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Wetherill Mesa to close for infrastructure projects

Bikers and hikers are allowed to ride or hike along the 5.5-mile Wetherill Mesa Tram Road. Many stop at Long House, pictured above. (Journal file)
Remote area at Mesa Verde National Park needs new visitor center and water line

The Wetherill Mesa area of Mesa Verde National Park will close for 2023, and possibly 2024, for two major construction projects.

This year, the open-air visitor contact station and concessionaire will be replaced. In 2024, the park has preliminary plans to replace an outdated water line.

Wetherill Mesa is closed for the winter from October through April. The closures would be extended for the whole year to allow for construction.

The remote section of the park is accessed via a narrow and winding paved road that provides access to ancient Native American sites, including Long House, Badger House and Step House.

In late April, demolition of the current visitor contact station will begin, and will involve the removal of large amounts of concrete and steel. Material staging and construction will occur in visitor use areas.

Lack of visitor services and large truck traffic on the narrow roadway during construction necessitates the public closure.

The $1.2 million project was scheduled to be completed in time to open Wetherill Mesa to the public in July; however, snowfall has delayed contractor access to the site.

Additionally, the manufacturing and delivery schedule for the new structure has been delayed by weeks. Construction of the new contact station may not be complete until late October.

Funding for the project is provided by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, said Park Superintendent Kayci Cook Collins.

The act sets aside a portion of entrance fees from larger national parks, which are then distributed for park projects throughout the country.

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The existing Wetherill contact station was built in 1985, and has outlived its useful life, Collins said. It was damaged by the Pony Fire in 2000. The lightning-caused fire burned 1,325 acres and devastated many day-use facilities at Wetherill, but no ancestral sites were damaged.

The rebuilt visitor center will keep the same footprint and basic layout as the original structure, Collins said.

The open-air shade facility with seating and water provides relief from the summer heat for visitors before and after visiting the cultural sites that are only accessible by foot and bicycle.

In the back of the center is an enclosed Aramark concessionaire shop with grab-and-go sandwiches snacks and drinks. Next to the concessionaire is a first-aid medical building for visitors.

Water line project

In 2024, the park plans to replace an outdated, 13-mile water line at Wetherill Mesa. The pipeline is more than 50 years old and is subject to frequent breaks, Collins said. It runs under the paved road, which needs to be taken apart for repairs and replacement.

The Wetherill Waterline Replacement Project also includes replacing the water line to Morefield Park and campground. Total estimated costs for both projects is $15 million to $20 million, Collins said, with the Wetherill replacement taking up more than half the estimated cost range.

The park received Legacy Restoration Funding to replace the Wetherill and Morefield Campground water lines.

The Restoration Fund was created to pay for backlog maintenance at national parks under the Great American Outdoors Act. The Wetherill water line replacement is in the design phase and will move to the construction phase next year.

Visitation on the rise

Before 2019, Wetherill consistently saw about 30,000 visitors per year, largely driven by the Long House Cliff Dwelling Tours, Collins said. That year, visitation represented about 5% of the 556,203 visitors to the park.

Thanks in part to a biking and hiking pilot project, use at Wetherill jumped to more than 100,000 visitors in 2019, based on traffic counts, Collins said.

Traffic counts were not done the past two years, but it is estimated that level of visitation was sustained in 2021 and 2022 because Cliff Palace and Mesa Top Loops were closed for paving work.

Traffic counts for Wetherill will resume when the waterline replacement project is completed.

The park is pleased the less-visited Wetherill sites have received more attention lately, Collins said. The closures for infrastructure upgrades will momentarily redirect visitors away from the area, but the hope is the use will rebound once projects are completed.

“There is still plenty to see at the park while Wetherill is closed,” Collins said.

The closure will not impact staffing significantly, she said. Wetherill workers will be redirected to other duties in the park, and seasonal positions for that area may be reduced by two people.

Collins said redirected staff could fill positions at the Chapin Mesa museum, which is reopening on a limited basis in April after being closed in recent years because of infrastructure issues, including faulty air-conditioning units.

The park plans to accommodate natural resource research and site stabilization projects during the Wetherill closure.

Visitors making travel plans to Mesa Verde National Park are encouraged to check for closures and alerts on the park website at www.nps.gov/meve.