When we spend time in eastern Utah, that usually means the loop back home runs through southwest Colorado somehow. It’s a convenient excuse for my husband to stop by Mesa Verde National Park and see what’s going on. Though it makes for a much longer trip home, we get to see some parts of the state we don’t visit on a regular basis. It certainly makes for a beautiful change of scenery.
This trip followed that same pattern. We left Goblin Valley State Park in Utah and started the roundabout way home via Mesa Verde. With only a day and a half to spend in the park itself, we kept the schedule fairly light and open, though we did squeeze in one of the limited-access ranger-led hikes to a cliff dwelling that’s not typically open to the public.
Every year, Mesa Verde offers 2 different ranger-led hikes that are limited to about 10 people each day for a small cost. These trips take you to sites very much off the beaten path and typically not visible from any of the overlooks, nor are they regularly toured by the masses. It’s a nice balance for the park in terms of management – they can keep the sites somewhat accessible to the public by rotating the offerings each year while ensuring these sites are protected from the wear and tear of tour bus-fulls of tourists trampling around them daily.
We’ve been on a few of these ranger-led hikes during previous trips to the park. This year we lucked out and got to go to a new site – Oak Tree House. It was billed as a 2 mile roundtrip hike that involved using ropes and ladders. Ok by us!
The hike to Oak Tree House started fairly early in the morning – certainly fine by me from a photography perspective since that meant good light to shoot in.
As we descended down the trail, we were curious when the ropes and ladders would come into play. We didn’t have to wait long. We quickly came upon a spot where you used a rope to steady yourself as you went backwards down a steep-ish rock to a ladder to climb down to the next level of the hike. Certainly a nice twist on “normal” hiking (a.k.a. walking). Luckily, with my camera strap setup attached to my backpack, I was able to traverse the course without any problems or accidentally banging my camera at all. Very helpful when you’re trying really hard not to be the photography jerk slowing down the whole group!
The rangers that guide these hikes do a really nice job with the interpretation & education. They also keep the pace pretty tame, so that did allow me the opportunity to stop and snag some shots. What I immediately noticed was, when the ranger would stop and tell the group that there was, say, a good shot of Cliff Palace across the canyon, everybody focused over there where the site was in complete & utter shade. Where was I pointing? The exact opposite way making use of the morning sunlight still shimmering off of the canyon walls.
Following the light and always looking around as we stopped to listen to the ranger continued to pay off for me and my pictures because there was a very cooperative bluebird warming himself in the morning sun on a branch not far from where we were standing on the trail. That’s why I always keep my eyes peeled when hiking or simply walking around town with my camera!
It didn’t take long to reach Oak Tree House itself. The site wasn’t as in-tact as some of the more famous houses like Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Spruce Tree house that are swarmed with visitors each year and very, very well maintained & preserved. Still, it had some interesting coloring and characteristics that you don’t see on other houses in the park. (It also had some t-shaped doors similar to those found on the houses built at Chaco Canyon… makes you wonder if the civilizations were linked in some way even though the timelines are just a tad off.)
For the first time back at Mesa Verde in 7 years, it was a nice way to start to the day.
The hike was so short that we were easily done by lunchtime. After a bite to eat, we had some time to kill on the mesa before catching the Balcony House tour later that afternoon. We drove out to the Far View Sites to walk around a bit and wound up chatting some more with the park volunteer who had joined us on our Oak Tree House hike earlier in the day.
I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to carry my pack or my camera around, so I just shot with my phone. That gave me the opportunity to try some new shots at the site that I may not have been able to maneuver myself into position to get with my big camera and my pack on.
Finally it was time to head over for our Balcony House tour with 50 other visitors. Since it was late in the season, only Balcony House was open for public tours meaning every single tour was packed to the gills. Once again, considering the pace of the ranger-led tour and the amount of people on it, I opted for no pack and no camera again. It also helped that my husband reminded me of the tiny, narrow passageways you have to scoot and crawl through on the tour. It was just easier to use my phone and leave the big stuff behind.
Balcony House hadn’t changed much in the 10 years since we last toured it. I’d say that’s a good sign for how it’s being managed by the Park Service considering how many people trek through there daily.
As with our other tours, I once again found myself looking around for the less-than-obvious things to shoot. It paid off again as I came home with a really wild shot of the canyon wall leading into the Balcony House site. There’s just something about this shot that mesmerized me more I looked at it after we got home. There’s something about the colors and textures that just draw my eye in.
Believe it or not, that was just our first day at the park! There’s still another half day to come. There’s bound to be something good to do the next morning before we leave… right? Just what? Something to ponder…