Monday, May 28, 2012


We arrived at Mesa Verde from Lake Cochiti, New Mexico late in the day on May 22nd. We  immediately went to the Park Visitor Center to book a tour for the following day. We actually toured three cliff dwellings together and Tim toured one on his own as the descent and ascent was much too steep for me.

As background on Mesa Verde, it is a National Park housing 600 cliff dwellings, 4800 archaelogical sites, and the archaeologists estimate communities of about 5,000 on Mesa Verda.These include dwelllings from pithouses dug into the ground atop the Mesa to cliff dwellings built on the side of the cliffs. Pithouses date as far back as 500 AD and the cliff dwellings were populated until around 1280AD. The archaeologists know this from the artifacts they have found as well as the age of the wood used as support beams in their dwellings both above the Mesa and below the cliffs.

The first cliff dwelling was discovered in 1888 by two cowboys looking for cattle. After that, the digs began and the pithouses above and the 600 dwellings on the cliff were unearthed.

On Wednesday, May 23rd, we toured the Cliff Palace which is the largest of the many cliff dwellings that have been excavated in the Park. Our tour began with a gradual but steady decline on iron stairs and a paved surface to the cliff below. The ranger toured us through explaining how the Ancestral Puebloans carried stone by stone from the Mesa top to the cliff to build these dwellings. Another name for them was Anasazi which, in the  Navajo tongue, means "ancient foreigners." When they lived on the Mesa top, they lived in pithouses and they dry farmed corn, squash and beans. They continued to farm from their cliff dwelling. It is felt that they moved from the Mesa top to the cliffs for the water and protection from the elements. It is surmised that circa 1280 there was such a severe drought that they moved south to the Rio Grande Valley. The Hopi and Zuni claim them as their ancestors.

As we toured the ruins, we viewed a ceremonial/family room known as a Kiva. This is where the families and tribe members would gather to have ceremonial services. They had a ventilator for the fire, and a wind screen to protect them and the Kiva from spreading fire to their wooden roof. In the Cliff Palace there were nine Kivas and 150 rooms.  Impressive! In the Kivas there is a small hole in the ground called a Sipapu which to them symbolized their entry from the spirit world to life above the ground.

The ascent to the Mesa top from the Palace was a little more difficult than the descent with a series of wooden ladders through rock crevices straight up. The air being thinner at the 7700 foot elevation, this was more difficult than it sounds.
Descending to and Climbing up from Cliff Palace

In the afternoon, we drove the Chapin Mesa Top Loop and visited the excavated pithouses and took in the views of some of the other cliff dwellings across the canyons.

On Thursday, May 24th, we toured Spruce Tree House. This was actually the first cliff dwelling discovered by two cowboys by the name of Wetherill. They thought the tree that they climbed down to get in was a spruce tree and thus the name of the house. However, the tree is actually a Douglas Fir! This is the third largest of the cliff dwellings and has 114 rooms and 8 Kivas.  It is 216 feet wide and 89 feet deep into the  mountain. This was a self guided tour and again had a paved pathway which was steeper than the Cliff Palace and thus more challening to climb back up.
Spruce Tree House Ruins and Kiva

In the afternoon, Tim toured the Balcony House. They warned us that if you are afraid of heights that you shouldn't do this tour. So I didn't! It involved descending down 75 feet on a metal stairway and inclined trail. Then you go up a 32 foot ladder to the room section only to pass through a narrow rock passageway to the Kivas and the storage areas. It had 40 rooms and 2 Kivas. To exit you had to crawl through a 12 foot long by 18 inch wide tunnel, followed by a 60 foot ladder, then climbing up the open face of the cliff using two 10 foot ladders and a series of stone steps. Thank God I didn't go!
Entering Balcony House Down and Up Ladders

Exiting Balcony House through tunnel (top left) rock openings, ladders, and footholds on the cliff wall.

Following this adventure, Tim was ready to continue the day and we hiked the Knife Edge Trail which led out of our campground area to the edge of the cliff overlooking Montezuma Valley.  We stopped often along the trail as the self guided brochure instructed us at the numbered signposts as to the vegetation and archaelogical high points. When the sign said STOP..we did.
Hiking the Knife Edge Trail
The sign reads STOP! End of Trail where it drops off the cliff!

All of this was on one side of the Park. There was another side to explore and so we stayed an extra day and signed up for a Tram tour on the Wetherill Mesa to Long House which is the second largest cliff dwelling in the Park area wise with 150 rooms and 21 Kivas and an unusually large central plaza. On the walls of this dwelling, we saw rock art symbols and hand prints on the wall.  The only way to view this dwelling was on this Tram tour. Again, there was a steep descent and ladders to climb into the rooms and the ascent was along the same entrance trail..steep with many switchbacs. While all the roads in the Park were challenging because of the cliff edges and the switchbacks, the one to Wetherill was exceptionally so. To give you an idea we drove 200 miles over 3 days to visit all of these dwellings and sights within the Park.
Descending to Long House, the ruins and an imprint of a hand on the cave wall.

While on Wetherill Mesa we also toured the above ground pithouses and villages which have been excavated. And in the afternoon, we toured similar places on the Chapin Mesa side of the Park at Far View.

We stopped at Park Point overlook which was at 8500 feet elevation. You can see all four states from here..Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona.  We also saw the Knife Edge trail end that we hiked to the previous day.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Mesa Verde National Park and would encourage other to visit there and learn more about the Ancestral people that populated the southwest long before Columbus discovered America for the Europeans. We thank Paula and Dale Smith, who toured the west 3 years ago, for enlightening us as to its magnificence. Otherwise, we might have missed it.

1 comment:

  1. What happened to the "HAG" tag??? I like this one better!