Did you know that Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the U.S. dedicated to the history of humans? It’s true! It makes Mesa Verde not only beautiful, as most parks are, but also unique and powerful. I’ll do my best to tell you about it, but you should definitely visit here if you can. It’s really indescribable to be walking in the same place that people did 800+ years ago. You can truly imagine their lives far more than any book can describe.
History of Mesa Verde
Let me back up. Mesa Verde was the home of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples. Twenty-one different Native American tribes trace their lineage and traditions back to this community. People lived at Mesa Verde, first on top of the mesas and later under the shelter of cliff alcoves, from about the year 800 to 1290. Most (though not all) of the structures that were built on top of the mesas have since been lost to time due to their exposed nature. We know, though, that the mesa tops were fertile farming grounds used for agriculture throughout Mesa Verde’s inhabitation. The cliff structures, unlike the mesa pueblos, are remarkably well-preserved. Though they were built 800 years ago, you can still see multi-story buildings, balconies, kivas, and ceremonial dance grounds.
Seeing Mesa Verde
In order to prevent vandalism, desecration, or just careless damage, visitors to the park need to be accompanied by a park ranger to visit most sites. As such, they have set up tours for the major sites: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. Tickets for the tour are only $5 each, but they sell out quickly.
We visited Cliff Palace and Balcony House both on our first day in the park. We also took in the museum, which is a must-see! Balcony House involves a tight squeeze through a tunnel and some steep ladders, so it’s definitely not for everyone, but it was remarkable to see both the well-preserved balcony and the beautiful views of the canyon. With the nice breeze during the heat of a desert day, it was obvious to me why people would want to live there! Cliff Palace is the most well-known in the park. It has 150 rooms and was probably home to about 100 people. We didn’t get to enjoy Cliff Palace quite as much, because our tour had probably 50 people on it. We felt more herded than guided, but it was still neat to see.
We learned a lot from the tours and the museum about how the structures were built (juniper and stone, mostly, hewn with stone tools), about what people ate (corn, beans, cacti, yucca, pine nuts, game when they could get it), and how scientists have learned all this stuff. The museum had lots of pottery that archeologists had found. There was even a set of children’s play dishes!
Bike and Hike Tour
By far the coolest experience, though, was a Bike & Hike tour on Wetherill Mesa. This was really neat- we only had five people plus a ranger in our group. Ranger John did a great job!
We spent the day biking and hiking to several sites that people very rarely get to see. We brought binoculars with us and it seems that every little nook in the canyon walls had something built there! We saw pictograms and structures large and small. We hiked a path with pottery shards and grinding stones along the sides. The best part, though, was that at the end, we got a near private tour of Long House! We spent over an hour with our guide walking through. We got to ask as many questions as we wanted and really observe the small details. My favorite was a spot on the ground where there were divots in the stone where people had sharpened their axes. There were also lots of kivas there, I think 21 in all, which were rooms that would have been used for warmth, prayer, ceremony, and family time. It was a powerful experience, and there is no way to describe it but to say you could feel the history and the people there. Click to expand the photos below.
The whole Four Corners region has similar structures and history. I also saw quite a few hiking in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, and we are looking forward to visiting Taos Pueblo (a living community, UNESCO World Heritage site, continuously inhabited for the last 1000 years) as well. We learned so much and are really grateful for the experience we had in Mesa Verde.
We had an amazing boondocking spot outside of the park- 5 minutes’ drive from the visitor center, nice numbered (!) spots with plenty of little trails to explore. It was also only about 15-20 minutes from the town of Cortez. Pretty great for a free site! We are officially in the desert now, though. It is hot and dry as all get-out, except for the crazy monsoon storms in the afternoons. That’s normal weather for this time of year, but I could do without it, and so could our anxious dog. We got him a Thundershirt. It seems to be helping some. He does like chasing all the lizards around out here. He’s too slow to catch them, but it’s funny to watch him try.
Our schedule for the next couple months is looking like:
- Sante Fe
- Grand Canyon
- Zion and Bryce
- Capital Reef
- Rafting Ruby Horsethief again
As always, plans are subject to change, but come visit us if you want! 😀