Mesa Verde seeks plan to battle crowding at park

Popular sites are often overrun, leaving Wetherill mostly unvisited

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald - DURANGO - 08/01/12 - The lower portion of the southern half...is literally shearing or slipping down, said Scott Travis, the head archeologist at Mesa Verde National Park. Travis surveys some of the damage done to one of the kivas in Cliff Palace. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald - DURANGO - 08/01/12 - "The lower portion of the southern half...is literally shearing or slipping down," said Scott Travis, the head archeologist at Mesa Verde National Park. Travis surveys some of the damage done to one of the kivas in Cliff Palace.

At Mesa Verde National Park, officials have been struggling with how to prevent congestion and improve the park experience.

“It is no secret Chapin Mesa gets overrun,” says deputy superintendent Bill Nelligan. “The plan has always been to redirect visitors and traffic to Wetherill Mesa, but that has not worked out as well as we had hoped.”

Now the park is asking the public for ideas to solve the problem.

Public comment will be taken until July 14 as part of an effort to begin formulating the Mesa Verde Visitor Distribution and Transportation Plan.

Over the years, a system of narrow and winding roadways was developed primarily for visitors in private vehicles.

That system is outdated, officials say, and does not represent changing demographics of park visitors who prefer to walk, bicycle, or take a bus if the option was more available.

“There is not a public bus system at Mesa Verde due to the expense, but for this plan, everything is on the table, so it is something to consider,” Nelligan said.

During the height of the tourist season, crowds concentrated at Chapin Mesa attractions diminish the experience.

“Visitors coming to the park during the summer months may face long waits, disappointment, and frustration instead of the experience they had expected,” stated park spokeswoman Betty Lieurance.

Park officials are concerned that Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House on Chapin Mesa get overrun while leaving equally spectacular sites at Wetherill Mesa virtually unvisited.

Less obvious, but equally important, is the fact that as visitors drive throughout the park, tailpipe emissions from cars create a haze of pollution that impairs views and harms the plants, animals, and archeological sites that the park is charged with protecting.

Additional opportunity for hiking and bicycling is a common request from visitors.

At Far View Lodge, for example, if guests want to walk to nearby ruins in the evening, they have to use the shoulder of the road.

“Improving opportunities like trails separate from the road, and more self-guided areas, so visitors have a sense of exploration and discovery is the goal of the plan,” Nelligan said. “There is good hiking at the park, but a lot of it has an urban, paved feel that could be improved. There is a sense you’re just driving to the next overlook.”

In 1973, the park developed the Wetherill Mesa road and excavated ruins there as a way to attract visitation and reduce crowding at Chapin Mesa.

But plans to build a lodge and overlooks there never materialized because of costs, and people stayed away.

“A lot of it is the road – it is very winding and narrow, not very suitable for today’s larger vehicles, plus it closes at 4 p.m., so it is not very convenient,” Nelligan said.

In recent years, the park has opened up many more guided backcountry tours for hikers in an effort to improve the park experience, especially for locals. And the Cliff Palace Loop is closed to vehicles in winter to allow for skiing and snowshoeing. During the Fall, the tram route on Wetherill Mesa is opened up to mountain biking.

Using technology for self-guided tours is one idea the park is exploring. Downloadable apps could enhance the experience at less popular archaeological sites.

“While looking at a ruin, a visitor could look at their phone or some device and view the notes of the original archaeologists who discovered the site or see original pictures of it,” Nelligan said.

The National Park Service encourages public participation throughout this planning process. During the initial scoping phase of the project, the public is invited to submit written comments online at the NPS Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/meve

Comments may be submitted by mail to National Park Service, Denver Service Center, c/o Treff Alexander, P.O. Box 25287, Denver, CO 80225. The deadline is July 14.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com

Chapin Mesa attractions, such as Cliff Palace, tend to get overrun at Mesa Verde National Park. Officials are seeking public input on how to improve multi-modal transportation at the park to help spread out the crowds and reduce traffic on roads. Scott Travis, the head archeologist at the park, looks at damage to the kivas. Enlargephoto

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo

Chapin Mesa attractions, such as Cliff Palace, tend to get overrun at Mesa Verde National Park. Officials are seeking public input on how to improve multi-modal transportation at the park to help spread out the crowds and reduce traffic on roads. Scott Travis, the head archeologist at the park, looks at damage to the kivas.

Visitors to Mesa Verde National Park take a look at Cliff Palace and other ancient dwellings. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Visitors to Mesa Verde National Park take a look at Cliff Palace and other ancient dwellings.