In Search of Petroglyphs - Two Weeks Out West in the RV

We had decided not to go to Scotland this year for the TGO Challenge. Too many family activities with our daughter getting married our son moving out on his own, meant the months leading up to the Challenge in May could not be spent devoting ourselves to training. So what to do? Let's take two weeks and head somewhere in the RV. Yes! but where? Disneyland?, North?, Northeast? We love the west and we needed some warmer temperatures, so West it is. We have traveled extensively to the west, all the National Parks and then some and love it, but let's go somewhere we have not been.... 
Mesa Verde. 
I planned a two week loop with Mesa Verde national Park as the center and highlight, but I also have always wanted to visit Chaco Canyon. I am a huge fan of reading and thinking about the Ancient Puebloans, (formally the Anasazi), so that will be the central days of our trip.

How to get there?
We have been through Colorado many times the most recent was last August on our way to the South Dakota Hammock Hang, so I decided to take us down through New Mexico and make it one of our primary destinations as we have never been to much of New Mexico before. 
We left on a Sunday and our first stop a "Mom&Pop" RV park in Tulsa Oklahoma. It being Sunday and Mother's day the owners of the RV park were not even there when we arrived, in fact we never saw them. They had told me which space to take and we just put our money in an envelope and slipped it in the door. 

Warrior RV Park, our first stop on Mother's Day. Right off Hwy 44
You can see our rig below in the yellow circle.
We were up early and out before anyone was even open. This was going to be our longest driving day.   474 miles and about 7 hrs. I had figured out timing and gas mileage and we were going to try and follow the RVing rule of 330 (drive no more than 330 miles or arrive by 3:30 pm) this way you can relax and enjoy your day. The drive today was tough. 20-30 mph head winds the whole day coming across Oklahoma, Texas into New Mexico. 5 mpg is the best we could manage pulling the RV.

Tucumcari is just inside the New Mexico state line and is suppose to have an excellent Dinosaur museum. 
Unfortunately as we discovered Tucumcari is closed on Sunday's and Monday's. I mean completely closed. Nothing in this town is open on Sunday's and Monday's. We know, we went by the museum and all the other historic attractions in town... all closed.
internet photos

However there was consolation! We had a beautiful evening and steak and fettuccine for dinner. 
We prefer to stay in KOA RV campgrounds when we travel. they are always clean and nice. The KOA certainly wins the award for breakfast service. They served a real hot breakfast for about $4 that included eggs and real biscuits and gravy... Highly recommended! 

DAY 3-4
Part of what we were looking forward to on this trip was stopping to see our friends Rick and Janine who live in Pagosa Springs, CO. This turned out to be perfect for our plans as we could head directly north through New Mexico and go right to Pagosa Springs for a visit and then it would only be a short distance over to Mesa Verde in the southwest corner of Colorado. 
Rick and Janine's home (Never Summer Lodge) has the best view in Pagosa Springs. The view below is from their back porch! Pagosa Peak on the right and the Black Mountian on the left. 
Rick and Janine are great hosts and after settling in and having a great meal and talking like magpies all evening we slept great in their big guest bedroom.
The next day they took us to one of their favorite spots. The Piedra River Trail. The panorama view below only hints at how beautiful this river valley is. 

We struck out and walked along the river trail for just a mile or so as the weather was overcast and surprisingly (at least for Vicky and I) cold! 

 The rain moved in, but made for a dramatic view of the Black Mountains
What to do when the weather turns nasty outside. Let's go to a bar and eat and drink! 
Kip's Grille in Pagosa was a quaint shack in the middle of downtown with fantastic food. Rick and Janine had been telling us all their favorites, so we just ordered all of them and split it up four ways.
Giant Nachos, Elk burger, spicy shrimp tacos (Vicky's favorite) and good local beers.

 After lunch, we definitely needed to walk off that meal, we wondered around town and did some window shopping and visited the various hot spring spas that line the river.

We spent a second fantastic night with Rick and Janine and left them mid morning to head to Mesa Verde.

DAY 5-7
It is a short drive from Pagosa Springs to Cortez, CO. the town that borders Mesa Verde. Cortez has a nice KOA RV campground as well. 
The drive takes us through the town of Durango and then up on the high desert toward Mesa Verde. 
The Rocky Mountains below with the San Juan's to the right. Still a large amount of snow on the tops
We stopped at the Mesa Verde Visitors Center as soon as we arrived. We wanted to make sure we got tickets for the Balcony House and Cliff Palace which we know require guided tours to access. Cliff Palace doesn't open for tours until Memorial Day, so we were a few weeks early for that, but we did find out that Long House opened on Saturday for the first time this season for tours and we would be here for that. 

 We checked into the KOA in Cortez and took advantage of the town's grocery store as we were now out of the original food we had brought for the first week. We settled down to a lovely sunset and planned out our first day at Mesa Verde for tomorrow.

Sunset in Cortez, CO.

We were up early as we both anticipated crowds in the park, We took the customary photo with the entrance sign. This park has been on both our bucket lists for some time. 
The main ruins on (Chapin Mesa) are 20 miles from the visitors center and park entrance, so it can be up to 2 hours of driving (when the park is busy) to get to the ruins. We were pleasantly surprised that we were one of the first people in the park and only saw three cars on our drive in.  Being first and watching we got to see early morning wildlife. 
We wanted to do some of the trails before it got hot and before the crowds so we headed down the Spruce canyon trail as soon as we got to the trail head ( 8 am) 
 We were delighted that we didn't see another person for the couple of hours it took us to hike the 4 mile trail down into the canyon.
 The Spruce Canyon trail rises back up and meets the petroglyph trail just before the rim. The Petroglyph Trail is a marvel of trail building and some really great trail work.
Several tight squeezes

 and some great step work

 about a mile or so into the trail we started to see some ancient sites.

about l 1/2 in you come to the main petroglyph panel. it is very large and detailed.

If you turn around you are treated to a fantastic view of the canyon below. These views would not have changed much since 600-1200 AD, so the Ancient Publoans certainly must have chosed these spots for the aesthetic qualities as well. 

 As we continued up past the petroglyphs the trail work continued to be superb.

Finally topping out on the mesa top again, we had hiked about 6 miles between the two trails.
What a view! 
 As we followed along the rim trail back toward the our original parking lot we noticed some movement on the rocks. the lizards had come out to sun themselves.
The loop trail we were on culminated back at Spruce House (we could have started here as well). Spruce house is closed because of rock falls but you can get a good view of it from the cliff top.  
 After our hike we drove toward our first guided tour event at Balcony House. before that we decided to stop and have a picnic under some giant Pinon pine trees in the park.

Balcony House. So named because the first thing you have to do is climb a 32 foot ladder to reach the level of the ancient site. 
There were 50 people on our tour, with lots of children some as young as 3 and 4 years old. I was surprised that everyone except one little girl made it up the ladders. 

 Once in the sight you needed to access it through a narrow crack in the cliff wall.

One of the main designs of the Ancient Puebloan sites is the giant Kivas. No one knows what exactly they were used for, but it seems they might have been living quarters during the colder months of the year. The had fire pits and originally would have been covered with a roof. 

Balcony House is a stunning community that would housed about 50 people 
 And again they appreciated their vantage point. This is taken looking out of the main square in Balcony House. Can you say million dollar view.
leaving Balcony House is only done through a very small exit built into the natural rock. This would have probably been done as protection from animals and enemies as given its location and difficult way to enter and exit it would have been very defensible.

 After the small exit then more ladders to climb back up to the mesa top.
After Balcony House we stopped at the Cliff Palace overlook. Not open for tours until Memorial Day, Cliff House is about 5 times larger than Balcony House with 24 rooms and 12 large Kivas. 

 More wildlife wonder unconcerned around the park
The next day we were again up early but this time going to the opposite side of the park. Still about a 25 miles drive from the entrance it is the adjoining mesa top.  (Weatherhill Mesa). The park service loves to build roads and this one does wind around and through! 

 Our First stop today was Step House another cliff dwelling just over the edge from the parking area
Again we were there before most people arrived for the day.

It is a fact that the Ancient Publoan were supporters of The Trail Show You should be as well

 The sun played hide and seek for most of the morning but it was much warmer today 
 The top of the Weatherhill Mesa had been burned by a fire several times, the most recent in 2000.

 The remains of the pinon pines take on strange twisted shapes

This is the remains of a tree. Looks like a dragon. Maybe a fire breathing dragon would be appropriate.
After exploring Step House and walking the top of the Meas for about 5 miles we had our Long House tour. Long house is almost the same size as Cliff Palace and we were thrilled to see how large it was when it came into view. It has the same number of rooms as Cliff Palace. 
Petroglyphs and Pictographs are easily scene on the walls of Long House. 

Again the view that the Ancient Publoans chose for their homes is just stunning. 

Day 8-10
Leaving Cortez or destination for today was Grants, NM. however we were going to take the long way. First over to the 4 corners monument. Lots of empty space out here
 The Four Corners monument is a bit of a tourist trap as it sits on Native American land and they charge $18 to get in, but it is fun to stop where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona all meet.

A great view along the way was ship rock in the distance for most of the day.
internet photo

After that we drove into Arizona to go to Canyon De Chelly (pronounced Canyon De Shay) and then on to Grants
Internet photo

Once in Grants NM we again checked into the KOA Grants. Went out grocery shopping, but in this case the Grants KOA gets high marks for dinners served right to your RV. The couple that owns the park makes diners from scratch including home made pies each night. Tonight we had the BBQ plate, Ribs, Brisket, Sausage and berry pie for me and apple pie for Vicky.

Today was the day we tackle Chaco Canyon. It is an 85 mile drive from Grants with 60 miles of highway and 25 miles of Navajo dirt and gravel road. 
once you leave the highway it is a long way on unpredictable roads. 
This wild horse was not obliged to let us pass for about 10 minutes 

Finally arrived in Chaco Canyon. 
 You can see why it was chosen as it does have water in this canyon and provides a good balance of protection (cliffs) and flat land to cultivate. The ruins here at Chaco are out in the open, not the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Chaco Canyon existed concurrently with Mesa Verde.
Climbing a little higher on the cliff face reveled a fantastic panorama of the canyon.

We were rewarded with finding some excellent petroglyphs.

Unfortunately the drive in was not kind to my tires. One puncture and another leaking.
A quick change of the flat tire and some air in the other and it wasn't going to stop us from exploring.
 The largest site at Chaco Culture (official name) is Chetro Ketl. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vicky and I struck out on the hiking trails toward the Petroglyphs. We love the cliff dwellings and the other buildings but have become attached to finding petroglyphs. 

Just fantastic

 It was crushing to see the vandalism that has happened over the years to these irreplassable wall carvings. Stupid people needing to carve their own initials into the rock right next to the ancient carvings. Why? 
 I suppose in a thousand years someone will dig up a side of an old building, or a railroad car, with graffiti on it and declare it a work of art and try to understand what was meant by the strange drawings... I can tell you what it meant... stupidity!

We tried to venture deeper into the canyon, but the afternoon storm clouds were building and we still had one spare and one leaking tire, so we decided to turn back before we came to the supernova petroglyph another mile or so into the canyon. This petroglyph depicts the supernova of 1054 (crab nebula)
internet photo
 So it was back to Grants we went to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Ford dealer having 4 new tires put on the truck! Bonus however was that the KOA cooked a great pizza for dinner tonight with Strawberry Rhubarb pie for dessert.

With our last day in Grants we explored more areas immediately around Grants. I couldn't help but seek out the Continental Divide Trail. (CDT) As it goes through Grants and being well known to any long distance backpacker we headed down to El Malpais.

This could be my only chance to set foot on the CDT until retirement. We walked a ways in and out  on the CDT inside the El Malpais Wilderness.

 We went and visited the La Ventana Natural Arch.
Being we were not hiking but knowing we might see CDT thru hikers we armed ourselves with beer and chocolate and set up to offer some trail magic. Our first victims were Double Shot (resting in the truck) and Butte. They had been traveling together for the past couple of weeks. 

Day 11-13
After Grants it was off to Sante Fe. now Sante Fe is another stop that we had always wanted to see but knew nothing about and honestly I had planned this for a little R&R from driving although everything other than the tires on the truck has been great so far.
We again stayed at the KOA Santa Fe, which is about 10 miles outside of town. After checking in we inquired about the best Mexican restaurant in town and had dinner at Maria's. I can't say it was the best but it was excellent and made for a good end to our first day in town.

One of the real highlights of Santa Fe is the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. We spent the morning down in the Plaza area. A very upscale shopping district in Santa Fe. 
 Red Canyon by Georgia O'Keeffe 
 The Plaza shopping area is located inside period buildings from early 1900's and as you wonder from shop to shop they are located around lovely courtyards.
Be prepared for some very high prices!

The other shopping district in Santa Fe is the Trainyard. Home to the train that can take you between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM. It has newer buildings and some newer shops like REI and a movie theater. 
The last day in Santa Fe we relaxed. The weather has been very unstable with some days clear and sunny and others with storms and still cold. Even the clear days have only been in the high 40's. This has been unseasonable chilly for New Mexico but it has made for some great sleeping weather.
We watched the full moon rise after the last rain shower and celebrated with home made pizza.
Day 13
We left New Mexico and headed into Texas. Our plan had been to stay in Amarillo, but Vicky found Palo Duro State Park, supposedly the largest state park in the US. Driving in we just figure out where we were going to stay as it was all so flat, then suddenly the earth opens up to this beautiful canyon. 

Out camp site was in the farthest portion of the park, but it was beautiful and quiet. 
The evening fell and as it did the canyon walls turned to bright red with the clay soil. 

Sunset was perfect. 
 Day 14
It was only left to make the 400 mile trip from Palo Duro State Park back into Oklahoma and just north of Tulsa again to the KOA attached to a Native American Casino and race track. It was the day of the Preakness race, so the horse track here was running races all day.
 Day 15
Homeward bound. Tulsa to home 340 miles and we are finished. Home by 2 pm. washed and cleaned the RV and added the appropriate state stickers to our map. A great trip and a very relaxing two weeks out on the road. 

 Bonus Spring Flowers of the West 
Below are just some of the small wonders we saw on our trip

Our Route by the numbers:
3418 Miles Traveled
414 gallons gas used
68 hrs 45 min driving time

Special thanks to Rick and Janine for hosting us and treating us so great xoxoxo

all photos by Craig Gulley unless noted

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