There are many lesser known places out west that are overshadowed by a world famous destination that attracts large crowds. One such place can be found in the lower elevations of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado next the ever so popular Mesa Verde National Park. Mancos State Park is just a few miles away on Highway 160, which is the main tourism corridor in the southern Colorado Rocky Mountains. Mesa Verde is literally located right next door to Mancos and the Million Dollar Highway is close by. Because the majority of tourists are only focused on experiencing Mesa Verde, the town of Mancos has become a fly by traffic zone of sorts. Relatively few travelers notice the signage for Mancos State Park as they zip on by and even less will actually take the time to check this place out. For those who seek a hidden gem destination this is like music to the ears, because on any given day there is plenty of room to roam at Mancos State Park!
As can be imagined, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado are an attractive place to be during the peak summer season, especially since the global warming trend is well underway. As the extreme heat of summer scorches the Desert Southwest, cool relief from the heat can be found way up high in the mountains.
Mancos State Park is about 7,800 feet up, so this low elevation destination is a good choice for first time ventures into the towering San Juan Mountains, which host several 14'ers. It does not take much time to adjust to the conditions below 8,000 feet, so the venture will likely be carefree. The temperatures range from about 70 to 90ºF, while only a few days each year are over the 100ºF mark. This sure does beat getting roasted in the 110ºF+ summertime heat of the Desert Southwest!
The main attraction at Mancos State Park is the Jackson Gulch Reservoir, which is a fair size lake with a long shoreline. Jackson Lake is navigable for small craft boating and it is a good place to do some paddle boarding. This lake is stocked with gamefish, so it is an angler's paradise as well. If lazing in the shade with a fishing line in the water sounds like an ideal way to relieve built up stress from back home, then camping in Mancos State Park is the thing to do!
For those who intend to do a complete tour of Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos State Park is a nice option for setting up a basecamp. This is especially true during the busy summer season, because the National Park campsites can be booked solid for months in advance. On any given day a few empty campsites can be found in this State Park and a couple of large yurts have been added recently. Since Mancos State Park is managed as a lakeside recreation area, the stay is guaranteed to be fun.
As far as the setting goes, it does not get much better than what can be found at Mancos State Park! The San Juan National Forest wilderness borders upon this property and the high mountains provide a beautiful backdrop. From atop of the Jackson Gulch Dam, the Mancos Valley and Mesa Verde can be seen. The views of the big lake are as picturesque as can be, especially when the tree line reflection can be seen on the calm water. There are several hiking trails in this State Park that range from short nature walks to long overnight excursions, so getting back to Mother Nature is easy to do.
For the Mesa Verde tourists visiting this park, the same cultures that built the great house pueblo cliff dwellings also occupied this area. Some of the old native trails can be noticed and other artifacts are around. Mesa Verde has always been a legendary home of the Bald Eagle and this raptor is highly revered by the local native people, as well as by the Mesa Verde cultures in ancient times. Traditional eagle dancer imagery can be seen everywhere in this region and there is a good reason why. There are a several resident eagles in this area that have been here for many generations, so be sure to keep a good camera handy while strolling around!
The Bald Eagles do like to hunt for rodents in the neighboring farms and they can often be seen perched on fence posts. Eagles like to maintain a safe distance from the modern human presence, so be sure to pack some high power binoculars or a telephoto camera for the trip. The Bald Eagle photos in this article were taken with a 18-50x lens, which was not quite powerful enough to get clear pictures at 300 yards. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to switch to a higher power lens before the Bald Eagle took off. I have seen that same eagle several times before, so a second opportunity will likely occur.
Mancos State Park is a place where the local people gather to have fun in the sun during the summer season. The meadows are perfect for romping around and the lake water offers plenty to do. Plain old camping and relaxing in the shade of the pine trees is always a good leisurely choice, while the sight of a Bald Eagle can turn any dull moment into a real thrill. Mancos State Park truly is a hidden gem in this neck of the woods and this is reason enough to check it out when passing through!
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