Despite the closure of one of the park’s most popular attractions, Mesa Verde National Park rangers don’t anticipate a drop in visitors to the 13th century ruins, which are a critical element to the local economy.
In February, Park Service officials announced Mesa Verde’s most visited cliff dwelling – Spruce Tree House – would close indefinitely because of falling rock.
A portion of Spruce Tree House was cordoned off in September from self-guided tours after loose rock broke away the month before. Park Service engineers in October decided to close the entire site.
“Right now, they are looking to really see what it is we’re dealing with,” said spokeswoman Cristy Brown. “We’re definitely trying to get it open as soon as we can, but we’re not going to open it until it’s safe.”
That process could take up to two years, Brown said, as park engineers look for ways to mitigate the eroding natural sandstone arch above the site that has caused large rock break-aways, which pose a danger to visitors.
As summer approaches, the closure of Mesa Verde’s third largest cliff dwelling has raised questions whether tourist season will be harmed by a loss of visitors who had planned on self-guided tours of Spruce Tree House.
“It’s probably the most-visited because anyone can go down there,” Brown said. “There’s still an overlook, but people are disappointed. I expect whenever the season starts to pick up we’ll have more comments.”
Indeed, the word “disappointment” was on the tip of most tourists’ tongues during an unseasonable spring-like day last week, though most were understanding of the safety precaution.
“It’s a disappointment,” said Jason Fransen, a first-time visitor to Mesa Verde from St. George, Utah. “We’re deciding what to do next. We might go to the ruins in Aztec.”
Stan Knudsen, a South Dakota native on his way back from a trip to the Grand Canyon, said he and his family went hours out of their way to get to Mesa Verde, hoping to have the full experience.
“I’m glad to see it anyway, but it sure would have been nicer to go down there,” Knudsen said. “It’s kind of disappointing.”
Mesa Verde has about 500,000 visitors annually, and Brown said that number is steadily increasing. Despite Spruce Tree House’s closure, she estimated that with the National Park Service’s centennial this year, the number of visitors could reach up to 600,000 in 2016.
The 52,485-acre site, which was designated a National Park in 1906 and also is a World Heritage Site, is home to some of the best-preserved ancestral Puebloan archeological sites in the United States. Officials estimate there are more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.
It also serves as a major economic anchor for the city of Cortez and Montezuma County.
“I would say heavily – very heavily,” Kellie Law, owner of The White Eagle Inn & Family Lodge, said of her hotel’s reliance on Mesa Verde tourism. “It’s just the main draw, the main gem for this area.”
Kinsey Ertel, president of the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce in Cortez, said Mesa Verde put the town on the tourism map, and any adverse impact to the park could have a ripple effect on local businesses.
“If they see a cutback in tourism dollars, then it makes them have to look at where they’re spending money,” Ertel said. “That definitely affects our community.”
Many local officials predict Spruce Tree House’s shut down will have no effect on the park’s draw.
“There’s no panic at the tourism office,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director for the Durango Area Tourism Office. “We haven’t had any calls or concerns or any effect on tourism for the current closure.”
Colorado State Tourism Office spokeswoman Ann Klein added that Mesa Verde’s appeal is not only felt locally, but at the state level as well.
“It ranks pretty high,” Klein said. “But since there are other cliff dwellings, I don’t think that’s a deal breaker. They’re not coming to Spruce Tree. They’re coming to Mesa Verde.”
To be sure, Brown said the park will open normally closed-off areas for visitors, hold a range of events and offer ranger-guided tours in and around the park that will make up for Spruce Tree House’s closure.
And in the meantime, park staff is reviewing whether a previous laser scan of the rock formation will reveal how best to approach remediation. If not, bids for a new scan will go out in the coming months.