Like many readers here at MiceChat, we take a lot of park centric vacations. In 2016 that was certainly true, but our objectives weren’t theme parks, but National Parks, specifically, the four park’s of Colorado. Let’s get underway with part two of this adventure. Part one can be found HERE.
Most of the National Parks of the United States exist due to spectacular beauty or unique environments. And our next stop does qualify as a unique environment, but is is so much more.
Rising above the land in southwest Colorado between Durango and Cortez are cliff faces with flat top mesas. For centuries the land was inhabited by people known as the Ancestral Pueblo People (APs), formerly referred to as the Anasazi.
The mesas were inhabited and farmed by these people beginning around 500AD. That is, until the last few decades of their occupation 800 years later. For that period, a small percentage of the population built dwellings within the cliffs themselves.
No one is really sure why they did this. Logic suggests that they must have felt some sort of threat to take such extreme measures, but most of those stories have yet to be revealed. All of it is certainly compelling, and thus it was decreed that these lands and the historic structures within would be preserved for us all as Mesa Verde National Park.
These days many architects strive to design buildings that blend with their surroundings, and it could be argued that the APs pioneered this concept. Stands to reason that when using bricks made locally, it’s going to match the cliffs where they are used. The structures take advantage of naturally occurring gaps in the cliff faces, and can be viewed from afar, seen as part of a guided tour or, in some cases, explored on your on.
In all cases, access is controlled to all the cliff dwellings, made easier by the fact that they can only be reached via stairs or ladders which can be easily sealed behind locked gates. Therefore Mesa Verde has been spared the wrath of ignorance and stupidity that has been sweeping our National Parks recently, often with accompanying documentation on Facetwit and Instasnap to confirm their idiocy. In Rocky Mountain National Park alone I witnessed tundra being trodden upon, marmots being fed, elk being too closely approached & an aspen grove overrun by knife wielding fools. I am incapable of containing this sermon, so let’s just get it out of the way now.
There are a multitude of churches throughout the world filled with people representing a seemingly endless variety of beliefs and values. Regardless of how I may agree or disagree with those beliefs, I wouldn’t consider tracking mud into any of these churches, nor would I break any stained glass windows or take a ceremonial chalice because it looks like a good size to use for a Lucky Charms breakfast. The types of places that become national parks are my church. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect my church to receive the same respect I afford to other churches. Leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but memories says it better than anything, I suppose . Thank you; moving on.
The main road into the park eventually splits with a spur leading to the Wetherill Mesa, or continuing on to the edge of the Chapin Mesa where most sites are located. The latter takes travelers to a pair of loop roads, each with several opportunities to stop at a display or overlook. Historic photos illustrate how there has been partial restoration of some structures, although it is not a complete rebuild anywhere. Work is done in a way so as to not be obvious, often after several techniques of construction are explored in an effort to stay true to the techniques available to the APs. The earliest of them lived in pit houses, and there is a site demonstrating how these small depressions were enclosed by a low ceiling.
As the decades progressed, new building techniques were perfected, culminating in the brick and mortar buildings ultimately built into the cliffs. Several can be viewed along the loops, usually after a short walk. One such example is the Square Tower House found along the Mesa Top Loop.
Spruce Tree House is the best preserved of the park’s cliff dwellings, and until recently was the most heavily visited, with self guiding opportunities available most of the year, and no fee for ranger led winter tours; recently being a key word in that statement. Those options are still listed on the glossy maps distributed at the entry station, but cracks that have developed within the cliff itself have brought those activities to a firm halt until at least 2019. There is a small museum here, and the Spruce Tree House can still be viewed from the access trail.
This means that those independent explorers are limited to the Step House on the Wetherill Mesa. Originally there were steps used to descend from the Mesa above, they generally followed the route seen below where the foliage line is located.
After a brief hike from the parking lot, a series of more modern steps leads to the Step House. A ranger (in all actuality a naturalist or interpreter since only those with law enforcement powers are Rangers in the Park Service) is on hand to answer questions during the daylight hours when it is open, sturdy steel gates are locked at all other times, but one can explore to one’s heart’s content.
Also located on the Wetherill Mesa is the Long House, which can only be visited as part of a guided tour. Most tours are $4 per person, and can only be booked in person no more than a day in advance. The Long House tour, approximately enough, is in fact the longest option, partially due to a slightly longer walk, but also because this tour focuses on the history of the sites. The other tours touch on these topics as well, but the Long House tour is more in depth. There is no shortage of fascinating Information. For instance, while tourists from Des Moines use well engineered stairs or sturdy ladders to reach the cliff dwellings, the APs tended to use the most minimal of hand and footholds pounded into the cliff face, those with a fear of heights need not apply, and toddlers quickly learned to keep back from the edge of the living room lest one drastically shorten one’s life expectancy. Not that it was very long to start with 30 qualifying one as a senior citizen. The culprit in most deaths? Oral health, something that couldn’t be helped for the APs no matter how much they followed mom’s methods for brushing and flossing. Here’s the scoop, these folks ate a lot of ground grain; as the grain was ground with the locally found sandstone, it was literally chock full of minerals reeking havoc upon their teeth. Recently, more stories have been emerging from the descendents of the APs (turns out they became much more willing to share when the park service stopped exhuming and cataloging their ancestors, imagine that?), and the Long House tour is a great choice for those wanting to dig deep into the anthology of Mesa Verde; but choices must be made, and it was the one to we had to bypass.
The most adventurous of the tour’s goes to Balcony House. There’s not much walking involved, but everyone in the group of forty something people must be able to negotiate a tunnel crawl and three ladders, one of them being 32 feet tall (and whose top rungs felt a bit more palm sweaty than those below). But if you can handle all that and the open rock face (with sturdy protective chains) traverse during the ascent back to the Mesa top, it’s a place to quickly become lost in the past imagining life on the literal edge.
While most of these tours are booked no more than a day in advance (unless doing a full service, transportation included definitely more than $4 per person tour with park concessionaire Aramark), there is an exception, and it visits Cliff Palace, the largest site in the park. It is called the Twilight Photography Tour, and, yes, $20 is also about exactly 500% more than $4, it happens after all the other tours have concluded, takes advantage of the last, warm rays of the sun, and the group is limited to about a dozen. I was in as soon as I knew about it.
Gathering above the Cliff Palace as the sun dropped towards the horizon, we checked in with our guide, and waited until the stragglers from the final normal group departed. She showed us examples of photos dating back to the 1800s, and was ready with any questions asked of her, but the clear appeal was the ability to explore with few around while being thankful that pixels are so much cheaper than film. It wasn’t a bunch of hardcore photo geeks, so that should not discourage participation. No one was toting huge bags of equipment; I was the only one with a tripod. There is the reality of one side of the site being in shadow from the opposite cliff, but on that side you just take advantage of the soft, even light to work with there.
Not much to say after experiencing such a place under those conditions. The nature of important archeological sites means a visit to Mesa Verde National Park is a little more structured than in other parks, but it’s about to get wilder in Part 3 of Colorado Clockwise.