Get your climbing shoes on! This place it whack! An hour or so outside of Durango Colorado is Mesa Verde National Park. It spans over 52,000 acres, 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings. The bulk of the park sits at 7,000 ft, with a 25 mile roadway that climbs from the base of the Mesa (Verde), where the Visitor Center is located, to its top. This one mesa top chronicles over 750 years (early 500’s – late 1200’s) of history of the Ancient Pueblo peoples, from mesa top to alcove (cliff) living. It wasn’t until December of 1888 that the abandoned cliff dwellings, specifically the “Cliff Palace”, were “discovered”. Of course the Ute indians, of which the mesa was part of their land, knew full well what was there, but it’s existence and subsequent fame was not brought to light until a rancher, Richard Wetherill came upon it. The Wetherill’s brought several people to this site, to explore and document these magnificent dwellings. Of import, was a Swedish scientist, Gustaf Nordenskiöld. He not only surveyed and studied the cliff dwellings, but pilfered them as well…to fund his studies. At one point he had loaded nearly 2 train cars full of “antiquities” to transport “home” for sale. He was stopped by the authorities for “stealing”, only to be let free, when as he reminded the “authorities” that there are no such laws on the books in which to prosecute him. This tale, amoung others, was the catalyst for the 1906 antiquities protection act. And it was in 1906 that Mesa Verde gained National Park status and protection. On our way into the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center. It is here that much of the artifacts retrieved from the park are housed and studied. It is here, that if you want to explore the cliff dwellings first hand, that you must purchase a $5/person ticket for one of 4 Ranger led tours. It appears that 55 persons is the max for most tours that begin on the 1/2 hour starting May 25 through October 21. As we had only one day at this magnificent park, we chose to tour the “Cliff Palace”, which is the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and believed to not only be living quarters for 100-200 people but a center of civic activity for the area. With tickets in hand we return to our truck and head up the hill presenting our National Park annual pass to the Rangers stationed at the entrance station, otherwise the entrance fee would have been $20. There are two mesa tops that can be accessed and explored, Chapin Mesa (open year-round) and Wetherill Mesa (May – September, weather permitting). While inside the park, there is a campground (Morefield) and the Far View Lodge for those who wish to stay overnight in this day-use only park. Our first stop is at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum located just before the road splits into two one-way only driving loops, the 6 mile Mesa Top Loop and the 6 mile Cliff Palace Loop where two of the Ranger led cliff dwelling tours (Cliff Palace, Balcony House) are located. In the museum we watch an informative movie, and peruse a collection of diaramas and displays of artifacts found at Mesa Verde.
It is here that I compare pictures of the pottery shards I discovered while exploring Peñasco Blanco at Chaco Culture Historic Park.
Soon it is time to head over for our tour of the Cliff Palace. Parking is at a premium, and one is best served taking the first spot one sees, as there is no opportunity to turn around, being a one-way loop.
At the overlook to Cliff Palace we are met by a Ranger, who explains how the tour will work and what we will see. This tour requires the descent of steep, uneven (non- OSHA approved) stairs, and the ascent of two ladders. Disclaimer completed, the Ranger collects our tour tickets one-by-one as we filter through the now unlocked gate that limits access to the cliff dwelling. The route is fairly short and not particularly difficult.
We muster under an alcove before we enter the site. Looking toward the site (pictured below), oddly it seems smaller than it looked from above, and I wonder how 100-200 people could have crammed themselves in here, especially in inclement weather. As we are used to having sites to ourselves for the most part, we find being on a “crowded” tour a little annoying, and not as “adventurous” as the last few days.
This, however, does not take away from how facinating these structures are, and their access is to us.
Adobe “plaster” applied by hand…fingerprints sometimes visible
Closer examination of the walls, some of the adobe “plaster” still remains, but is slowly sluffing off and returning from whence it came. We are told, (and there is evidence) that farming took place atop the mesa, of which the staples were corn, squash and beans. Said crops were then transported back to these “fortress” like structures tucked under cliff overhangs and into alcoves. As the tour concludes, we exit the exact route the inhabitants of this “Palace” used via a ladder to the mesa top. Why the Puebloan people stopped living on the mesa top in “pit houses”, and decided to build these structures is just as much as mystery as to why they climbed upon this mesa in the first place. My theory…to escape attacks from animals with sharp teeth/claws, and more fantastical and imaginative…dragons and/or pterodactyl (Thunderbirds).
After the Cliff Palace tour, we returned to the truck and continued along the Cliff Palace Loop, stopping at turnouts to view additional cliff/alcove housing/villages in differing states of erosion across the mesa from where we stood.
Our binoculars were particularly useful. With still plenty of daylight, we continued to the Mesa Top Loop, on Chapin Mesa where the full spectrum and “evolution” of “housing” that has been found at Mesa Verde.
We take a walk around the floor of an excavated Pit House “common” from 700-950 CE. There is a nearby village of Pueblo style building(s) “common” from 900-1100 CE. As it is getting late, we leave that walk for another time and head back down the mesa, stopping at each of the vistas to search out more dwellings tucked into alcoves and under eroding cliff tops.
On our way down, we pass by Far View, and its Lodge, and on this particular day, its name does not disappoint, for the views from Mesa Verde stretch into New Mexico where we can see Ship Rock jutting out on the horizon some 100 miles away. As we make our way down to the bottom of the mesa, we wonder aloud how remarkable a feat it was to build this road, and even more so, how the Ancestral Puebloans came to live upon this particular mesa top. With all of our technological advances, I feel somewhat “primative” compared to the ingenueity and skillsets these ancient peoples employed.