If you didn’t see my post on Natural Bridges National Monument it’s well worth a look. Renee Gordon, my fellow adventurer on our Great North American Road Trip wrote the following about our next stop, Mesa Verde National Park. – Sam Kynman-Cole
Next we crossed the border into Colorado after I managed to convince Sam to go somewhere a little different before continuing our journey visiting more of Utah’s uniquely scenic parks. While we visited many national parks throughout the United States primarily for their geographic beauty, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the world’s premier archaeological sites and has UNESCO world heritage status. It contains 4,500 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings from ancient people called Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited this area between A.D. 500 to A.D.1300. We had only ever heard of nomadic American Indians and were interested to learn about these communities that farmed and inhabited the mesa top.
Mesa Verde literally translates from Spanish to ‘green table’. Mesa refers to an elevated area of land with a flat top and sides that are usually steep cliffs, resembling a table-top. We had seen many mesas while travelling through Utah, but Mesa Verde was clearly different with green vegetation on the top, a stark contrast to the barren mesas in Utah.
From below you cannot appreciate the complexity of the land forming the mesa and it’s hard to imagine that people previously inhabited the mesa. As you drive up to the top of Mesa Verde you get glimpses of steep canyons in the interior of the mesa. This is where the Ancestral Puebloans chose to build their stone communities, on the cliffs within the canyons. Even when you know that there are cliff dwellings it is very hard to spot them; they used nature to their advantage by building in natural alcoves of the cliff edge and utilizing local stone in the construction which naturally camouflages with the cliff face. The Ancestral Puebloans were experts in construction, that their houses are still standing today is a testament to this.
Spruce Tree House
We started our visit at Mesa Verde by going on the self-guided tour of the Spruce Tree House. The Spruce Tree House is Mesa Verde’s best-preserved and third largest cliff dwelling constructed between A.D. 1211 and A.D. 1278. The house was first reported in 1888 when two local ranchers chanced upon it while searching for stray cattle. The dwelling consists of 130 rooms and 8 kivas (ceremonial rooms dug into the ground like a large round pit). It is thought that the Spruce Tree House would have been home to 60-80 people. About 90% of Spruce Tree House is original and still intact.
Park rangers present at the Spruce Tree House to supervise tourists and provide knowledge on the dwelling. We learnt that archeologists believe that when the Ancestral Puebloans left this dwelling they burnt the wooden roofs covering the kivas to release ‘the spirits’. A couple of the kivas we saw in the Spruce Tree House had reconstructed roofs to give visitors a chance to experience what it is like to enter a kiva and better understand how these ancient people lived. The kivas are built down in the ground with a vertical ladder providing access, it is believed that each clan had its own kiva for spiritual matters or social gatherings. The kivas had an efficient ventilation system so that the smoke from the fireplace rose vertically through the entryway and fresh air was able to ventilate the room through another vent. I was impressed by the design but at the same time not used to being underground with the only entry/exit point being an often-occupied ladder. I stood in the kiva for a few moments while Sam took a photo (you can see my discomfort in this picture) and then climbed back to the surface again relieved.
Near the Spruce Tree House we saw the spring that is thought to have provided all the water for the community residing in this dwelling. It was merely a seep hole, through which rain water collected on the mesa top slowly seeped through the sandstone and eventually made its way out a few drops at a time. The spring had very little water and made me think of how carefully these people must have used this water supply. I felt very wasteful thinking of all the water I use each day! The spring water wouldn’t even be enough for one flush of the toilet!
To visit the other cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park you have to sign up for the guided tours in the visitors centre. There can be long lines during the peak season so we recommend you visit early, have an idea of what tours you want to attend and bring supplies for a wait (hat, sunscreen and water because you may end up lining up outside in the sun like us). The summer visitor guide that we received upon our entry to the park has details about the length of walks, elevation ascent and descent, and other “challenges” involved such as ladders and tunnels. A park guide warned us of the most challenging tour where you have to climb a 9.8m ladder and crawl through a 3.7m long tunnel. To be completely honest we found these details laughable after completing the Angel’s Landing walk at Zion National Park where a number of people have died falling from the cliffs in the past few years. We were disappointed by the visitor guide, it lacked sufficient details of what could be seen on each of the tours and therefore we found it hard to decide what tours to go on. After talking in depth to the workers at the Visitor Centre and holding up the line of people we decided to book to go on two guided tours, to see the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House.
The Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling and most well-known. It has 217 rooms and 23 kivas. This dwelling was very impressive, but so busy with tourists that we were escorted through in a very “time-efficient” manner by our ranger. The ranger was very knowledgeable and told us about the lifestyle of the Ancestral Puebloans. They were primarily farmers; growing crops of corn, beans and squash on top of the mesa. They would also complement their diet by hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels and other game. They kept dogs and turkeys as domestic animals. Turkeys you ask? Yes, I thought the same thing… Interestingly a lot of what we know about these people has been uncovered from the garbage heap in front of the dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans threw all of their rubbish down the cliff into the canyon. It sounds terrible but really it was just a matter of practicality – they lived in an alcove of the cliff after all.
What Happened to the Ancestral Puebloans?
The ranger also talked to us about the sudden departure of the Ancestral Puebloans from their cliff dwellings in the late 1200s; leaving within a generation or two. Some people believe that years of farming had depleted the mesa top of nutrients, forcing these people to move in search of food. In addition, tree ring studies have revealed that this area suffered through a drought from A.D. 1276 to A.D. 1299. This would have been devastating for the crops on the mesa top.
After this tour we went to see the Balcony House which has 45 rooms and 2 kivas. This 1-hour ranger-led tour is considered to be the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour at Mesa Verde. Albeit smaller than the other dwellings we had already seen, it was impressive in its own right for being the least accessible and impossibly hidden in the cliff edge. I enjoyed the views from this house and could imagine living there and looking across the canyon to another house I could make out on the other side, waving hello to another clan. The only way that the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers could enter and exit their housing was to use a series of toe-holds in the side of the cliff which were still visible on our walk. Compared to this route I think it is fair to say that the ranger-led tour is like a walk in the park!
We were very impressed by the Balcony House and how close these people could build to the edge of the cliff; below was a long vertical drop and in front were amazing views.
Spruce Tree House is easily accessible and does not require a guided tour (free), it also has the kivas reconstructed so you can experience what it was like to be inside.
Cliff Palace is similar in style to Spruce Tree House however the architecture is far more impressive and being on a guided tour you learn a lot about the Ancestral Puebloans. This was my favourite of the three sites we visited.
Balcony House doesn’t offer as much to see as the other two in terms of quantity of buildings but it is interesting to see because it’s so unique. Sam considers this his favourite as he found it the most exciting – architecturally as the brick work reaches right to the edge of the cliff and he also enjoyed the more challenging route required to enter and exit.
Spending Longer Than One Day?
We only spent the one full day in Mesa Verde National Park, everything you’ve seen and read about in this post we accomplished in the one day. However if you have more time there’s still more to do. Check out the national park service website for more information.
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