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Mesa Verde welcomes back visitors; upgrades are underway

Park sees increase in number of tourists; superintendent to retire this summer
Visitation at Mesa Verde National Park is off to a good start this tourism season. The park has a new tour system to minimize crowds, and reservations are selling out fast. (The Journal file)

Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer gave an update about park changes, projects, increased visitation and his upcoming retirement during a Zoom presentation Wednesday with the Rotary Club of Durango.

There are several road projects this summer, he said.

The Cliff Palace tours and loop road are temporarily closed to allow for road construction. The road is being improved, overlooks are being upgraded to accommodate the disabled and a new shade structure will go in at Balcony House.

Once complete, the road will reopen and the Cliff Palace tours will resume.

Workers will then move to Mesa Top Loop Road, which will temporarily close to allow for road and lookout improvements.

“We will be adding bike lanes to the Mesa Top Loop to make it safer to ride bikes and have a new experience of the park,” Spencer said.

A roundabout will be installed at the park entrance where the road divides to access the visitor center and main park road.

Also, road repairs and rock scaling work will take place 2 miles into the park along the main road.

The road projects are expected to be completed by fall, and crews will work on one at at a time to minimize impacts to tourism.

On Chapin Mesa, two large water tanks will be replaced with a single water tank. A heating and cooling system for administration buildings and the Chapin Mesa Museum also will be repaired.

Current projects are being funded by money allocated for 2019 and 2020. An infusion of funding from the Great American Outdoor Act, signed by President Donald Trump in 2020, will go toward additional projects at Mesa Verde in 2023.

A new change implemented this year is that all park tours must be booked online at recreation.gov, and will not be available at the visitor center. After the road project, tours will be available at Long House, Square Tower, Mud House and Cliff Palace.

Entrance fees will be collected solely with credit or debit cards. Park passes may be purchased in advance on recreation.gov and can be loaded onto phones or printed out.

To minimize pandemic risks, tours of cultural sites have been adjusted to reduce crowds. Reservations must be booked in advance on a rolling two-week window.

“Two weeks’ worth of tours are selling out in minutes,” Spencer said.

Ticket holders will have a window of time to go through the site. Members of a group will be separated from other groups to reduce the risk spreading the COVID-19 virus.

Park interpreters will be stationed at the site to explain the history and answer questions.

Out of abundance of caution, the Chapin Mesa Museum and Visitor Center will remain closed until late summer or fall.

“We are staying on the safe side for our staff,” Spencer said.

Staff members will be posted outside the Visitor Center and museum to answer questions, and there are information booths and exhibits. Visitors can download a driving tour of the park.

As the pandemic subsides, the public is eager to get out and visit national parks. Like other parks, Mesa Verde is seeing increased interest, Spencer said.

“We’re seeing high visitation in parks across the country. One reason is lots of places in Europe are closed,” he said.

Park visitation in May was the highest since 2017, Spencer said, and the third-highest since 2010.

“This year will be a really good year for visitation,” he said, adding that in 2019, visitation at Mesa Verde decreased by about 45%.

While some national parks are closing the gates to reduce overcrowding, he does not anticipate that happening at Mesa Verde.

At the outdoor entrance to the visitor center, the park is seeing upward of 1,000 people per day stopping by for information, Spencer said.

Spruce Tree House remains closed so rock stabilization work can be done. Balcony House is also closed for a shade shelter project and for site stabilization.

Final designs for the Spruce Tree House are in place and a contractor is being sought. Repair and stabilization could be completed by next year, Spencer said.

Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer says he remembers his mother saying, “It doesn’t matter what you do in life, do your best at it.” Spencer is seen here in July 2011 discussing the planned move of artifacts to the Visitor and Research Center, which was completed in 2011. Spencer announced he will retire this year from the National Park Service. (The Journal file)
In other park news
  • Spencer confirmed that he plans to retire from the National Park Service this year. His last day is July 29. Spencer has served as superintendent for Mesa Verde National Park since 2010, and he also has management responsibilities for Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. His career working in public spans 36 years and includes working in nine parks. In addition to management positions, his assignments included working as a law enforcement ranger, firefighter, medic and high-angle rescuer. Spencer said he plans to take six months to regroup and travel, then figure out his next direction. “It will be my first vacation without having to bring a government phone,” Spencer said.
  • The schedule to round up free-roaming horses at the park was delayed because of the pandemic. Spencer said an agreement between the National Mustang Association and the park for the adoption of the horses is being reviewed by the horse group and the U.S. Department of Interior. The park expects the low-impact, bait-trapping roundup to start this fall, and the adoption process will follow.
  • Yucca House National Monument, south of Cortez, was approved by Congress to accept a 160-acre private land donation, expanding the park from 34 acres to 194 acres. The new area includes unexcavated ancestral Puebloan sites, and will allow for a new public entrance to replace the one on private land.
  • “Squeaks,” the mountain lion that traveled 558 miles to Mesa Verde from the Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico last year, appears to have settled in the area, Spencer said. The lion is traveling back and forth between the national park and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. Regular updates about his progress are posted on the Pueblo of Santa Ana Department of Natural Resources Facebook page, which is followed by his fans.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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