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Mesa Verde National Park Colorado – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

The most prominent cliff dwelling site for American Indians in North America and, arguably, one of the most advanced Indian cultures north of Mexico greet the traveler at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.

Superlatives are, of course, charged with judgments, but few visitors to Mesa Verde leave prepared to argue with the observation.

The physical surprise is that these high mesas are indeed a “green table” or Mesa Verde, as the Spanish first described the area. The flat rain-catching plateaus at 6,000-8,000 feet are clothed with forests that include douglas fir and aspen as well as pinyon pine and Utah juniper. With such abundant rain it was relatively easy for the Indians to grow a predictable surplus of beans, squash, and corn. The name that these cliff dwellers gave themselves is not known, so we have named them with a modern Navajo word, Anasazi, meaning “the ancient ones.” To honor this domain of the Anasazi, the Mesa Verde plateaus were set aside as a National Park in 1906.

Getting to Mesa Verde National Park

The nearest town in southwest Colorado to Mesa Verde is Cortez, which is served by commuter aircraft. Durango is another sizable community to the east of the park. Grand Junction, CO, is the nearest major fly-in point. Bus connections reach the towns of the region.

For exploring the park, you need your own vehicle. The entrance to the park, east of Cortez, leads to a long road winding south in the park. At the end of this road lie the major ruins, which are on the Chapin Mesa. A more westerly mesa, the Wetherill Mesa, is open only in summer and only via a Park Service bus tour that leaves from the Visitor Center.

There is an attractive rustic campground at Morefield within the park and a lodge called the Motor Lodge at Far View. Lodging outside the park is available in Cortez, where a KOA franchise runs a campground with attractive views of Ute Mountain.

History of Mesa Verde National Park

A stop at the Visitor Center and then a leisurely look at artifacts in the Mesa Verde Archaeology Museum at the south end of Chapin Mesa should precede your field visits to the ruins.

For other National Parks on the Colorado Plateau the geologic story is the compelling drama. But for Mesa Verde full attention focuses on the human tale, the story of Indian clans which arrived about the first century A.D., settled in pit houses as skilled basket weavers, advanced to above-ground pueblo structures on the mesas near their farm fields, and then progressed to cliff dwellings, such as the multi-room Cliff Palace, before abandoning the site over two generations about the year 1300 A.D.

Although their cultural attainments were many, it is wise not to over-romanticize the Indian life. Sobering is the archaeologists’ judgment, for example, that their average lifespan ran to about 32 years and that half of their children died before reaching their fifth year.

The basis of their prosperity was their skill as agriculturalists. On the high mesas they first grew corn and squash, to which they added beans about the year 950. They used small check dams to catch the rains from summer thunderstorms. To this agrarian diet they added abundant wild seeds and plant foods, game such as deer, and even fowl, such as turkeys, which they domesticated for meat and feathers. In the Archaeology Museum you see several examples of their corn, beans, and squash, including an ancient squash skin and a large earthenware jar filled with corn.

For their architecture, the Anasazi will be admired by the average traveler, who views these dwellings as wondrously as the first Colorado cowboys who stumbled upon them, in the late 1880s, while searching for stray cows on the mesas. On the Chapin Mesa you can see the progressive stages of their architecture.

First came the pit houses, easily heated rooms dug into the ground and then built up and lined with mud.

Then these natives progressed in their dwellings to semi-circular clusters of above-ground rooms, which are called pueblos after the Spanish word for village.

Finally, they built some 600 extant cliff dwellings under the sandstone overhangs in the park. Seventy-five per cent of these dwellings were one-to-five-room structures, but a few were much larger. The three largest are the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House.

The Cliff Palace was the largest, with 217 rooms, of which 23 are described by archaeologists as kivas, a Hopi word meaning “ceremonial room.” About 200-250 people lived at the Cliff Palace, which can be viewed from afar, but the traveler able to climb down and up a steep hillside will benefit from an on-site close-up visit. Balcony House can be viewed only if you climb down to its level. Square Tower, another impressive ruin, is one of the most photogenic of the extant structures. The Square Tower complex originally had 80 rooms and was four stories high, with a dependable water source in the spring below it.

Architecturally, the cliff dwellings were constructed from carefully-cut loaf-size blocks of sandstone, mortised together with mud. Holes in the rooms were rather small, partly because protection against the cold of winter was a major concern.

In summer the Anasazi wore little clothing. In winter they clothed themselves in animal skins. Cotton, though not grown here, became a trade item about 800 A.D., along with shells and turquoise used in making jewelry. Several of the finest extant garments at the Archaeology Museum are dog-hair sashes of exquisite design, perhaps 1500 years old.

At the Museum you will see many skilled examples of their crafts. It is interesting to note that the Anasazi were artistic jewelry makers, using turquoise and shells, as do their modern counterparts in the Navajo and Hopi communities.

Their basketry was also superb, especially in the earlier period, before they learned to make pottery. Archaeologists group the Indian advancement into periods. The first group is called the Basket Makers because this was one of their major skills. They needed baskets adequate for carrying water and even for boiling water by immersing hot rocks, their major method of cooking.

About 550 A.D. the first efforts at pottery making emerged. By the Classic Pueblo period, 900-1100, pottery making had become one of their major arts and basketry had declined.

As stone age peoples, they had no metal tools, but from bone and rock they fashioned cutting, scraping, and hoeing implements. They also learned how to weave. A basic advance in tools occurred when they learned to replace their atlatls, or spear-throwing sticks, with bows and arrows, which were more efficient for hunting big game, such as deer. The Museum has good examples of both types of hunting tools.

Little is known of the Anasazi religious life and social organization. Ceremonial gathering rooms, the kivas, were important religious and social places in the architectural structure. Some clues to their beliefs and mores occur in their burial practices. The dead at the Cliff Palace, for example, were buried immediately below, in the rubble, with the body in a flexed position, knees close to head. The body was clothed in an animal skin or woven plant wrapping. Alongside the body were pots and tools, probably meant to be practical aids in the next life. The kiva rooms also had a small hole in the floor thought to symbolize a passageway to the next life.

Main Attractions of Mesa Verde National Park

The main attractions at Mesa Verde are all the Indian dwellings to view. There are also striking landscape views. The vista from the Visitor Center is impressive. On a clear day you can look south for 100 miles.

The major ruins are on the Chapin Mesa. As you leave the Museum, start with a look at the adjacent Spruce Tree House ruin, which had 114 rooms, of which eight were kivas. About 125 people lived here around 1250. If you are not up for a walk, which you should always consider carefully because of the altitude, you can view the ruin from the comfort of a veranda with benches in the ranger buildings. Spruce Tree House is the third largest of the ruins in the park.

Then proceed on the two loop roads on Chapin Mesa to see the other major ruins. All the major ruins can be seen from road turnouts, but if you are able to make the literal climb down and up, see the Cliff Palace up close. The view is best in afternoon light.

If you take your time driving around Chapin Mesa, you will be surprised at how many cliff dwellings, large and small, come into view.

As you drive the loop road, using the Park Service Mesa Top Ruins brochure as guide, you will be directed to examples of the pit houses and pueblo structures of the periods before the cliff dwellings were built. Throughout the mesa top, small fields of corn, beans, and squash grew, but today the forest has reclaimed the area.

After exploring Chapin Mesa thoroughly, return to the Visitor Center and take the Park Service tour of the Wetherill Mesa ruins. This amount of exploring is a full day venture, so start early. If you want to do the Wetherill Mesa trip, you might consider signing up for a place on the bus when you make your first stop at the Visitor Center as you enter the park.

As you survey the 600 years of Anasazi culture here, the question arises: why did they leave? Archaeologists can’t offer a definitive answer, but there are probable causes.

Careful ring dating of core samples from trees used in the beam construction of the Cliff House, coupled with ring dating of core samples from living and dead trees in the park, has determined precisely that a prolonged drought occurred in the late 1200s. The amount of growth on a tree ring each year is dependent primarily on moisture. Consequently, careful perusal of tree rings can determine accurately a calendar of water availability.

Drought alone would not have persuaded the Anasazi to leave Mesa Verde because they had survived drought earlier. But this time they had lived on the mesa for fully 600 years, gradually depleting its supplies of wood, its game, and the quality of its agricultural soil. Their numbers had also grown to a maximum level, straining the life support systems of the area. Perhaps internal strife broke out between the groups. There seems to be evidence that the latest constructions were among the most easily fortified and defended. Moreover, the group apparently had knowledge of Indian settlements along the rivers with dependable water supplies, which must have seemed inviting in a time of drought. Archaeologists speculate that probably a family or clan at a time left. Gradually, numbers in the Mesa Verde area declined, so there wasn’t the full complement of individuals needed for certain ceremonies. The lack of comradeship may have been a compelling factor. There may also have been other factors that archaeologists fail to comprehend. The most careful students of the Anasazi culture recognize the mysteries involved in the puzzle.

Nearby Trips from Mesa Verde National Park

After perusing the major site, Mesa Verde, it is interesting to take a side trip on dirt and gravel roads to a lesser site, Hovenweep, 25 miles west of Cortez. Here, without the crowds, you can enjoy a more private experience of Anasazi ruins.

Get a good map of the 784-acre Hovenweep National Monument from the Mesa Verde Visitor Center. Hovenweep was established in 1923 and is administered by Mesa Verde National Park.

Drive northwest from Cortez to Pleasant View. Then follow the signs to Hovenweep. You will pass extensive modern fields of beans during a summer trip. High altitude pinto beans are dry-farmed in the area, just as they were at the time of the Anasazi. Pleasing views of the Ute Mountain stretch beyond the fields. The road is relatively well graded and safe for passenger vehicles, except when rain storms in summer or winter make it impassable.

Hovenweep is a modern Navajo word meaning “deserted area.” The main ruins are at the Square Tower site, where you’ll find a ranger and a self-guiding trail walk, plus a pleasing rustic campground-picnic area. There are five outlying sites, but they all require a four-wheel drive vehicle or a hike.

Purchase a Walking Tour guide of the Square Tower ruins and begin your exploration. First, you’ll see the Castle, from the 1200s, an elaborate stone structure. Then you’ll look down on the Square Tower, the major architectural structure for which the monument was created. Archaeologists puzzle over why the Indians built this square tower. It was not in a position that would be ideal for military fortification. There is some evidence that ports in the building allowed sunlight to strike certain interior areas in a predictable manner, so that the summer solstice, winter solstice, and two equinoxes could be accurately indicated. Such calendar information would be crucial to an agrarian people who needed accurate advice on when to plant crops. Perhaps the multi-storied tower was also simply an effective food storage unit.

As you walk the rim of the small canyon, you’ll encounter a check dam, such as the Indians used. The check dam caught rain run-off and the silt that the water carried. In the silted area behind the dam the Indians planted their corn, squash, and beans.

Walking around the canyon, you encounter Hovenweep House, another multi-room pueblo structure. The trail then dips down into the canyon, giving you a close-up look at the Square House, a view of several ruins further down the canyon, and an introduction to the wild plants of the desert.

A short drive from the ranger station you’ll find the Hovenweep Campground, an agreeable unit with much scenic beauty if you are self-reliant or self-contained. The spacious camp units have views of the Ute Mountain. This is a pleasing picnic area for the day traveler who will return to lodge in Cortez.

Drive out the southern route from Hovenweep back to Cortez. Be sure that you have obtained a good map of these back-country roads from the rangers at Mesa Verde or at Hovenweep before venturing into the area.

The southern loop back takes you through oil exploration fields and past grasslands with lovely views of the Ute Mountain, especially when billowy cumulus clouds fill the sky. As you approach Cortez, the valley becomes well-watered and verdant, with hay farming the major activity of the scattered, small ranches in the area. This southern road wins the washboard road award when compared to the better graded northern entrance.

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Mesa Verde National Park: If You Go

For information on Mesa Verde, see www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm.

For lodging, consider  the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde.

Good descriptive literature on the park can be purchased at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center.

For  overall Colorado tourism information, see www.colorado.com.

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