Mesa Verde: An unraveling mystery

Mesa Verde is known for its UNESCO-heritiage-site-qualifiying cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloan people lived there for 700 (!!) years from 600-1300CE. There are a total of 600 (!!) cliff dwellings and some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. I learned about these dwellings in my archaeology courses in college–they are THAT important to the history of the United States and to humanity as a whole. 

We took a day trip to Mesa Verde, in Cortes, Colorado, in the Montezuma Valley, from Durango right before we moved on to Boulder. It is a short jaunt, just 35 miles, along another one of America’s great scenic routes.

You can drive through the park by following any combination of the designated loops. We followed the North Rim road, along the Chapin Mesa, and did the loops for Mesa Top and Cliff Palace. I’d heard that the best way to see the park is to go on a ranger tour, and, yeah, the rumor was true. Go with a ranger. Do the drives and hop in and out of the car, for sure, just do so in combination with a ranger tour. The drive gives you views of the cliff dwellings from the tops of the mesas, the tours allows you to climb down into the dwellings and see them first hand.

So, we stopped into the Visitor’s Center to arrange our tours!  We went on tours of Balcony House and of Cliff Palace. The tours can fill up fairly quickly. We were there in a “shoulder season”; we arrived at 11ish and had to wait until 1:30 for our first tour. That was a-ok as we used the time to explore the dwellings from the top of the Mesa and to do some of the shorter walks off of the main trail. We also grabbed lunch at the Far View Terrace. It was surprisingly good for a park cafeteria! 

The ranger-led tours do require you to climb steep ladders on a cliff face and to crawl through some narrow passages (my hips were grazing the sides). If you have a fear of heights, tight spaces, or are wider than me, this might not be the hike and tour for you. Once you get started on the ladders, note, there is no going back. And if you really freak out, they have to get a helicopter to get you. Know yourself and your limits. Cas does have a slight fear of heights and could not approach the edges of the dwellings as the drop was significant. 

Ok–now onto our impressions. It was amazing! Our National Parks are a treasure that we should all be fighting for. Not only for our rights to visit them and learn about the history of our lands and people who inhabit them, but to protect global treasures like these dwellings. You should be making phone calls in protest anytime you hear about drilling in a park or a reduction in the size of a park. That sort of activity and reduction will only hurt us in the end. Rant done. 

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling and what makes Mesa Verde really famous. At its height of occupation, Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. There is evidence that the structure we see today was built over many, many years. It is thought that Cliff Palace had some special or ceremonial significance since it is so big as most of the dwellings have between 1 and 5 rooms and many are single storage rooms. 

Balcony House is considered to be medium-sized with 40 rooms. One of the many neat things about Balcony House is how you can so vividly imagine someone standing on the balcony, looking out onto the valley floor, and looking across to the other side of the mesa at their neighbors. Someone on our tour likened it to the Taj Mahal and imagined lovers pining for each other from across the valley. 

Remember how I mentioned that there were points where I squeezed to get through?  Well, back in the day, an average man was about 5’4″ to 5’5″ (163cm) tall, while an average woman was 5′ to 5’1″ (152cm).  The Ancestral Puebloans lived about l32-34 years. Both their height and lifespan compared to Europeans living at the same point. 

The Ancestral Puebloans used Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams to construct the cliff dwellings. They shaped each sandstone block using harder stones and used a mixture of local soil, water and ash as the mortar. They fancied the place up with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white, you can only see hints of that as it was the first to errode. Obviously, you won’t be allowed to touch anything and will be warned to stay away from the edge. 

The Ancestral Puebloans who lived there are connected to the people who currently live at Acoma Pueblo and who lived at Chaco Canyon. So read more about it here

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