagle Casino to dump tanks and to fill up water, propane and the fridge. It was just a gravel lot though and we had miles to make, so the next night we drove the rest of the way to Petrified Forest.
We pulled into some free spots at the south entrance to the park that are technically owned by some private gift shops. Fortunately they don’t charge for the sites which was really nice. It was about as “middle of nowhere” as you could get. You could see for miles and miles. We drove 5 miles into the park and could still see our RV from the top of a hill.
We just checked out the South end of the park which was supposedly the less popular part of the park but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so vast and empty. The solitude was amazing compared to so many national parks we had been too. Usually national parks tend to have so many people in such a small place we can feel like we need to elbow our way to anything. It was completely different here. Just quiet, solitude and vistas as far as the eye could see.
The park itself knew what it was and didn’t try to be anything else. There were a handful of walking trails that took you through different “groves” of petrified wood. We loved them because this park was totally fine with bringing Cheat along, a real exception in the National Park system.
A log in the “Long Logs” area of the park where a log jam formed on a river and silt covered the logs and petrified them. Note how the log is so hard that the ground is eroding out from underneath it but it is totally untouched.
There were a couple of “famous” fossils to get pictures with:
“Old Faithful” A log named by the wife of the first Superintendent of this park because everyone came to see it the way everyone who goes to Yellowstone goes to see the geyser.
There was a museum where you could learn about why the wood was here and how it was formed and see some pretty amazing fossils of Phytosaurs (You know how they say “birds are dinosaurs that are alive today” and “crocodiles were around at the time of the dinosaurs” but no one calls them dinosaurs? Here is why).
Skull of a 25 foot long Smilosuchus
It was so odd that the park had such an extensive amount of petrified wood and the wood was so impervious to the elements that they just left it out and about. Usually when I think of fossils, I think of precious and rare things we put in museums, not rocks we leave lying on the ground everywhere.
Overall, it was a unique park with some really nice views, some quiet, interesting hikes we could bring cheat to, a little history and geology lesson, and a sense of just how small and short-lived we really are.
After Mesa Verde, the next logical place to go was Durango, CO. Durango was right up the road and we needed some work done on the RV. We went into Durango with some high expectations as a town we’d really enjoy and while it was fine, we were pretty disappointed overall. I think our impression can best be summed up by a quote we got on Facebook when asking for leads on places to stay: “all the best places in Durango are at least 12 miles outside town.”
It started when we were trying to find a place to stay. When we’re visiting a town (especially one we might be scouting for possibly living there in the future) we like to stay in the middle of town. Durango has the Fairgrounds which would have been cheap and pretty centrally located but there are only seven sites and all seven were booked out over a month. Usually in cases where all of the ‘RV’ spots are booked, we say “oh we don’t need any hookups, can we just pay to park in the lot?” and it’s fine because we bring our own solar panels and water and it’s just like boondocking. Unfortunately, that wasn’t allowed here. So next was checking the local rules for parking on the street. We called the non-emergency police number and were told we could leave an RV on a street overnight for one night but we couldn’t stay in it (I guess they expect you to pay for a hotel room?). So that’s out. Next up, all the other campgrounds were either full for weeks or 12 miles out. We thought about the Walmart but that was the busiest Walmart parking lot we’d ever seen and they had a one night limit. We ended up settling on a very reasonable free campsite on BLM land, about 12 miles outside town.
The site was great but the cows owned it. They weren’t happy with us in their space.We also got a feeling of just being unwanted. Almost everyone we met seemed to do this “you don’t live here, so I’m going to treat you like tourist and not bother trying to get to know you” thing. It was different than almost everywhere else we’d been. Everyone seemed to have their own group and didn’t want to be inviting to new people. This applied to the kayakers, the people at the breweries we went to, and even the people at a class Allison went to on urban food foraging.
We did get to see an old friend, Sasha, who was the opposite of everything I said above though. She was welcoming, friendly, and helpful. She came over to dinner once which was really nice and I got to go kayaking three times including once with Sasha.
We did really like the hike we did up Vallecito Creek and the town of Vallecito and it’s campgrounds looked like an amazing place to spend the summer, but again, it was about 20 miles outside town. The beer was pretty good, the trail system was decent (once you got out of town), and the size felt about right, but overall we’re not dying to go back to the town. We’ll probably be back to climb mountains or kayak the Animus or go camping in the San Juan mountains, but I doubt we’ll be headed back for Durango itself.
Did you know that Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the U.S. dedicated to the history of humans? It’s true! It makes Mesa Verde not only beautiful, as most parks are, but also unique and powerful. I’ll do my best to tell you about it, but you should definitely visit here if you can. It’s really indescribable to be walking in the same place that people did 800+ years ago. You can truly imagine their lives far more than any book can describe.
Spruce Tree House (I think)
History of Mesa Verde
Let me back up. Mesa Verde was the home of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples. Twenty-one different Native American tribes trace their lineage and traditions back to this community. People lived at Mesa Verde, first on top of the mesas and later under the shelter of cliff alcoves, from about the year 800 to 1290. Most (though not all) of the structures that were built on top of the mesas have since been lost to time due to their exposed nature. We know, though, that the mesa tops were fertile farming grounds used for agriculture throughout Mesa Verde’s inhabitation. The cliff structures, unlike the mesa pueblos, are remarkably well-preserved. Though they were built 800 years ago, you can still see multi-story buildings, balconies, kivas, and ceremonial dance grounds.
Seeing Mesa Verde
In order to prevent vandalism, desecration, or just careless damage, visitors to the park need to be accompanied by a park ranger to visit most sites. As such, they have set up tours for the major sites: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. Tickets for the tour are only $5 each, but they sell out quickly.
The namesake balcony of Balcony House. This would have been used as sort of an external hallway between 2nd story rooms, among other purposes. You can also see the small doorway near center frame. It’s not a window!
We visited Cliff Palace and Balcony House both on our first day in the park. We also took in the museum, which is a must-see! Balcony House involves a tight squeeze through a tunnel and some steep ladders, so it’s definitely not for everyone, but it was remarkable to see both the well-preserved balcony and the beautiful views of the canyon. With the nice breeze during the heat of a desert day, it was obvious to me why people would want to live there! Cliff Palace is the most well-known in the park. It has 150 rooms and was probably home to about 100 people. We didn’t get to enjoy Cliff Palace quite as much, because our tour had probably 50 people on it. We felt more herded than guided, but it was still neat to see.
Nik crawling through the tunnel in Balcony House. This was the only passage in and out. Can you imagine doing this with a basket of grain, an infant, or a deer carcass?
We learned a lot from the tours and the museum about how the structures were built (juniper and stone, mostly, hewn with stone tools), about what people ate (corn, beans, cacti, yucca, pine nuts, game when they could get it), and how scientists have learned all this stuff. The museum had lots of pottery that archeologists had found. There was even a set of children’s play dishes!
Grain grinding stones- “matas” and “metatas”
Kodak House, seen on our Bike & Hike tour
Bike and Hike Tour
By far the coolest experience, though, was a Bike & Hike tour on Wetherill Mesa. This was really neat- we only had five people plus a ranger in our group. Ranger John did a great job!
Ranger John Slevin
We spent the day biking and hiking to several sites that people very rarely get to see. We brought binoculars with us and it seems that every little nook in the canyon walls had something built there! We saw pictograms and structures large and small. We hiked a path with pottery shards and grinding stones along the sides. The best part, though, was that at the end, we got a near private tour of Long House! We spent over an hour with our guide walking through. We got to ask as many questions as we wanted and really observe the small details. My favorite was a spot on the ground where there were divots in the stone where people had sharpened their axes. There were also lots of kivas there, I think 21 in all, which were rooms that would have been used for warmth, prayer, ceremony, and family time. It was a powerful experience, and there is no way to describe it but to say you could feel the history and the people there. Click to expand the photos below.