Southwest CO Fun Stuff

That woman’s tryin’ to kill me I tellya…she’s a menace. We need to call in the ASPCA or the NAABP or Protective Services or sumtin’…Ima tellin’ ya she’s out to get me and send me to that great hibernation den in the sky.

Me bein’ just a sea level bear…I was born in Florida yaknow and originally belonged to her mother and spent all my life at elevations with only 2 (and occasionally 3) digits in the elevation…and here she dun gone and dragged my skinny little bear behind up to 8,546 feet…there aint’ no damn oxygen up there and by the time I got ouda da car I was just a huffin’ and puffin’ and purt near passed out.

Ima getting ahead of myself though…but I wanted to get it on record that she’s a menace to society and well mannered bears everywhar…

Sunday morning the adults packed up early and headed off for 2 days of Fun Stuff© over in southwest Colorado…but it seemed more like attempted homicide to me as I will relate shortly. 

Their first stop was at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument…so we headed back up US-191 30 miles or so then eastward into Colorado…with our first stop being the Anasazi Heritage Center and Museum…and also the headquarters/visitor information center for the National Monument. No idea why they built their visitor center 20 miles from the park…but that’s those whacky Coloradans for ya…they legalized that wacky-tobacky ya know so mebbe they wuz under the influence of a toke or two when they picked the location…whatevers. Anyway…the museum was a pretty decent place but it did sit at just about 7,000 feet. They did a short hike up to the top of the hill behind the center to see the Escalanté House located up there and to get a good shot of Sleeping Ute Mountain just to the south. 

They learned about the legend of Sleeping Ute…here’s how it goes. Way back when…after the Utes entered the world there was this Ute warrior god who was involved in a battle with the Evil Ones. Eventually…the Ute warrior god won…but by then he was both wounded and just plain tuckered out…so he laid down to rest and promptly fell asleep. Some of his blood became the water that nourished the Ute people. He’s got 4 blankets to cover himself that he rotates with the seasons…light green for spring, dark green for summer, gold/red for autumn and white for winter. You can see him to this day…just laying there resting. You can see his head to the right, his hands folded over his chest and his feet stretching out to the left. Seems like a long dad-gum nap to me from way back when until now…but that’s their story and they’re asticking to it.

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From the overlook where they saw Sleeping Ute they continued on upwards to the top to the Escalanté House…named amazingly enough after Friar Escalanté who the first explorer to set eyes on it in 1776 (don’t know why Friar Dominguez got left out as they were together) (Editors Note…Connie reminded me that the Dominguez house was at the bottom of the hill…but it was a lot more poorly preserved and smaller so he musta been the junior friar. Sucks to be him.) Historians claim he “discovered” it…but it was here all along and he was just the first paleface to stumble across it I reckon. We also got some nice shots of the McPhee reservoir behind the center which was formed when a dam was built across the San Juan River. The San Juan dumps into the Colorado River a hundred miles or so southwest of this reservoir and adds to the water that sculpted the Grand Canyon.

 Plateau Striped Whiptail Lizard…sorry it’s another lizard…but it’s what I got.

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The Escalanté House

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Flowering cactus

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McPhee Reservoir

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This must be an Albino Indian Mountain Lion…I never seen one with tattoos before.

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From the Heritage Center…after hiking back down the hill…we set off 20 or so miles back the way we came to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument…there are several Pueblo’s (Ute word for village)…we visited Lowry Pueblo as the others are off down 4WD high clearance vehicle roads and the one we had to go on was bad enough. The pueblo itself was both good news and bad news. The good was that it was the best preserved and most complete of any we’ve seen on our travels in this part of the world…the bad part is that it’s been…in our opinion…overprotected so as to make it last. The Indians who built it knew that it had a lifecycle of it’s own and would eventually go back to the earth but the Park Service’s job is to preserve it for future generations to see…this means they put up fences, built a roof over it to protect it from the rain, and have it 10 miles down a dirt road so practically nobody will visit. We hiked a half mile or so there and it was down in the mid 6,000s of elevation so I thought my prayers for oxygen had been answered…but as I’ll get to momentarily it was just a trick.

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Lowry Pueblo…the roof isn’t original but was added by the Park Service to protect the original construction.

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Large kiva located at Lowry Pueblo…it’s about 40 feet in diameter…and again contrary to what the commonly held “facts” tell you it was really a multipurpose social interaction room buried in the ground for temperature control in both winter and summer and entered via a hole in the roof and a ladder. Topside there was a courtyard used in good weather and inside there were benches and places to work and socialize in addition to conduct of religious ceremonies. The Puebloans were pretty smart engineers as well as mathematicians and astronomers…more on that when we get to the Cliff Palace shots.


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From Canyons of the Ancients we headed eastward another 20 or 30 miles to Cortez CO to stop at the Colorado Welcome Center…reason being that we wanted tickets to visit the Cliff Palace dwellings located in Mesa Verde National Park…the tickets are first come first served and only available 2 days in advance. Since we wanted them tomorrow we figured getting them early would give us a better chance of getting a decent time for the tour…that is an early in the day time before it got too hot.

That part went pretty quickly and we were back in the truck for a quick stop at Wendy’s for lunch…and that’s when the monster returned. Yeah…that woman…you know who I mean…took over and next thing I know we’re headed into Mesa Verde National Park. Her idea was that we could do all the overlooking and driving around today (yeah, sure) and then leave the hike until tomorrow. Next thing I know we’re though the entrance gate and up to the summit of the road at Park Point…8,546 feet above the sea level Ima supposed to be at…you know, where you can breathe.

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I thought there was no air at 7,000 feet…and I gotta tell there’s even less than none at 8,546 feet. Fortunately…the altitude finally got to her as well and she pardoned us from having to hike the 200 more vertical feet up to the weather station.

We continued our drive through the park with that…went down as far as the museum in the park to get some mementos and such before heading back to our hotel for the evening…it being way too far to try to get back to the house and we needed 2 days for all the things we wanted to see and do.

Pano taken from the Montezuma Valley overlook

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Knife Edge Trail…which we did not hike down. I only put this shot in because until the 1950s when the tunnel through the ridge was opened…this was known as Knife Edge Road and was the only way into Mesa Verde National Park. It’s only about 6 feet wide so I wonder how they got anything other than a Jeep or horses into the park.

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View across the Montezuma Valley…you can see Sleeping Ute Mountain in the back left although the angle sort of makes the outline of the sleeping warrior god harder to see…his head is still to the right.

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We thought this Monument Valley looking butte (the tall skinny one past the flat mesa in the foreground) was actually one of the ones in Monument Valley originally but that’s like 120 miles away and it just doesn’t look that far. Talking to the rangers you can see Monument Valley on a clear day…which it obviously wasn’t…she told us it was another butte only like 30 miles away. Still…as I said the other day the really long range views out here are one of our favorite parts of the west. Don’t worry though…Monument Valley is coming, at least the small part of it we’re going to pass through on the way to Page AZ later in the week.

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More canyon views in Mesa Verde National Park.

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The Sun Temple from across the canyon…we’ll be closer to it tomorrow.

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Point Lookout at the entrance to the park…the road winds up and around it with about 1500 feet elevation gain in about 4 miles.

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The La Plata Mountains…again about 30 miles away. Just gorgeous with the snow still on them in late June…but then they are all in the 13,000+ range. Neil got this while we were stopped for important FaceTime Granny operations…Jen called late Father’s Day afternoon so Alex could talk to him and Connie and wish him a happy Father’s Day. He’s starting to catch on to the idea that Neil and Connie are his Dad’s Mom and Dad.

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Excavated pit house…again it’s been Disney-ized by the Park Service to protect it. Pit houses were where the Puebloans lived on top of the mesa before they moved into the cliff dwellings…perhaps as more folks migrated into the area they needed additional living space and rather than utilize the scarce farmable land on top of the mesas for new villages they built the cliff dwellings to preserve more farmland.

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We finally got to our hotel…the Sophia Conference Center and Lodge in Dolores CO…and again it was the altitude. The hotel sits at 7,463 feet and while that’s less than 8,546…it still ain’t sea level and there still ain’t no oxygen. We went down into town and found the Dolores Brewery where they make mighty fine cream ale and stout…and mighty fine Hawaiin pizza with added chipotle peppers to give it a hot and smoky kick. After that we headed back uphill to the Lodge…thank god we were in Big Red and didn’t have to walk…and settled in for the night.

Early next morning…we had breakfast at the Lodge…it’s more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel…before heading back into Mesa Verde for our 1100 tour of the Cliff Palace Dwellings site…we were supposed to be there at 1045 for the Ranger led pre-walk talk…but that was just a trick to get us there early as the talk didn’t start until 1100.

The tour was pretty decent…it’s an archeological site and a sacred site to the descendant tribes from the Puebloan people…Utes, Navaho and Paiute…so it was mostly a look but don’t touch sort of thing. The only trouble was…some of those assholes we ran into up at Arches musta made the trek down here. Before we started on the tour…the guide went over the rules…and twice said “water only, no food, gum or candy”. When we got to our staging spot about 50 yards short of the actual dwellings…they run groups through it on a pretty rigid schedule…sure enough there was this 20something self-centered me-first snowflake right in front of the guide chomping away on his Juicy Fruit…and he was offended when told to get rid of it.

Our guide was…we think…an Indian/Spanish/Mexican mix and he was both entertaining and educational…after 8 years Rangering here he clearly was mucho knowledgeable about Mesa Verde…it’s pronounced Mesa Verday with a southwest/Indian/Mexican accent and rolling of the R’s…but as an Indian he clearly had less than fully complimentary thoughts about some of the “facts” and “history” of the establishment of the park.

According to history…the dwellings were discovered by the Wetherill family when they were searching for some lost cattle in a snowstorm…they had permission from the local Utes to run cattle…and discovered the cliff dwellings through a freak slackening of the whiteout conditions of the blizzard. In actuality…they had paid the Indians to run their cattle there and…since the Indians had lived in the area for generations they knew exactly where the abandoned dwellings were and they weren’t lost at all, just unknown to the settlers.

The Wetherills…being driven by money and greed as are most human beings…started digging out artifacts and selling them to collectors to help finance their cattle ranching operations. They were actually trying to help preserve the ruins…probably so they could continue selling artifacts…but they were not scientists so they eventually brought in Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiöld who established a lot of archeological discipline and also dug up (essentially looting according to our guide) a great deal of artifacts and sent them to Sweden in the early 1890s where they eventually made their way to the Museum of Finland where they remain to this day. This theft of cultural items…Nordenskiöld was actually arrested and held in nearby Mancos CO until it was determined he broke no laws and they let him and the artifacts leave…enraged the locals here in the American southwest and led to the passage of the  Antiquities Act and the establishment of the National Park both in 1906. The park has gone through several phases and philosophies of preservation of the sites over the decades…first starting with putting in concrete walkways and rebuilding a lot of the dwellings to reinforce them and with later advances in archeology they’ve gone to much more of a minimal preservation sort of idea where they try to leave things as original as possible.

Another “fact” that our guide told us about was that the cliff dwellings were defensive in nature…this idea came about because they built towers and archeologists with a European mindset saw those towers and the small windows in them with a castle mentality and hence decided that the settlement was defensive in nature. Later investigations into the deep understanding the Puebloan people had of mathematics and astronomy…despite the lack of a written language…have sort of debunked that theory. What our guide told us was that an awful lot of things about the dwellings…why the Indians moved from mesa top pit houses to the cliff dwellings, why they left, what the purpose of the kivas (partially underground round rooms) was, whether it was a hierarchical society or an egalitarian society…simply aren’t known. There are multiple theories that fit the known facts…but with no written contemporaneous history to fall back on there is simply no answer to some of those questions.

 Close up view of the Sun Temple…it’s a much more substantial construction than the cliff dwellings with walls 4 feet thick in places and as our guide put it…was a large public construction project used primarily for religious purposes. It’s across the canyon from the Cliff Palace…and one of the buildings there that’s known as the Chief’s House has a window that looks directly out to the temple…coincidence? I think not.

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Cliff Palace from the overlook where our tour started. I left the people in there for scale rather than using the Magic People Remover Software to get rid of them. The kiva they’re standing around is the one I’ll show you in a bit.

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A Red Tailed Hawk out over the canyon…Neil didn’t have the bird lens and the first shot he got was actually the best of the dozen or so he fired off as it’s right over a light part of the cliff. The key identification feature…the red tail…is easily visible.

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Our guide…Vincenccio was his first name from his tag and his last name started with N, had a lot of consonants in it, and was Indian sounding. That…plus his pony tail and humorous insights on “Western” or “European” archeology concepts gave us our idea on his lineage.  Great guide though…smart, funny, and kept the pace of the tour and talk interesting.

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This is the Chief’s house with the view out the small window to the Sun Temple across the canyon…if you look a couple photos back right after the hawk shot it’s the building to the far left of the alcove the village is in.

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The round tower…which convinced early western/European archeologists that the cliff dwellings were defensive in nature when that’s really only one of many explanations. Given the Puebloan’s math, astronomy and engineering knowledge…most folks here with native ancestry tend to put more credence in the theory that the population grew and they didn’t want to waste farmable land on top of the mesa plus it put the village closer to the water source.

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Looking back towards our guide and the Chief’s house at the far end.

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Looking down into the kiva I told you I would be getting back to. It was covered with a solid roof and had the fire pit in the middle…which naturally used up the oxygen inside when the fire was lit and also would fill it with smoke. What to do? See the little opening about 10 o’clock? That leads…see, I told you they were engineers…to a slanted tunnel back up to the main level for a ventilation intake. Hot smoke rises and cold air falls down the ventilation shaft into the mostly sealed kiva. Of course…all the cold air blowing in would have spread ashes and coals all over the place…so they built a little wall in front of the ventilation shaft to direct the air around the entire kiva. There are little benches around the outside and the little pillars between the benches were for the roof supports. Pit houses had these supports as well but as they were larger and more primitive construction the supports were out in the center of the pit house.

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Last shot looking back to the Chief’s house. Individual tour groups are about 45 in size and come through every 30 minutes so it was a matter of careful timing and framing to get the shots with no people. I occasionally have to use the Magic People Remover software…but not on these as Neil did a better than average job of timing and keeping any distractions to the edge of the frame where I could easily crop them out.

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The Puebloans even incorporated logs and existing stones into their architecture rather than digging the large rocks out. The masonry is just connected with mud mortar so the logs are in there for much the same reason as modern concrete has rebar placed in it. Sometimes the logs extended across the interior as well and were used to support upper floors or storage lofts. Many of the dwellings in Cliff Palace are 3 or 4 stories tall…the entire complex supported about 150 people in this particular village. There are several other cliff dwellings within about a mile or less of this one…whether or not they were all part of a related clan, part of an extended village, or completely separate is another one of those things that just isn’t known. Theories abound…but with no written language there are few actual facts to go on…and our guide was correct in saying that western archeology concepts are different from native people concepts due to their culture and education…so what a classically trained archeologist thinks and what a Puebloan of the 1200s thinks may be entirely different things.

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After the tour…we headed out the far side of the site and climbed 50 or so steps and 3 ladders to get back up to the top of the mesa and then headed off. Our original thoughts were to head down Wetherill Mesa Road to another cliff dwelling known as Step House…this one you’re allowed to wander through on your own rather than only on a ranger guided tour…so we took the 12 mile drive down there only to find out that (a) it was a mile hike to see them and (b) none of us had another mile hike in us that day…at Cliff Palace we hiked about 0.8 miles total and both Neil and Connie agreed that it was the hardest 0.8 mile hike they had ever been on…worth it but brutal. Given the heat, altitude, and “it’s only another cliff dwelling and we’ve already seen the best preserved one” idea…we got back into Big Red and punched Blanding UT into the GPS and headed home. We arrived back about 1630 after a very tiring 2 days of Fun Stuff©. Dinner was angel hair pasta with butter, bacon, and cheese…then we watched a couple recorded TV shows until about 2200 when we were falling asleep so we headed off to bed.

Connie and Neil agree that Mesa Verde is really a hidden gem among National Parks…crowds were very light even though it’s late June as compared to the human traffic jams at Arches and to a lesser extent Canyonlands farther north. They actually liked the views here better as it’s not all dust, gravel, and rocks like the northern UT parks. It’s still a pretty arid landscape…but it’s not all the way to desert. The Puebloan people survived here for almost 900 years before they mysteriously disappeared…essentially walking away with just what they could carry as horses had not made it here when they left. Again…theories abound about why they left…internal strife, climate change as a severe drought set in by the late 1200s, overuse of resources, reliable water sources drying up…nobody knows. Archeologists are pretty sure that when they left they headed southwards into the Rio Grande valley area and although there are no more Puebloans…there are Navajo, Ute, and Paiute descendants.

Interesting things from the net.

No soliciting.



About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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2 Responses to Southwest CO Fun Stuff

  1. Ruth Streb says:

    We want you two critters to know we really enjoy your travels and pictures. Thank you.
    Quincy and Peaches Streb

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      Glad y’all like it. We aim to please always. Moving to Page AZ tomorrow for Antelope Canyon but it’s gonna be over 100 the whole week we are there. Yuck.


      The three kinds of stress…nuclear, cooking and a&&hole. Jello is the key to the relationship.


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