MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK — All of the pictures of the cliff dwellings inside of Mesa Verde National Park don’t do the actual historical sites justice.
Spring Break brought along a road trip and some vacation time for me, and Mesa Verde was one of the many stops I made as I piled up miles on my car and saw a lot of places that not everyone gets to see. It was a stop that was well worth it, but it’s also a place that, if human history piques your interest, you could easily plot out three or four days to explore and learn about what’s there.
Me? I had a day, which wasn’t nearly enough to see all of the basic attractions of the park, much less the 5,000 known archaeological sites or the 600 cliff dwellings within the vast national park landscape. The parts I did get to see, however, gave me a high appreciation for the ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the area for close to 700 years.
The park, which is located south of Colorado Highway 160 between Cortez and Mancos, is spread across more than a dozen canyons and has hiking-accessible points that reach as high as 8,572 feet above sea level at the Park Point Overlook. That could easily be considered the halfway point of the drive from the park’s entrance to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, which serves as the predominant stopping point for sites such as the Spruce Tree House, the Balcony House and, the most notable of them all, the Cliff Palace.
Still, it takes at least half an hour to drive from the park entrance to the museum, and that’s without stopping. But if you’re someone like me who knowingly has to drive slow in anticipation of pulling over to take a photo, it might take a little longer.
One of those stopping points is at the Mancos Valley Overlook, which is only four miles from the entrance but won’t be reached until navigating a slow, steep, winding climb of more than 1,200 feet in elevation. It faces east toward the San Juan Mountains with the entire town of Mancos underneath the mountain range. Early risers can catch some deep reds and oranges hitting the San Juan peaks as the sun rises.
Up the road, Montezuma Valley Overlook displays all of Cortez and sits in the shadow of the Knife Edge, a cliff mesa that reaches 8,290 feet. From there, it’s a 10-mile drive to the museum, but the drive there offers the only eyesore of the park.
The five-mile drive from the Farview Area to the museum features dead trees for nearly the duration of the drive. A park ranger told me those were what is left from a pair of forest fires that hit the park in 2000, killing off many of the pinion pine and Utah juniper trees, the park’s dominant forest type.
My visit came at an inopportune time, as park rangers typically provide guided tours of sites such as the Balcony House and the Cliff Palace. The Cliff Palace driving loop, however, is closed to motorists during the winter, and the Weatherill Mesa Road that leads to the Step House and Long House cliff dwellings, isn’t accessible by vehicle until late April.
What was available to me was the six-mile Mesa Top Loop, which offers a view of the Cliff Palace near the end of the drive and also brings you to the Square Tower House. Its four-story tower is the tallest in Mesa Verde, and anthropologists theorize the tower’s height and location might suggest it was built during a time of inter-tribal tension, which would have made such a high lookout point desirable.
Also along the loop are numerous pithouses, which the Puebloans built prior to building the cliff dwellings. Basically, they dug a big circular hole several feet deep and covered it with branches, bark and plants that were slanted sideways with mud to create a secure living space for a family. Most of them had a fire pit, and the opening in the roof not only served as a doorway, but as a chimney.
It wasn’t until close to 600 years later, in 1150, that the cliff dwellings were built. The biggest of them was, of course, the Cliff Palace, which housed an estimated 100 people, while most of the other cliff dwellings housed maybe one-10th of that. It was viewable from the end of the Mesa Top Loop, but it will be completely accessible by the beginning of May.
Spruce Tree House, which is located just a short downhill hike from the museum, is accessible year-round. It housed an estimated 70 to 80 people, and its location has helped shield it from erosion and deterioration since it was abandoned near the year 1300.
And to think those were just the places I got to in one day.
OTHER NOTABLE THINGS
• It turns out that the people who lived in the area didn’t just disappear. Instead, they migrated south to New Mexico and Arizona to become today’s modern Pueblo people, according to the National Park Service. They just left a lot of housing behind when they moved.
• Keep in mind that when you go, there’s a park entrance fee. Since it is a national park, however, you’ll have to purchase a week-long pass instead of just a day pass.
• Camping is also available — primitive sites as well as trailer hookups — for a per-night fee. There are also modern facilities available near the established campgrounds for those individuals who fear getting too close to the great outdoors.
• Dog lovers can’t bring their buddies with them on the trails or in the cliff dwellings. They’re allowed to hang out in the parking lot and do their thing there, but it’ll likely be too hot to leave them in the car by the time the park fully opens in May. Kennels are available in Cortez and Durango just in case.
— Jon Mitchell is sports editor for the Post Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.