Cliff dwellings and kivas, that’s what I got out of Mesa Verde National Park, along with a new awareness of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there from 550 AD to 1300 AD. And all that while still recovering from that stomach ailment at Great Sand Dunes. I was still a bit queasy on arrival, but I was determined to see how much sightseeing I could manage during my three-night stay.
Day 1: Slow but Steady
Morefield Campground inside the National Park is not much to brag about, but it did have fairly level sites, nice views, and a solid breeze. Since there were no hookups in my loop, I appreciated the steady breeze a lot. The one knock I’m going to give this campground is that for a “dark sky park” the bath house lights were insanely bright all night long. Come on, NPS, either put in motion sensor lights that are less bright or (gasp) do what Lee’s Ferry campground did and use red lights in the bath houses.
As an aside, the route from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde goes over Wolf Creek Pass, with the summit topping out at 10,856 feet (3308 meters). The Honda Ridgeline did a great job of crawling up that pass and then sliding back down the other side with Breeze in tow. Made me happy I upgraded my tow vehicle, as I don’t think the Outback would have fared nearly as well.
I had two tours set up for my visit, one on Day 2 with a ranger at Wetherill Mesa and then privately run bus tour on Day 3 out of Far Point Lodge. After I set up, I was tired enough that a nap seemed like a solid option. After a few hours of sleep, I felt better and it was time to face up to the reality of my situation and decide if I could do both tours or not. I drove up to the camp store, which had minimal reception, but enough I could read about the Wetherill Mesa tour. I’d have to drive more than an hour to get there (see map below) and then hike 2.5 miles, and drive back, with an estimated time from the National Park Service of 4+ hours. Considering that at this point in my recovery, I wasn’t able to be far from a bathroom for more than 30 minutes, the logistics were going to be problematic. I decided to skip the ranger tour, forfeit my $10, and rest enough on Day 2 that I’d be able to make the bus tour on Day 3, which cost me a lot more than $10.
Day 2: Still Recovering
I slept in, savoring the quiet of the not-quite-full campground. I opened my window shade by the bed to discover a half dozen muledeer grazing around my trailer. And by “around” I mean actually under the awning at one point. I really enjoyed watching them close-up as I lounged around in my pajamas and made a cup of hot tea. Too soon for me, they moved on up the hill. If I’d woken up 15 minutes later, I would have missed the show. As it was, only that guy across the loop and I enjoyed the nature show.
After breakfast, I read a little, waiting for the weather to warm up enough I could go out without a sweatshirt. Yeah, I’m a weather wimp when I know it’s going to get warmer if I just wait it out. I gave myself an hour after eating to see how things were going in the bathroom department and decided to do a bit of sightseeing.
Mesa Verde is one long and winding road, with pullouts and vista points. To see anything, you gotta drive. A lot. Which mostly worked because I could drive a little, see something, and then visit the bathroom before continuing on. Here’s the view from the Montezuma Valley overlook to distract you a bit from the whole bathroom thing.
I also checked out the Park Point overlook, the best vantage point in the park. A short, uphill walk on a paved path led to a staffed fire lookout tower and 360-degree views. I even saw Shiprock, 45 miles away. The signage at this park was exceptionally good: facts not only about the geology but about the ancient residents and the modern-day tribes that consider this place sacred.
I made it to Far Point Lodge, where (of course!) I did a little souvenir shopping and then gave up the idea of getting something to eat because two huge busloads of people had just unloaded and there was nowhere to sit except outside in the really hot sun. I actually went inside not to shop but to see where I’d be checking in for the bus tour the next day. The woman managing the tour desk was quite helpful about how often the tour stopped and where. The bus itself wouldn’t have facilities, so they were going to use one of the smaller vehicles but every stop had facilities, so I decided to give the bus tour a pretty solid “Go for launch” for the next day.
Day 3: The Big Tour
I woke up two hours before I had to leave for the tour and ate the most bland breakfast I could and drank a big glass of water. I hadn’t seen any of the classic Mesa Verde sites in my first two days here, so this was my shot at it. And I was more than ready, having been disciplined enough to rest and recuperate those first two days. So off I went, with water bottles, crackers, and hope for the best.
tl;dr: It was a great tour and I was fine.
While the tour option with Far Point is much pricier than the ranger tours, it’s a small group with a really great guide who clearly knows and loves the park and the stories. My guide, retired from his day job, had moved up to this area because he loved it so much and his explanations of history, Ancestral Puebloans, and the archeological sites was worth every penny of the cost.
Far Point Site
The first stop on the bus tour was Geology Point, where our guide gave us an introduction to the land and the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited it. From 550 AD until around 1300 AD, these people inhabited the Four Corners area, including hundreds of sites in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. Thousands of people lived in the villages on Mesa Verde between 1150-1300 AD, which is considered the Classic Pueblo period. They built kivas, which were round, usually sunken rooms for rituals and meetings (with, it must be noted, mostly men involved in those gatherings, as women were generally not allowed in kivas). The photo below shows one of the kivas at Far Point.
Surrounding the kiva were living spaces, storage rooms, and work areas. You have to imagine these walls going high enough for people to stand (maybe 5.5 or 6 feet high) and with the classic long poles providing structure for the roofs. What you see in this photo is the real deal: stone walls and mortar from sometime before 1300 AD. Still standing, still mostly solid. These people could build.
As time and weather slowly wears down the remaining settlements, the National Park Service works to restore areas and keep the structures as close as possible to what they were originally. At Far Point, these two people were working to rebuild walls, making rocks the same sizes and shapes as the original and mixing modern mortar to be as close in color and appearance to the original.
Spruce Tree House
The tour included two cliff dwellings, with a discussion of life for the people who lived there. How did they get in and out of these cliff dwellings? They climbed down from that flat mesa above or up from the river canyon below. How did they get food and water? Food was carried up or down via backpacks. Rainwater was directed down from the mesa to storage containers within the cliff dwelling; during dry months, they humped it up from the river below.
This was not by any means an easy lifestyle, but it was a workable one and for hundreds of years, these cliff dwellings and settlements at Mesa Verde provided shelter and community for the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Cliff Palace Road was closed for construction, so this was as close as I could get to that classic spot at Mesa Verde, the Cliff Palace. While it’s fascinating to look at with a camera zoom or binoculars, what struck me most was how invisible it was to people crossing the surface of the mesa. Unless you knew it was there, you wouldn’t even now there was a whole village below your feet. In this photo below, the Cliff Palace is slightly to the right of the lower middle.
Here’s a close-up view of Cliff Palace. One of the largest known cliff dwellings, it has 150 rooms and 23 kivas and sheltered about 100 people. Some think it was a ceremonial or administrative center as well, but hard to tell for sure. To give you a sense of scale in this phot, look for the dark wooden ladder just to the right of dead center.
Interlude: Indigenous Lands and People
You might have noticed that in the Fast Facts section of each place I’m writing about, I am attempting to list all the native tribes that have in the past or still do call those places home or revere them as sacred. I do that for the same reason I now celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day: to acknowledge and give respect to those people who were the original settlers of North America and who have, for far too long, been disrespected and marginalized. I never learned in school the parts of US history that covered indigenous people and how the “westward expansion” that ended up with my family landing in Arizona and the California meant those people were moved to reservations, deprived of basic human rights.
If you want to learn more, here are three books recommended, by my friend, Kyle Sullivan (you can find him on twitter as @neoteotihuacan):
- 1491: New Revlations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann
- 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann
- One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark, by Colin Calloway
For those wondering about the phrase Ancestral Pueblo people it has replaced the older term, Anasazi. That word is Navajo for ancient enemy, which the modern-day tribes consider a disrespectful term for their ancesters. The proper term to use now is Ancestral Pueblo or Ancestral Puebloan. For more on this terminology, please see this link to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Want to know more about the Ancestral Pueblo people? Check out this PDF link.
Fast Facts: Mesa Verde
Many tribes can trace their ancestry back to the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the Four Corners area. The National Park Service works with 26 different tribes who have a special relationship with Mesa Verde: Hopi Tribe (AZ), Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (TX), Navajo Nation (CO, AZ, NM), Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (CO), Southern Ute (CO), Northern Ute (UT), Jicarilla Apache Nation (NM, and the T19 Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico: Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, and Zuni.
About 100 million years ago, this whole area was underwater, with an actual beach. The sand deposited at that point in time was compacted and cemented into Dakota Sandstone. That’s the base of the Montezuma Valley below Mesa Verde. Above that basi s Mancos Shale, a layer of shale deposits, which consist of fine particles and organic material. This thick deposit is called the Mancos Shale, containing fossils of oysters, clams, small snails, shark teeth, and ammonites. This layer makes up the low hills at the base of the mesa.
Above that Mancos Shale layer is the Mesa Verde group, with three different formations: Point Lookout, Menefee, and Cliff House Sandstone. The wave actions of the sea (again, the sea!) along with later erosion and downcutting created the canyons and cliffs that provided places where Ancestral Puebloans could build amazing cliff dwellings and mesa-top settlements.
Want to know more? Check out this NPS link.
The Mesa Verde community’s ability to protect these centuries-old treasures, while eagerly sharing them with the world, represents the very best of our national parks, and the generous spirit of Americans.
May 2006 speech celebrating Mesa Verde’s 100th anniversary