We’ve been to Mesa Verde National Park a number of times but this was the first time in the winter. We very nearly had the park to ourselves, the sun was shining brightly and there was only a slight wind so it was just about perfect. It was also easier without the crowds to try to visualize in your head what it must have been like to live at Mesa Verde about a thousand years ago.
Climbing up and down the cliffs using finger and toe holds and carrying everything needed for daily life seems like an extremely daunting task. Some water seeped into the back of some of the caves but most would have to be hauled as would foodstuffs from mesa-top plots. With our nice warm coats our day seemed just about perfect, but it’s hard to imagine trying to keep warm during the cold winter months at over 8000 feet elevation.
Spruce Tree House
Twenty years or so ago when we visited Mesa Verde, we were told that the Anasazi lived here for over 700 years and then just mysteriously “disappeared.” With no written record, an understanding of the people who lived here is dependent upon archaeological excavation, analysis and comparison. This work is an ongoing process. These people are now called Ancestral Puebloans. They did not just suddenly disappear; in the late 1200’s they moved away and merged with other Pueblo people. The question of why they moved away is still unanswered although there are numerous theories.
Navajo Canyon Overlook
There are over 4700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, in Mesa Verde National Park and many more to yet be excavated. From a non-archaeologist , it appears that there were three major shifts in living accommodations at Mesa Verde. The earliest settled inhabitants (about AD 550) built pit houses which were dug into the ground and used a stick-and-wattle type roof construction. About AD 750 some began to build houses above ground beginning with upright walls of posts and adobe and evolving into stone masonry. Around AD 1200 the people shifted into the cliff dwellings in which they used the protected alcoves and masonry construction.
Square Tower House
By about 1300 Mesa Verde was abandoned. Maybe it was because of extended drought and crop failure, maybe the population had grown and depleted necessary resources, or perhaps there was social or political strife. There seems to be little evidence of outside threat but it’s possible as the cliff dwellings were much more defensive in nature than the previous dwellings.
New Fire House
Local ranchers first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1888 and they have attracted attention ever since. Unfortunately for eighteen years there was no protection of the sites and with a ready market for artifacts many cliff dwellings were ransacked. Even those with an understanding of the archaeological value of the sites lacked modern scientific methods so true research was at best difficult.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, establishing the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resource in the United States. On June 29,1906, Mesa Verde National Park was established to “preserve the works of man”, becoming the first national park of its kind.
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Ranger-led tours allow visitors to walk the edge of this impressive structure. There are many steps down and several ladders to climb back to the mesa top. To access Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House, you must be a part of a ranger-led tour and tickets are available at the visitor center from late spring through early fall.
The new visitor and research center (which actually opened in 2012 so not really so new) is quite impressive. It’s located just inside the park entrance and is the only place you can get tickets for the cliff dwelling tours. The old visitor center was located 21 miles from the park entrance so you had already made a certain commitment before you even got to that center.
Driving through the park, the evidence of wildfire is ever present. Seventy percent of the park has been burned by wildfire since its formation in 1906. Historically, over ninety-five percent of wildfires within the park have been caused by lightening. In an area with very little moisture and high elevation, it takes a long time to recover from a fire.
Seventeen years after a fire
Mesa Verde and its mysteries are fascinating. It’s a place that begs return visits.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm