Derek Miller travelogue: Mesa Verde, Colo.
I’ve always loved visiting Americas national parks, especially in the West where they are so wild, isolated, vast and stunning. In addition, I always love and appreciate how national parks have their own unique characteristics and features.
Tucked away in the southwest corner of Colorado is a most fascinating collection of man-made structures and natural landscapes that the Spanish explorers named Mesa Verde. The words Mesa Verde are Spanish for green table. When the Spanish explorers first came to the southwest, they saw many tall land forms with flat tops and steep sides. The flat tops reminded the explorers of tables. Subsequently, they gave the name “table,” which is mesa. Mesa Verde is covered with trees and bushes, which makes it very green, so subsequently the Spanish added their word for “green” which is verde.
Up to this point, all of the national parks which I’ve seen have been dedicated to natural landscapes, rock formations, etc., that have been created by Mother Nature and her wonderful and amazing forces. Water, wind, ice, volcanoes, erosion and many other geological phenomena have been the paintbrush or medium used for creating such amazing sights. Mesa Verde however, revolves around both Mother Nature and cultural influences. In fact Mesa Verde is the only cultural national park set aside by the National Park System.
The cultural influence of Mesa Verde lends itself to the fact that it’s the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. The park was created in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the archeological heritage of the ancestral Pueblo people (sometimes called the Anasazi), both atop the mesas and in the cliff dwellings below. This in turn made Mesa Verde a new kind of national park, meant to celebrate not breathtaking scenery, but a prehistoric culture and its people. Mesa Verde is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 1889, while searching for stray cattle in southwestern Colorado, rancher Richard Wetherill and his younger brothers stumbled across ancient ruins in the cliffs of a high plateau known as Mesa Verde. The cowboys improvised a ladder, and descended to examine the homes of a vanished people. Further exploration led to the discovery of the largest concentration of cliff dwellings ever found built by the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians nearly 1,000 years earlier. The park includes over 4,500 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings. The park occupies 81.4 square miles near the four corners (where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet) and feature numerous ruins of homes and villages built by the ancient Pueblo civilization.
The Anasazi inhabited Mesa Verde between 600 and 1300, though there is evidence they left before the start of the 15th century. They were mainly subsistence farmers, growing crops on nearby mesas. Their primary crop was corn, which was the major part of their diet. Men were also hunters, which further increased their food supply. The women of the Anasazi are famous for their elegant basket weaving. Anasazi pottery is as famous as their baskets; their artifacts are highly prized and sought out. The Anasazi kept no written records.
It is estimated that around the year 750, people were building their villages out of adobe and locating their structures on top of the mesas. In the late 1190s, they began to build the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous. These cliff dwellings are houses built in shallow caves and under rock overhangs (or outcroppings in the cliffs) along the canyon walls. The structures contained within these caves were mostly comprised of blocks of hard sandstone, held together and plastered with adobe mortar. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75 percent contain only one to five rooms each, and many are single-room storage units. The Cliff Palace, which is considered to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America, contained 150 rooms and 23 Kivas (A square-walled underground room used by Puebloans for spiritual ceremonies) and had a population of approximately 100 people. The Cliff Palace had special significance to the original occupants and it is thought that the Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
In contrast to the Cliff Palace, which is much closer to the canyon floor, the Balcony House is set high on a ledge, consisting of 45 rooms and two Kivas. Unlike the Cliff Palace, which has relatively easy access, the Balcony House requires the modern visitor to enter by climbing a 32-foot ladder and crawling through a 12-foot tunnel. The exit consists of a series of toe-holds situated in a cleft of a cliff. This was believed to be the only entry and exit route for the cliff dwellers, which made the small village easy to defend and secure.
In addition to the Cliff Palace and Balcony House, other key structures in Mesa Verde include the Long House, Far View Reservoir, Mug House, Oak Tree House, Spruce Tree House, Kokopelli House and Square Tower House.
It was truly a surreal experience to see these amazing structures still intact for all these years.
Not all of the people in the region lived in cliff dwellings; many colonized the canyon rims and slopes in multi-family structures that grew to unprecedented size as populations swelled.
The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde reflected a region-wide trend towards the assembling of increased population into close, highly defensible quarters during the AD 1200s.
It was fascinating to visualize and understand how resourceful the ancient Pueblo people were, especially considering their surrounding environment and limited resources. For example, they built the cliff dwellings to take full advantage of the sun. The angle of the sun in winter warmed the masonry of the cliff dwellings, warm breezes blew from the valley, and the air was 10 to 20 degrees warmer in the canyon alcoves or caves then on the top of the mesa. In the summer, with the sun high overhead, much of the village was protected from direct sunlight in the high cliff dwellings.
One of the reasons settlers moved into the cliff dwellings was to increase their farming production by creating irrigation systems as water flowed down the cliff, in an attempt to combat the changing drought-induced climate.
These construction and water-related activities lead archaeologists to speculate that climatic change and increased population placed the communities under stress.
By 1300 AD, prolonged drought (possibly 24 years) had caused the fragile adaptation to collapse and the Mesa Verde area was abandoned. The surviving Mesa Verde people retreated to the south and east.
At times during my visit I felt that I was in some far away country or land discovering artifacts for myself, much like an archaeologist getting ready to dig or investigate a long-ago culture.
The cliff dwellings speak eloquently of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts and skillful at making a living from a difficult land. The structures are evidence of a society that, over centuries, accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from generation to generation.
To further validate their existence here, I was amazed to see smoke-blackened walls and ceilings on some of the dwellings from fires, illustrating vivid reminders of the bitter cold ancient Puebloans endured for several months each year.
Touring the actual structures was a bit of a challenge as you need to navigate through very narrow and tight spaces. There are hundreds of steep steps that must be traversed that included multiple 10- to 30-foot-long ladders to gain access to the more elevated rooms.
There was one section of the tour that consisted of a 22-inch-square tunnel that was 30 feet in length. To complicate things a little bit, the elevation of Mesa Verde is 7,000 feet, making breathing a little difficult.
Mesa Verde is a perfect example of the importance in educating people about preserving and protecting our national treasures. In fact, when President Theodore Roosevelt declared Mesa Verde a national park in 1906, he suggested that the park will “preserve the works of man.”
At first it seemed that Mesa Verde might suffer the same fate as smaller ancient sites discovered in the four corners area. These sites had been plundered by “pothunters” who vandalized the ruins and sold off their findings piece by piece. Near the end of the 19th century, it was clear that Mesa Verde needed protection from people in general who came there to collect and sell their own collection of artifacts. Thankfully, several proactive American citizens and scientists presented and proved their case of protecting Mesa Verde to the government.
All tours of the cliffside dwellings are Ranger-led and you’ll need to purchase a ticket for a nominal fee ($3). I definitely recommend purchasing the Ranger-guided tour of the dwellings as they are well versed in the history of the region and the ancient Pueblo culture. In addition to the splendid cliff dwellings and other structures, there is a loop trail that leads to a petroglyph (also called rock engravings) panel and through scenic wildlife habitats. The petroglyph panel consisted of pictogram and logogram images of animals, people and symbols which were created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving and abrading.
If you visit you will see that the park is well-developed with well-maintained roads that curve up and around the mesa, giving visitors a gorgeous view of the rangeland and farmland below.
I would recommend driving the Mesa top loop route, which is an auto tour showing 600 years of ancestral Puebloan architectural development. Along the loop there are short, paved walkways that lead to mesa top sites and cliff dwelling overlooks.
Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, but Mesa Verde is a different kind of National Park. It is absolutely amazing and full of cultural wonders. I have always felt the need to go to another country to get ancient history and culture, but we have a gem right here in the United States. Mesa Verde is a place you can visit multiple times and have a completely different experience each time. This national park is the most intriguing and certainly most interesting park that I have ever seen.
Mesa Verde will help you step back in time to the life of ancient Americans and see a glimpse of what their existence must have been like.
Derek Miller lives in Salisbury with his wife Kathie.