Scott’s Big Adventure, Day Eleven: Moab to Cortez [feat. Mesa Verde]

Mesa Verde Park Entrance

Got up bright and early on Day Eleven and headed south out of Moab. The weather was perfect: sunny and clear with temperatures slated for the high 70’s. Couldn’t ask for better. I had initially planned to blitz right down to Four Corners today, but based on recommendations from other travelers, I decided to swing over into SW Colorado to check out Mesa Verde. But first…

Hole ‘n the Rock

This is the coolest place. Back before World War II, a local mining engineer and his wife acquired this big sandstone bluff right off the road about 15 miles south of Moab. They blasted a cavern out of the side of the bluff, and in it built a cafe, which they operated for many years. At some point, they decided to enlarge the cavern and live there, and in the late 40’s and 50’s they did just that, eventually blasting out a 5000-sq-ft home in the rock. The husband died in 1957 (I think), and the wife followed sometime in the 60’s or early 70’s (I think). They are laid to rest in a small cavern which they blasted out just for this purpose.

Today, Hole ‘n the Rock is a full-blown roadside tourist attraction. It cost $5 per person for a guided tour inside the “house” and its well worth it. They also have a website which has some interior photos of the cavern. The place is fully functional and homey. They don’t allow photography inside the house, so I bought a little folder of photos for about $2. There is also all kinds of roadside memorabilia on display outside on the grounds. If you ever drive through this way, its definitely worth an hour of your time to check it out.

Road to Cortez

Continuing south on Hwy 191, as you approach the town of Monticello you see off to the right a small mountain cluster centered around Abajo Peak. Unlike the surrounding range land which is pretty brown, this mountain is covered with a variety of both evergreen and deciduous (those that loose their leaves) trees. Given the time of year, the mountainside was a beautiful mixture of colors. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it as it grew bigger and bigger as I approached Monticello.

I gassed up in Monticello, then turned off east on Hwy 491 towards Cortez, Colorado. Hwy 491 used to be designated as Hwy 666, and runs through parts of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico in the Four Corners area. Due to its numeric designation as well has the high fatality rate, it earned the nickname “Devil’s Highway,” and many people believed that it was cursed. In addition, the highway signs were stolen regularly, leading to the highway departments of the effected states to request that the highway be re-numbered.

Problem solved. After turning east at Monticello, I could see two snow-capped mountain groups, one to the north and other other to the south. I’m not sure what they are called. Google Maps isn’t any help because there are too many choices and I can’t tell which ones I was looking at.

Cortez itself is a fairly non-descript medium-sized town. I passed through quickly and headed straight east to the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde

I didn’t realized it while in Cortez, but the entire line of hills to the southeast of town comprises Mesa Verde. It doesn’t look like a mesa from the west because the abrupt drop-off typical of a mesa is on the eastern side. You enter the Park from the northern end. There is a very prominent peak right at the park’s entrance which looks pretty cool. Again, perfect place for a lookout post. You climb up onto the plateau, then head south for about 20 miles or so, where all the really interesting stuff is.

The basic story of Mesa Verde is that, beginning about 1500 years ago, it was home to a group of Native Americans whom we call Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans. For reasons unknown, these people moved to the top of the mesa and established settlements and raised crops. They went through a secession of development steps, first building and living in underground dwellings, then progressing to above-ground adobe buildings, and finally to cliff-side adobe structures.

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde

Its these cliff-side dwellings that are both the most amazing feature of Mesa Verde National Park, as well as the most mysterious. Why did these people, around the year 1100 or so, abandon their mesa-top villages and build these difficult-to-access towns in alcoves of the cliffs around the eastern edge of the mesa? They continued to farm on the mesa-top, but had to climb up and down the cliffs using precarious finger and toe holds which they chipped into the cliff-side. Talk about having to be in good shape! I wonder what happened to people where injured and couldn’t climb?

The usual theory for the move to the cliffs is that the Anasazi were under threat from some other group, and that the cliff-side dwellings were build for defensive purposes. But there is no evidence to support that theory: no battlefields, no petroglyphs, no nothing. They just moved, and nobody really knows why. Then, after living on the cliff sides for less than a hundred years, the people abandoned the mesas entirely, and apparently migrated down onto the lowlands and merged with the peoples who were already living there. This time, however, the reason for moving isn’t so mysterious. Scientists believe that there was an extended period of drought in this part of the country—we’re talking 20 or more years here—and that it probably became too difficult to sustain crops on the mesa-tops. So the people moved and blended into history, leaving behind these spectacular dwellings for us to marvel at.

Back to Cortez

By the time I was finished checking everything out at Mesa Verde, it was starting to get dark and I still had a 20-mile up-and-down-the-canyons ride back to the park entrance. I had earlier entertained thoughts of getting down to Four Corners before the end of the day, but that plan was out the window, and would have to wait for Day Twelve. So back to Cortez to find a motel for the night.

2 thoughts on “Scott’s Big Adventure, Day Eleven: Moab to Cortez [feat. Mesa Verde]

  1. Scott,I love the way you write about the arches. I went there a while ago, but it was just like being there again and much more. It makes me want to journey back, hike with my poles and reflect. I can see them in the beautiful colors. Sunset is glorious!! Thanks, Your fellow Vesparado, Linda

  2. Hi Scott,
    Just checking in – glad to see you are down where the weather is more predictable (ha!).
    Things are moving along here at the shop. Everyone says hello –
    Thanks for posting along your journey – remembering the Mesa was a great moment. It’s spectacular isn’t it.
    I hope life is aligning for you while you’re traveling. That the journey is your creation and that it continually allows you to recall who and what you are.
    Bring home the boon, dude. See you soon,

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