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On Walkabout At: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Basic Information

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Narrative

Our final destination on our family summer trip was to stop and spend the afternoon in Mesa Verde National Park on our way back from Arizona.  We arrived at the park at around 1:00 PM and the park closed at 5:00 PM which gave us only 4 hours to look around.  Since our time was limited at Mesa Verde we decided to bypass the Visitor Center at the park’s entrance and drove straight into the park:


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The drive into the park was surprisingly spectacular.  I thought Mesa Verde was just a collection of ancestral Puebloan ruins, but the mesas where these ruins are located is quite scenic as well:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

These mesas rise above 8,000 feet in altitude and provide just stunning views of the region. Looking towards the west we could see the desert terrain we crossed from the Four Corners area to reach Mesa Verde:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

From the lofty heights of the mesas we also had a beautiful view to the North of the nearby San Juan Mountains rising up and over the Mancos Valley below:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Here is a closer look at these mountains:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

After stopping at a few lookouts to take in the views, we then stopped at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum located deep within the park:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Since we had limited time to visit the park I did not spend as much time as I would have liked checking out the museum.  Plus it was absolutely packed in there anyway which made spending time to read all the displays difficult.  The museum had what you would expect from a museum like this, such as displays showing the daily lives of the ancestral Puebloans:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

There were also plenty of pots, baskets, and other artifacts on display as well:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

At the museum I learned that Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.  On December 18, 1888, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, cowboys from Mancos, became the first non-Native Americans to discover the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde after hearing from local Ute Native-Americans of their existence.  The cowboys ended up collecting and selling a lot of artifacts from the ruins they explored.  In my opinion that is a bit disappointing because the local Utes considered the ruins to be sacred areas plus the removal of the artifacts makes it harder for archaeologists to study the area later on.  The removal of artifacts must have struck a cord with people because Mesa Verde was declared a National Park in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt due to the unique collection of archaeological and cultural assets located there.  Mesa Verde features over 4000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who lived here between 600-1300 AD.  They originally built their homes on top of the mesas then around 1190 AD they began to build them in the caves of the mesas.  Could it have been for defensive purposes against enemies?

From the museum there is a short trail down to the Spruce Tree House which is one of the main attractions at the National Park:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

The trail down to the dwellings was steep, but was paved and had plenty of benches so just about anyone should be able to complete the half mile walk down to the dwellings.  The canyon also had plenty of trees that cooled the temperature down quite a bit along with a nice creek that would have provided the ancestral Puebloans with water right in front of their homes:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

The canyon that the dwelling is located in has very steep walls:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

So the walls not only provided overhead protection from the elements, but it also provided defensive protection from enemies:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Here is an illustration from the National Park website that tries to show what life on the mesa would have looked like along with a brief analysis of the Spruce Tree House:

A person standing across the canyon from Spruce Tree House in the mid-A.D. 1200s might have witnessed a scene like the example above. This village was one of the largest in Mesa Verde. It had 129 rooms and eight kivas. Some 60 to 90 persons lived here at any one time. Hundreds of years before this village was built, their ancestors probably lived in pithouses in the same alcove shelter.

The Ancestral Puebloans were experienced builders. The walls of the cliff dwelling were built straight and tall, laid up with carefully shaped stones. The season depicted in this scene is autumn, the villagers’ busiest time of year. On the mesa top, men are harvesting their crop of corn, beans, and squash. They reached their fields by hand-and-toe-hold trails pecked into the canyon walls. Some of them are in the dwelling, spreading the crops on a roof top to dry. These are the stores that will see them through the long winter and even the next year or two if there is drought. You may also see women grinding corn, old men sitting in the sun and telling stories, hunters off on a hunting expedition, children scampering about, and domesticated dogs and turkeys roaming the courtyards.  [NPS website]

After completing the short walk I found myself in front of the Spruce Tree House:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Something that really jumped out at me immediately was the windows:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

I had seen this style of windows before over at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico.  So it was pretty obvious to me that these ancestral Puebloans shared their building styles with those that once lived in the Gila Mountains.  So maybe the Puebloans that lived in the Gila Mountains moved from here?  Something difference I did notice at Mesa Verde compared to the Gila Cliff Dwellings was that at Mesa Verde they also used the distinctive window style for some entryways as well:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

The Spuce Tree House also had a large kiva which is where the males would have gone to conduct religious ceremonies or hold meetings:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Here is a closer look at the kiva:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Something I was surprised to see was that the Spruce Tree House actually had two kivas in it:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Usually each kiva is used by different families or clans, so it is likely that two large extended families lived together at the Spruce Tree House.  This next picture shows how some structure here were up to three stories high:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

I spent about 45 minutes down at the Spruce Tree House reading my guidebook and learning more about these fascinating ruins and the people who once lived here:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

After I finished by walk around the Spruce Tree House my family I next headed over to the Cliff Palace which is the featured attraction at the park.  To get there we had to drive a few miles through the forests on top of these high mesas:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

We eventually ended up driving through a forest that had been scorched by wildfires a few years ago:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

The fires had really devastated the forest which got me thinking that maybe this was the final factor that caused the ancestral Puebloans to leave Mesa Verde?  Think about it; it is possible they moved into the canyons due to enemies that migrated into the area.  Then during the 1200’s the Southwest was hit with drought which would have made life even harder for them.  If a forest fire happened they would have had no way of putting it out like we do today.  It would have burned until it went out naturally.  The environmental damage to the mesas that they depended on for farming and wood for fuel may have been too much for them to overcome.  I could definitely see how a major forest fire could have been the final motivating factor to cause these people to move.

After a short drive through the burn scar we arrived at the parking lot for Cliff Palace.  There is a short walk required from the parking lot to the rim of this impressive canyon where the Cliff Palace is located:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Down below from the lookout that the trail leads to I could see the Cliff Palace:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Only guided tours are allowed down to the Cliff Palace and I had missed the last tour of the day by about 15 minutes.  So I was left admiring the Cliff Palace from up above at the lookout.   The Cliff Palace from the lookout was an incredible sight.  It was much larger than the Spruce Tree House.  Here is information about the Cliff Palace from the National Park website:

Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. If you visit Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.  [National Park website]

Looking across the canyon from the lookout I could see the burn scar that I crossed to reach the Cliff Palace:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

The above picture shows just how large that forest fire was.  Additionally the cliff across from the Cliff Palace is where cowboys  Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason would have first spotted Cliff Palace back in 1888 before looting it.  What a sight that must have been when they saw the Cliff Palace for the first time.

Finally here is one last picture I took of the park which is a panorama of the canyon that the Cliff Palace is located in:

Picture from Mesa Verde National Park

Conclusion

Mesa Verde National Park is definitely a place my family I need to take another future trip to in order to spend more time exploring the park.  I find the history of the ancient Puebloan people to be fascinating and Mesa Verde is one of the best places to learn more about their history.  Plus the terrain at the park is really stunning.  I was not expecting these mesas to be as beautiful as they are which was an added bonus for visiting the park.  Next time I come here probably spending two full days here would be enough to see the highlights of the park.  For now though I had to hit the road and get back to Colorado Springs.  From Mesa Verde our next destination was Durango, Colorado where we spend the night at a hotel there.  The next day we began the long drive back to Colorado Springs.

Next Posting: From Durango to Colorado Springs

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