Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mesa Verde, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon: Road Trip in the Snow

For the first half of our road trip, we lucked out in terms of the weather.  It was warm enough in Zion and Moab to clear most of the snow and ice from the trails, but also cool enough to be the ideal temperature for hiking.

When we arrived at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, it became clear that our luck was running out.  The park had recently received a great deal of snow (complete with a small avalanche temporarily blocking the main road through the park) and the overcast skies promised yet more precipitation.

Regardless of the weather, we were ready to explore Mesa Verde!  Mesa Verde is the site of numerous cliff dwellings that were home to the ancient Pueblo peoples.  The dwellings can be explored on ranger-led tours, giving us a chance to clamber through the ruins much like a visit to Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.  (However, since Mesa Verde is located in the U.S. instead of the third world, the actual extent of clambering over ruins is a bit more limited.)

Wintertime visitors are limited to tours of Spruce Tree House, so we followed one of the park rangers into the small canyon behind the visitor center to the array of structures nestled in the cliff below.  The dwellings are arranged as a series of connected apartments and larger public spaces, and we explored what was essentially a small city within the walls of the canyon.  Descending into one of the kivas, which were used by the ancient Puebloans for religious ceremonies, was one of the highlights of the tour.

Although clambering through the other cliff dwellings was off limits in February, we were still able to view the Cliff Palace and other “tiny towns” from a distance.

As we left southern Colorado, the conditions began to deteriorate and we were soon driving through the sleet under gray skies.  Regardless, we tramped through the mud to stop at the Four Corners Monument and be in four states at once.  It was Giorgio’s first visit to both New Mexico AND Arizona (at the same time)!

By the time we arrived at Monument Valley, the sleet had turned into snow, hiding all of the rock formations and turning the park’s main road into such a muddy mess that it was temporarily off-limits to independent drivers.  We waited in vain for the weather to clear; except for a thirty-minute window the following morning, visibility remained extremely limited.  Rather than continue to wait for a break in the weather, we headed west to the Grand Canyon.

As soon as we pulled up alongside the ranger station at the eastern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, we were treated to a detailed overview of the snow conditions along the road to Grand Canyon Village.  The ranger suggested that we stop at the first overlook, just in case we could see anything.  The following photos more or less capture our experience.

As we slowly made our way to the village, careful to avoid any cars with license plates that indicated they were unfamiliar with driving in blizzard conditions, we managed to catch a glimpse or two of the legendary canyon.  We also stopped to wonder why several people we encountered were wearing shorts and flip-flops in the snow.

Arriving in the Grand Canyon Village, we were finally able to appreciate the full grandeur of the canyon as the snow and wind briefly tapered off.  (We also appreciated a prickly pear margarita or two, as recommended by Grandma Carol.)

We awoke the following morning to find several inches of snow covering the ground and more on its way.  Instead of spending the next two nights at the canyon, we opted to drive back to Las Vegas early.  This time, we got to experience Vegas off the strip, enjoying some of the best sushi we’ve had outside of NYC and attempting to squeeze in another hike at Red Rock Canyon (thwarted by unexpected snow AND hail).

Although we missed out on a few things during the final leg of our road trip, we’re sure we’ll have a chance to hike into the Grand Canyon, marvel at the wonders of Monument Valley, and climb down the ladders into Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace on a future trip.  We had to save something for next time!


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