Thursday, August 31, 2023

Balcony House and Soda Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado -- Hiked July 3, 2023

One of several hikes I took over the Fourth of July weekend, this post covers both the Balcony House tour and the Soda Canyon overlook hike, which lets you see Balcony House from across the canyon. The former has a distance given of 1/4 of a mile, though it feels a bit longer than that. The latter has a given distance of 1.2 miles roundtrip, though it also seems perhaps a bit longer.

As always, clicking on the pictures gives you a larger version of the image. Most are still reduced in size for faster uploading, but the last picture is a slightly larger file, just to give you a big enough view to see some of the details.

Mesa Verde is obviously known for its ancient (ca. 1300) cliff dwellings, although there are older (ca. 1100-1300) archeological sites on the mesa tops, as well. Most of the cliff dwellings can only be seen up close via a National Park Service tour. Tickets are currently $8 each, and can be reserved up to two weeks in advance.

Practically-speaking, early summer, and, especially on a holiday weekend, they will sell out within minutes of when they go on sale, at 7am Mountain Time, two weeks before the tour date. So I made sure to be on line and ready, with a account, promptly at sale time, two weeks before this tour, and before the Cliff Palace tour I also wanted to be on.

You need to select your desired tour location and time and number of tickets, then place it in your "cart." Then you have fifteen minutes to complete your purchase. If you don't, the slots are released back into the pool, and someone else can try to get them. This means that, again, in my experience, within five minutes of 7am, all but the occasional single slot is in someone's cart. However, since I suspect several people in groups will simultaneously log on and try to save spots for various times, and after someone secures the first or best times for the group for purchase, the remaining saved spots are left in the cart and returned to the pool, so spots will start returning (BRIEFLY!) to the pool by about 7:16am. Here, they were again snapped up promptly. Many times, I'd see a good time, try to put them in my cart, but then be told they were no longer available. Someone had beaten me to it.

So start checking a few weeks or days before your desired time goes on sale, just to get an idea of demand, and how quickly they are going. And if they're going instantaneously, don't dally on your login day!

Additionally, as people's travel plans change, some slots will continued to be returned to the pool as people cancel their reservations for a partial refund. Again, if you find some, don't dally. Also, single slots are more common than large groups, so if it's just a few of you, you might wish to take the single slot when you can, and return later to try to find additional singles at the same or adjacent times. Additionally, some rangers may let you join your friends on an earlier tour if you have tickets for a later one. It partially depends on if there are no shows.

[Note as I check today for slots into September, I find lots of slots available for most days, so apparently it's less of an issue in late summer. Also, the dwelling tours for the ruins on Chapin Mesa (which includes Balcony House and Cliff Palace) were not available last year due to road construction, so there may have been pent up demand, earlier in the season.]

Tours start at the top of the cliff above Balcony House. You can't actually see Balcony House from there, of course; the cliff is in the way! You walk a bit on a paved path, then come to a gate, which the ranger will have to open. Then there's a hell of a lot of metal steps down, to another paved walk way. That brings you to a tall, 30-40 foot tall wooden ladder.

The ladder takes you to a beautiful "patio," with the cliff dwellings on one side and the canyon on the other. There's a four foot tall wall separating you from the cliff.

On the "left" side of the patio is a wall with windows, where you can see where the second landing area will be. After hearing the ranger describe what's on your side, you'll go up a short ladder, along some rocky steps, and through to that other dwelling area. Large kivas are on that side.

More information there, then the exit. This entails a little scuttle along some rocks, then crawling along a passage between a pair of walls. The description of it being a passage, 18-inches wide and 12-20 feet long is not literal, since you can stand at least partially up as you go between the two walls.

You exit on to another "patio," a fair-sized flat area. Only way out from there is a ladder, so you'll have to do some climbing, again. At the top of that first ladder, you then scuttle along some steps, carved into the rock. There's a secured chain to keep you from accidentally plummeting to your death.

From this perspective, you'll see a narrow wall constructed between the cliff and a large boulder. The residents used existing "walls," where practical.

Next, there's another significant ladder, followed by more trail, either paved or over rock. Then, another gate. Another ranger will be there to let you out.

There's a fun little video of this tour, here.

It's not really "Indiana Jones," but it's definitely not just a walk. Lots of ladder rungs, stone stairs, and sopme crawling, all at a fair altitude. Obviously, if you have an issue with heights or confined spaces or crawling, or do poorly at higher altitudes, this tour is not for you.

Balcony House is well-preserved, but not as large or well-preserved as "Cliff Palace," the other nearby cliff dwelling where tours are possible. Currently, "Spruce Tree House" cannot be visited, due to the danger of rockfalls.

After walking along the top walkway back to our car, we continued along the Mesa Top Ruins Road to the Soda Canyon trailhead. As previously-noted, it's a reported 1.2 mile out and back hike to an overlook, where you can see the Balcony House ruins face-on. If you click on that last photo in the post, you'll see the ascending ladder below and to the right of the ruins, and the final exit ladder up and to the left of the ruins, on the other side of that big, partially-separated rock slab.

Returning to the loop road, a short drive takes you back to the Spruce Tree House area. The trailhead for the Spruce Canyon and Petroglyph Point trails is here, as are a museum, flush toilets, gift shops, and a cafe.

The Navajo tacos in the cafe are far from authentic, but good enough for a hungry version of me. But if you're expecting actual fry bread, prepare to be disappointed!

There are numerous other overlooks to other cliff and mesa top dwellings on this branch of the loop, which you will likely want to visit, either coming on going. The Square House Ruin, in particular, was neat, because when you finally do see it, it's closer than the other cliff dwellings you can see from the cliff top, and you don't see it until you're at the overlook, so it's a pleasant sort of startling.

From the Fourth of July weekend trip, I still need to blog the Cliff Palace tour, some of the mesa top ruins and other short hikes, and Navajo National Monument.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Petroglyph Point, Mesa Verde National Park, CO, July 3, 2023

About a 2.2 mile loop that starts and ends at the Spruce House overlook. One of several hikes I took while in Mesa Verde. I did this one on the morning of the third, before doing the Balcony House tour.

This is a loop, which could be walked either clockwise or counter-clockwise. The NPS suggests counter-clockwise. If doing it that way, you start off from near the archeology museum/park offices and head down, towards Spruce Tree House, then turn right. In the past, a trail ran from here up to Spruce Tree House, but that trail has been closed for about a decade, due to the threat of a massive rock fall on to Spruce Tree House.

From there, the trail runs along the west wall of Spurce Canyon. (A separate trail runs along the canyon bottom). You are treated to impressive views down the canyon, but have no view of Spruce Tree House from down this trail.

Parts of the trail are quite narrow. You pass at least one small stone structure, likely for grain storage, along the way.

I passed several hikers along the way, but it was pretty empty for most of the way. It's always surprising how, no matter how many people are at the start of a trail, it usually thins out pretty quickly once you get away from the trailhead. (Delicate Arch in Arches National Park was an exception to that, of course!).

The funny part is, I almost blew right by the petroglyphs. There was a gathering of people, who seemed to be just resting in the shade. So I had to keep my eyes on the path, to avoid stepping on people or slipping as I picked my way between the rocks.

I got to the other side of these people and came across a sign saying, "Museum," and an arrow. "Well, that doesn't make any sense," I thought to myself, since that would mean you're on the homestretch. Then I looked back and saw the petroglyphs.<\p>

Took many pictures, and some video (the voices on the video, talking about a selfie? I volunteered to take their shot. Hopefully, it came out good!

Then, as previously noted, right after the petroglyphs is a sign for the museum, meaning you're already sort of on the homestretch of your hike. There's a single bit of class two or class three, there (not too hard to scramble up, but would potentially be tricky to scramble down, since your feet have no eyes).

After that, it's mostly level, and largely exposed to the sun. You're walking on the mesa top. No views of Spruce House, again, because of the sandstone cliffs, but some views of the canyon, before passing through short forests and occasional patches of grass. Then you cross over the top of the canyon, where a small check dam creates a flat crossing, and you're back on the other side of the canyon. You can again see Spruce Tree House. Then you're done.

In addition to the museum at the top, across the parking lot is a cafe and flush toilets. Good place to get lunch, if you didn't bring anything with you. I ordered "Navajo Tacos." They're crap compared to "real" Navajo Tacos, but they were about what I would expect from an NPS concessionaire.

Not sure how many posts I'll break the Mesa Verde trip up into, but I figure at least 2-3 more, then Navajo National Monument, which we hit on the way back towards California.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

South Rim Trail, Cedar Breaks National Monument After Dark, July 16, 2023

Hiked the entirety of the South Rim Trail on Sunday, July 16, starting just before sunset. The first shot of my earlier post was from this trip.

Main goal was to get this first shot. I had walked here about four years ago, during a full moon, and wanted to come back when the sky was dark and the heart of Milky Way was well-placed. But on the last few attempts, when I was able to get out there, monsoon rains made hiking the South Rim trail impossible. So I ended driving up to Brian Head for my Milky Way shots, which actually worked out nicely.

I hiked to the end of the trail, and saw the Bartizan, but it was too dark by then to get a decent shot of that. I then backtracked to Spectra Point and waited for it to get dark. At this time of year, that's not until around 11pm local time. Happy with the result!

I'll be making at least one more trip back to Cedar Breaks this year, but with the monsoon picking up, who knows which hikes may be possible? At any rate, we'll see how things go.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Split Rock/Desert Queen/Lucky Boy Vista, Hiked June 10, 2023

Came across some pictures that I apparently hadn't posted, yet. Hiked back in June, so this is one of about a half-dozen hikes I still need to blog. All cell phone shots, with this post.

Started from the Split Rock Loop parking area, a bit east of Jumbo Rocks. From there, I headed north-ish on the loop for about 1/2 mile, before turning off further north. There is a turn sign on the trail and rocks indicating the way you should go to stay on the Split Rock Loop, and there is no sign indicating where you are going if you turn right. Right takes you up an incline, then back down, then up a ravine on the other side.

The trail became somewhat intermittent as I headed up that ravine, so I wasn't sure if I was on an actual trail or a use trail. Near the top, I just veered off, hoping to get a vista point among the rocks. Didn't really get a good vista, but saw lots of exposed rocks. Some of them looked like they could be seasonal "potholes" that could support fairy shrimp or other short-lived aquatic life.

Still just June, and it was cloudy, so not very hot. Some flowers, but obviously well-past peak.

The clouds in these pictures would build, so my initial plan of astronomy that night was foiled. But at least I got a good hike out of the trip!

The "Geology Fire" started about this time, and I saw some plumes of dark smoke to my south. Occasionally smelled burnt foliage, too. But I figured the vegetation is sporatic enough that I didn't think the fire could spread in my direction, despite the gusty winds.

After a lot of poking around, looking for a vista, I eventually siddled back down to where I last saw the trail, and reacquired the route. When I came across a split, I checked my Alltrails app map, and picked a direction that would take me towards mine indicators. Alltrails didn't show a complete loop, but I was pretty sure I could build one, given the lack of dense vegegation. And, if not, I could just follow the trail out, then walk along roads to get back to my car.

Impressive rock formations all along these trail. I spent a lot of time photographing the rocks, and the rest photographing the catci and flowers.

I eventually looped high above a valley, with wonderful views both up and down the valley. Near this point, I saw several metal grates, which covered deep but narrow mining excavations. I held my cellphone up to the little openings to get a few shots down, into the mine.

At the time (even now!), I wasn't sure which mine I was seeing, but, in looking at maps, I figure this area must be the Desert Queen mine. The "official" access is from the other side, and requires some dirt roads to get to. This way was longer, but also more scenic.

After passing the vertically drilled mine shafts, my trail took me down into the valley, and closer to additional evidence of mining, incluidng some horizontal shafts and some machinery. Canyon walls closed in around me.

My Alltrails showed a trail going at least some ways up along another ravine, so up I went. I almost gave up and decided to backtrack, but made one more push, and succeeded in finding an easy way up the ravine. When I finally emerged out of that ravine, I was in a rather wide, sandy wash.

Then I came upon a low stone dam, maybe two feet tall on the downstream side. The upstream side was filled to the brim with sand. And, shortly after that, a sign! So I knew I was back on some sort of track.

The trail was again well-defined, and I soon passed several more arrows or trail signs. Took one to Lucky Boy vista, which I had been to, before. However, this time, once at the vista, I continued forward, down what looked like a use trail, but which soon fragmented off almost nothing. But the foliage was thin enough that I could continue to pick and easy way forward, toward the Split Rock Loop trail. Again, I could use my Alltrails app map to make progress in the correct direction, but with no real urgency to meet the actual trail, because this non-trail was easy enough to follow.

There were more interesting rock formations here, so I stopped for an extended shoot of those rocks in the second-to-last photo of this post. Shortly thereafter, I met up with the regular Split Rock Loop trail. Took only another ten minutes or so before I passed the earlier fork I had taken, and another ten minutes or so to get to the parking area.

My Alltrails recording shows less than four miles for the hike, but the gps is obviously intermittent, as there are several segments of straight lines, where it did not record between two different points that I obviously didn't teleport between. Probably something like five miles, but it's hard to say.

Quite a lot of altitude gain and loss, too, so I have to admit that, even if the weather had cleared, I was feeling pretty tired and not enthusiastic about telescoping that night.

In terms of hikes that need to be blogged, I made another trip to Joshua Tree a week later. Hiked just a bit south of this area, from between Oak Tree picnic area and Jumbo Rocks campground in the daytime, then returned that night and took some Milky Way shots. I may try to post that one, next.

On Fourth of July weekend, my wife and I took a trip all the way out in southwestern Colorado. Several hikes and overviews from Mesa Verde National Park, and a short (but more than three mile) hike at Navajo National Monument, in Arizona.

Two weeks later was Cedar Breaks National Monument. I blogged the daytime hiking, but I think haven't posted my Milky Way shot from late that night.

Between the two afternoon and evening hikes at Cedar Breaks, we visited Fremont Indian State Park, a bit farther north in Utah.

Also walked around the Huntington Gardens and the L.A> zoo in late June, but probably won't post those two, although I did get some pretty cool shots. So at least four more blog posts, depending on how many I break Mesa Verde up into. Hopefully won't take me too long to catch up!