After a great stay at Goosenecks State Park outside of Mexican Hat Utah we meandered towards New Mexico. On the way we explored some native American ancestral sites like Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona (pronounced “Canyon de Shay”) and Mesa Verde National Park near Durango Colorado.
Canyon de Chelly is now, and has been for hundreds of years, the center of the Navajo Nation. It was here the Dineh (as the Navajos call themselves) farmed and defended their territory. Canyon de Chelly is actually a network of 600-foot deep canyons with flat, fertile valley bottoms and the Navajo are still farming it today as they have for centuries.
Adjacent to the sad, windblown town of Chinle Arizona, there is no fee to enter the monument. And, since the monument is on tribal lands, there’s also no hiking allowed. Visitors are restricted to the driving routes along the canyon rims with a couple of short walks out to viewpoints (although jeep tours through the canyon bottom can be arranged). Still, it’s incredible to see the ancient stone houses tucked away in inaccessible cliffs far above the valley floor.
We actually toured Canyon de Chelly as a day trip (a long one) from our camp in Goosenecks State Park in Utah, and we’re glad we did. There is a dusty, dirty campground inside the monument near Spider Rock which we can’t recommend, and a nicer city campground in a shady cottonwood grove adjacent the monument’s Visitors’ Center for $14/night which can handle RVs of any size, with water and hookups available. Other than that, there’s nowhere to camp anywhere nearby.
Canyon de Chelly was the last hold out for the Navajo. For hundreds of years they had been fighting off Spanish conquistadors, then Apache or Ute raiders, and finally American settlers before Kit Carson brought in a troop of cavalry in 1888 and devasted the area. That ended the “Navajo wars” and they were moved away to reservations. But, the Dineh eventually secured a reservation on much of their traditional lands in Arizona where they now live. The canyons are beautiful and a major part of the history of not only the Navajo Nation, but of the pioneer American west too.
In mid-October we moved on from Canyon de Chelly to Mesa Verde National Park. This park contains some of the best-preserved ruins of the ancient Anasazi, now called Ancestral Puebloans. And, it’s set on a high mesa overlooking the Mancos Valley with the now snow-covered La Plata Mountains in the distance. It costs $20/vehicle to enter Mesa Verde plus $30/night to camp in the park’s Morefield Campground (entrance fee waived for us and we paid ½ price to camp with my senior, America the Beautiful pass).
The lower campsites in Morefield are not attractive; windblown and dusty. But, the upper loops lead into a beautiful oak forest with plenty of semi-secluded campsites where even the largest RVs can fit (be prepared to do some levelling). There are some reservable, full hookup sites, but most are 1st come, 1st serve, dry sites with water at community spigots, flush bathrooms and a RV dump station on the entrance road into the campground. Also, as you enter on the access road, there is a gas station (with diesel), a store, cafe, laundromat and pay showers. When we arrived in mid-October the gas station and café were closed for the season. As a bonus, there was strong, free WiFi in the campground and an adequate cellular signal (Verizon). When we arrived, half of the campground was already closed for the season and by early November the whole campground closes. (NOTE: Other campgrounds in nearby San Juan National Forest were already closed for the season, so there’s really nowhere else nearby to camp this late in the season).
After setting up our trailer we drove out to Chapin Mesa in the park to meet up with our ranger-led tour of Balcony House, one of the park’s more spectacular ruins. The tour costs $10/person (1/2 price for us with my senior pass). Though not far in distance, we had to climb a thirty-foot ladder and crawl through a tight cave to enter and leave the ruins. It was well worth the effort. The series of well-preserved houses and ceremonial kivas were precariously perched on a ledge above Soda Canyon and, as the name implies, they had built balconies of mud plaster and logs projecting out from the houses. It was hard to conceive how the Ancestral Puebloans lived in such an inaccessible location, but at the same time it was beautiful and impressive.
The next day we drove to Durango Colorado, about twenty-five miles east of Mesa Verde. We’d heard that Durango was a hip, gentrified old western town, and it is. The historic downtown is large, clean and lined with turn-of-the century brick buildings full of good restaurants and art galleries. It’s an active place with mountain biking, backpacking and skiing nearby and a lively nightlife scene including performing arts (Joan Osborne was playing while we were there). We were impressed, and even briefly considered Durango as a possible place to build a home base, but it is expensive and cold.
Now the days were cool and sunny, the nights well below freezing. We spent our last day in Mesa Verde taking another tour we had signed up for; to the Long House ruins. Isolated on remote Weatherhill Mesa and tucked into a massive cliff overhang, they were magnificent. It was freezing cold and windy on the mesa above the ruins, but warm and sunny in the cozy cliffs of Long House. We roamed all over the ruins, marveling at the construction of the place.
We had hoped to tour the two most iconic and best preserved of Mesa Verde’s ruins; the Cliff Palace and Spruce House. But, the trails to both were closed for the season. We satisfied ourselves with short walks to the overlooks of these special places, and even that was amazing.
By the time we returned to our campsite the temperatures were falling into the teens (F) and a cold wind whipped through our camp. The Park Service had turned off the water for the year and the campground was almost deserted. We had reservations in a RV park near Albuquerque New Mexico for the following night, so it was time to go. But, we’ll be back. Mesa Verde should be on anyone’s bucket list. It’s that special.