Michael and Kathy's southwest Colorado tour, page 2

Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison

Tuesday, June 22

Distance: 102.5 miles
Riding time: 8 hours, 46 minutes
Average speed: 11.6 mph
Maximum speed: 44.7 mph

This has been our longest and most exhausting day even though we didn't cross any named mountain passes. As I write this it is past midnight and Kathy is already asleep.

We got up early today because all the Pedal the Peaks riders were up and making noise by 5 a.m. Our tent was close to the portable toilets, so we could hear the spring-loaded doors of the toilets slamming shut every few seconds. By 6 a.m. nearly all the riders had packed up their tents and left. We packed up and rode to the Pagosa Springs visitor's center to cook breakfast, then began our main ride at around 9:15.

Pedal the Peaks tents at the Pagosa Springs high school. About half the riders had packed up by the time we stepped out of our tent.

Kathy making breakfast at the Pagosa Springs visitor's center.

Our route took us west on highway 160 to Durango. Although we didn't cross any named mountain passes, we did have a few long, steep climbs. We also had a headwind for part of the day. The prevailing winds in southwest Colorado seem to come from the west. On our way we passed Chimney Rock, a mountain with 2 rock spires on it. It was named Chimney Rock by early explorers who approached from the east and could only see the tallest of the 2 spires. Archeological remains show that the ancient Puebloan people established a small village at the base of Chimney Rock around 1075 A.D. Most scholars think that they built there because the spires had special religious significance.

A view of the San Juans, looking north from Pagosa Springs.

Chimney Rock and Companion Rock. Chimney Rock is on the left.

After 60 miles we reached the outskirts of Durango and did some shopping for food and rope at Wal-Mart. As we were leaving it was only 4:40, so we decided to bypass downtown Durango and head to Mesa Verde National Park, 38 miles away. Normally this would be easy to do, but we didn't realize that the road to Mesa Verde had several major climbs, including an 11-mile climb right out of Durango. At times I felt so weak that I stopped and made Kathy mix me up a bottle Kool-Aid - the liquid calories seem to give me quick energy. We reached the park entrance right before sunset. The campground is 4 miles past the entrance up a very steep hill with switchbacks. As we climbed the hill the sun set and it became dark. We walked the bike a little ways and while walking a young man driving a truck stopped beside us and grinned as he called out "You've got a long hike ahead of you!" I told him, "Yes, we know." Then he drove off. Apparently he stopped for fun, not to lend us a hand or ask if we had a flat tire. Why do drivers think it's fun to point out our misery? We've encountered this several times. Fortunately they're usually wrong - we're not miserable, we're having fun. And to be fair, most of the public congratulates or encourages us rather than make fun of us.

We reached our campground at 9:20 p.m. Tomorrow we will try to explore Mesa Verde.

Taking a break during the long climb out of Durango.

Mesa Verde, near the entrance of the park.

Wednesday, June 23

Distance: 31.8 miles
Riding time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
Average speed: 12.0 mph
Maximum speed: 38.1 mph

Kathy and I spent today touring some of the archeological sites at Mesa Verde. The ancestral Puebloan people lived in Mesa Verde from about 500 A.D. to the late 1200's A.D. These people have sometimes been called the Anasazi, but Anasazi is a Navajo word and these people were not related to the Navajo, so the National Park Service now calls them Ancestral Puebloans. Their masonry homes are scattered throughout the park. The earliest structures are pit houses on top of the mesa. Later these people built multi-story, apartment-like buildings in the alcoves of cliffs below the mesa. These cliff dwellings are the best preserved because they are more recent and the cliff overhangs protect the structures from the weather. The cliff dwellings are what we chose to tour today.

In the morning I rode up to the campground entrance to pay for our 3-night stay, and then we prepared to ride to the visitor's center, which was 11 miles away over a big hill. While we were packing the girlfriend of our campground host approached us. Her name is Mary and she works at the park's store. She said that her boyfriend was partial to bike tourists, and that he would be happy to refund half of our campground fee and to give us and our bicycle a ride to the visitor's center in his truck. It turns out that our host, Roy, is a bike tourist who once crossed the country from New York to San Diego then followed the coast north to San Francisco. After living in Europe for many years Roy moved back to the U.S. in 2000 and is yet to choose a place to live. He has an RV and moves around a lot. Occasionally he works to support his travels.

After Roy dropped us off at the visitor's center we bought tickets for tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony house, 2 of the most interesting cliff dwellings. Before and after these tours we visited the museum and took a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree house, another cliff dwelling. All the dwellings had multi-story structures with rooms for sleeping, storing food, making pottery, or other purposes. They also had courtyards and kivas, underground meeting rooms below the courtyards. The Puebloans had no metal tools, so they created building blocks by cutting soft sandstone from the cliffs with hard cobblestones from the river bottoms. They made beautiful black and white pottery and used fibers from yucca plants to weave sandals and other clothing. Late in the history of these settlements they began to import cotton from tribes in Arizona, and used it to make blankets and clothing. It is suspected that the ancestral Puebloans abandoned this area because their population grew too large and depleted the land's resources, especially wood and fertile soil. They left in the late 1200's within the span of 1 or 2 generations.

The archeological sites are somewhat spread out in the park, so we biked more than 30 miles and got great views of mountains, mesas and canyons. We had warm, clear, perfect weather all day.

Pottery recovered from Mesa Verde. Unfortunately, the best artifacts from Mesa Verde are in Helsinki, Finland. Those artifacts were taken to Europe by Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scholar who did early archeology work at Mesa Verde.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. There are many rooms deep in the alcove, out of sight from this picture.

Another view of Cliff Palace. The circular pits in the floor are kivas, underground rooms with both ceremonial and practical uses. They were originally covered with flat roofs that served as part of the floor for the courtyard above.

The rooms near the ceiling of this alcove were probably storage rooms for food and firewood, and access to these rooms may have been controlled by a small number of caretakers.

A close up view of a kiva. The kiva originally had a flat roof, and was entered by ladder through a hole in the roof. The circular hole in the center of the room is a fire pit. The square hole at the bottom of the kiva wall is a fresh air intake, and the short wall between the air intake and the fire pit is an air deflector. The deflector forced fresh air to circulate through the kiva rather than rush directly into the fire. The lower ledge that goes all the way around the kiva was used to store ceremonial objects, and the higher ledges (called pilasters) supported the roof structure. People meeting or working in the kiva would have sat on the floor. Not visible in the picture is a smaller hole in the floor called a sipapu ("place of emergence.") In more modern Puebloan societies, the sipapu symbolizes the pathway through which souls travel from one world to the next. They believe that people travel through a series of worlds in search of the "central place." The sipapu probably had similar symbolism back when Mesa Verde was inhabited.

Yucca plants. The ancestral Puebloans used fibers from the edges of the yucca leaves (visible in this picture) to weave sandals, mats, hot pads, and other items.

Soda Canyon. Dozens of cliff dwellings are built in alcoves along this canyon. The sandstone cliffs naturally form alcoves in places where water seeps down through the stone. These "seep springs" provided a clean, year-round water source for cliff dwellers.

A small cliff dwelling in Soda Canyon, in the lower right corner.

Our tour guide climbing a ladder into Balcony House, a large cliff dwelling.

Kathy and Michael in Balcony House. Next to my shoulder is one of the balconies from which the cliff dwelling takes its name.

Looking at another balcony in Balcony House.

As this picture shows, Balcony House is high on a cliff and the courtyard ends with a high drop-off. The view is great, but access to Balcony House was limited to a couple tricky routes across cliff faces.

Pretty thistles growing in the forest on Mesa Verde. The trees in the picture are dead because forest fires in the last 5 years have burned 80% of the park. Much of the forest is pinyon pine, and pine nuts were an important food source for the inhabitants of Mesa Verde. It takes about 200 years for a burned pinyon pine forest to fully recover.

Spruce Tree House, one of the best preserved cliff dwellings.

This kiva at Spruce Tree House still has its roof intact, and can be entered by the ladder. The roof blends in with the rest of the courtyard.

Thursday, June 24

Distance: 0 miles

Since we toured the archeological sites yesterday, today we hiked a couple trails and did not ride our bicycle at all. Both trails began close to our campground. The first trail led to Point Lookout, a spot at the north edge of a high mesa. From there we could see the San Juan mountains to the east, other mesas to the north and south, and Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west. Sleeping Ute Mountain looks a little bit like a man lying on his back with arms folded across his chest. It is a sacred site to the Utes. In a treaty many years ago the United States allowed the mountain and surrounding land to be annexed by the Ute reservation in exchange for Mesa Verde. Of course, Mesa Verde itself is considered sacred by several tribes and they frequently conduct ceremonies inside the park.

The second trail followed what used to be the road leading into the park. The road was essentially built into the side of a sandstone cliff and was constantly needing repair due to rock slides. Now the old road is barely visible.

Looking at Point Lookout. The altitude at the edge of this mesa is 8417 feet. The sediment layers in the mesa were deposited long ago when most of central North America was covered by a shallow sea. The Mesa Verde museum has fossils of oysters, clams, and other sea creatures that lived here during that period. After the sea receded the weaker layers of sedimentary rock eroded away, leaving high mesas.

Michael and Kathy on Point Lookout, with Montezuma Valley and the San Juan Mountains in the background.

The mountain on the horizon at the right is Sleeping Ute Mountain, which is supposed to look like a man lying on his back with his arms folded across his chest. The tallest point on the mountain is his arms, his head is to the right and his torso and legs are to the left. This mountain is sacred to the Utes.

When we got back to camp we found that an animal had gotten into our food. Our campground host had told us not to worry about bears, but we forgot to worry about little rodents. We had to throw out our cheese, bagels and some pasta, and one of our panniers has some small tears that will need to be repaired. We spent the late afternoon washing our laundry and taking showers. This evening we listened to a park ranger presentation at the campground amphitheater. Our park ranger had a doctorate in archeology and gave a slide show presentation of Richard Wetherhill, a rancher-turned-archeologist who explored many of the most important ancient ruins in the southwest United States.


Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison