Mesa Verde National Park
After a freezing night of tent camping at Bandelier National Monument, we have spoiled ourselves with a heated motel room in Cortez, Colorado. We finally manage to get a decent night's sleep. The next morning we stand outside our room in the cold morning air. We have pulled the bedside table from the room and are cooking our breakfast on the backpacking stove. The staff and other guests give us quizzical looks. What have you never cooked your breakfast on the sidewalk outside your motel room before?
The excitement is palpable. We are driving to Mesa Verde National Park this morning. The winter weather is biting, but we are dressed warmly. Mesa Verde means "green table" in Spanish and refers to the geographical features that make this park's amazing historical sites possible. The Ancestral Pueblo People built dwellings in the cliffs of the green tables from 600 to 1,300 AD. Mesa Verde National Park has over 600 of these homes in its care.
We stop at the visitor and research center at the park entrance to speak with a ranger. Mesa Verde is open year-round; however, during certain seasons the park is closed in some areas. Speaking with a ranger will expedite your visit. We drive many miles from the plateau up to the cliffs. The roads are narrow and twisting. Finally, we arrive at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
The museum has a fine collection of artifacts and an interesting film about the Ancestral Pueblo People. These ancient peoples lived on the mesa tops in this area in pit houses and sometimes cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde has several of these pit house sites excavated for visitation. That being said, do not expect much from these sites as they are not restored. These can be found on the six-mile Mesa Top Loop and other areas in the park.
These ancient people hunted, gathered, but also farmed and were skilled craftspeople, constructing pottery and baskets. Over the years this culture evolved and advanced, around 1,200 AD the population shifted to inhabit the cliff dwellings more exclusively. The reason for this is unknown, but it gave rise to the amazing dwellings that serve as the centerpiece of this national park.
European settlers have been interested in these ancient dwellings since the 1800s. Archeologists have been able to build a body of knowledge based on clues left behind, but because the ancestors left no written accounts what is known is based on conjecture. Interestingly, much evidence about the ancestors' way of life has been gathered from their kitchen middens, which were thrown down from the alcoves, including bones, tools, pottery, and other waste.
The cliff dwellings built beneath the cliff overhangs were constructed from sandstone and were multi-leveled containing rooms approximately 6 by 8 feet. These people farmed, supplemented their diet through gathering and hunted deer, rabbits, and other game. They also kept domesticated turkeys. For unknown reasons, possibly climate-related, these people migrated from Mesa Verde southward in approximately 1,300 AD.
Petroglyph Point Trail
After taking in some history, we hit the trail just outside the museum. Directly across the canyon is Spruce Tree House. These dwellings are small and easily seen from the trailhead. The Petroglyph Point Trail is about 2.4 miles and is for practiced hikers. This trail runs the cliffside and is narrow with challenging footing and stairways. It is an adventure for sure, offering views of the canyon and cliffsides.
Before climbing up onto the mesa, we are met with a gorgeous panel of petroglyphs left by Ancestral Puebloans. It is full of odd designs and some very familiar ones. It is truly amazing to think about how old these drawings are and that they have been left untarnished by all the visitors and natural forces over the years.
We decide to explore some more cliff houses. After the museum and Petroglyph Point Trail, we drive on the Mesa Top Loop to visit Square Tower House. A paved path takes us to a viewing area where we can look down at this awesome archaeological site. This dwelling has an unusual three-story tower in its midst. This particular site can only be seen from a distance. There are no ranger tours of Square Tower House.
Cliff Palace Loop
The Cliff Palace Loop is a great way to see some more of Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings. This drive is enjoyable, allowing visitors to make stops along the six-mile way for a look at the various alcove homes. It is possible to see them up close through a ranger-led excursion. Tickets for these are for sale at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at the park's main entrance.
Our first stop is the magnificent Cliff Palace. This site is incredible, featuring 150 rooms and 23 kivas. Archaeologists believe that this was a spiritual and administrative epicenter for the Ancestral Pueblo People. Interestingly, scientists believe that the Pueblo people had an average lifespan of 32-34 years and that 50% of children died before the age of five. These numbers reflect the challenging conditions under which these people lived.
The viewing area above the site offers the perfect spot for some photos and is close enough that you can make out some details of the palace. Of course, if you would like a closer look purchase a tour ticket. Tours last about an hour. Because of the tight spaces in the cliff dwellings, many people wonder how tall the Ancestors were. Scientists speculate that the average height of men was 5'2" and women 5'. To compare, this is about the same size of Europeans during that same time period.
Soda Canyon Overlook
The 1.2-mile hike to Soda Canyon Overlook is an easy trip. The overlook has a viewing scope. Take your time picking out the various cliff dwellings along the mesa tops. There are several. Some are easier to spot than others like the Balcony House. This dwelling is mid-sized, containing 40 rooms.
Most of the 600 cliff dwellings in the park are small, containing 1 to 5 rooms. Balcony House can be visited with a ranger. This alcove house is for the adventurous as you must climb a 32-foot ladder and navigate a long, skinny tunnel to reach this site.
Along with Balcony House, you can see small dwellings across from the Soda Canyon overlook. Some blend in very well with the cliff faces and take patience to find. We have had a full day at Mesa Verde, exploring the many engaging historic places in this park. It is late afternoon when we wrap things up and head back into Cortez for another warm night at the White Eagle Inn. The owner is quite helpful, and she recommends a few restaurants. We enjoy a fantastic dinner at Taste of India before turning in for the night.
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Road Trip Tips:
- Mesa Verde National Park is a year-round park; however, some areas are seasonal. When planning a trip, check their Web site for the latest information.
- Mesa Verde National Park has several special tours for which you can make reservations. These will allow you to see the dwellings up close.
- If you are looking for an affordable, clean motel in Cortez, CO. We highly recommend the White Eagle Inn.