Category: Mesa Verde National Park

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Saturday, August 6, 2022

We met for our second tour at Mesa Verde National Park. Our tour guide, Michael, in the beginning warned us this is a strenuous hike, climbing several ladders with many steps and crawling through a tunnel. “If you can’t make it up these ladders, we may have to stop the whole tour. If we have to call for help, the whole day will be stopped. So if you have ANY thoughts that you can’t make it, please turn around now. Don’t ruin the day for all the others.” At 75 years old, he was beginning to talk me out of going. I felt a few glances in our direction, but we stood our ground. 

Climbing the first ladder, I was intimidated by his speech, but took it slowly, concentrating on one step at a time. Once we were all up, he took a different tack than other tours we have been on. He asked a lot of questions, and he had answers for questions that I have frequently asked myself. He may have been right or wrong, but I appreciated his frankness.

“How many people would fit on this courtyard? Why is this window so small? What could have been on the other side? Why is it so difficult to get in here? Look at the spring in the back. How many can drink from that spring? Why did they leave? Where did they go?”

All these thoughts lead to Balcony House being built in a time where resources were getting more scarce. The water was drying up. Crop yields were dwindling on this thin soil, trying to feed many people. Maybe people were fighting over dwindling resources. This was a difficult place to get into and out of. It could be easily defended. Grains could have been stored here and carefully dispensed through the small window. Maybe this was a last stand place. Maybe ranking officials held court in this courtyard with people sitting on the balconies. Maybe it was very hard times when people watched their children dying. They didn’t want to leave, but they had to go. 

It was interesting, and I enjoyed his approach. It made us realize the importance of this particular site that was built intermittently between 1180 and 1270. They raised turkeys and grew corn, squash and beans.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

We were lucky, very lucky to get a tour of Cliff Palace. We knew nothing about Mesa Verde, just that it was a national park, and I wanted to see the national parks and monuments. Perhaps it is fortunate I am writing this three weeks late.

Built approximately 1190, and added to until 1260, it was abandoned by 1300. It is the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and one of the most impressive. It was built late in the Pueblo III period, the most impressive building period. As we saw in Chaco Canyon, people traveled impressive distances, and trade products came from the west coast and Mesoamerica (Central America).

In 1888 Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason would rediscover it. The Wetherill family continuously moved before settling on the Mancos River, starting the Alamo Ranch. Alamo is derived from the Spanish word for cottonwood. Benjamin Wetherill had five sons, Richard being the oldest. The young men enjoyed searching the canyons in winter when ranch work was done. They had discovered minor cliff dwellings.

They had good relations with Indians, and although Richard had only a high school education, he read and studied a lot. “Meanwhile, they befriended the Ute chief, Acowitz. One day, twenty miles down the Mancos from the ranch, Acowitz walked up to Richard Wetherill as he stared at the twisting bends of Cliff Canyon, where he had never been.

At that moment, Acowitz chose to tell his cowboy friend something he had told no other white man. far up Cliff Canyn, near it’s head, he avowed, stood many houses of the ancientt ones. “One of those houses,” said Acowitz, “high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.” From: “In Search of the Old Ones”, by David Roberts.

Continuing: “Almost two years passed. On a bitter day in December 1888, with snow in the wind, Richard and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason rode horseback along the rim of Mesa Verde above Cliff Canyon, tracking cattle that had strayed far from their usual pastures. Twenty-five miles from the Alamo ranch, the cowboys knew they faced a cold bivouac under the pines before they could bring the cattle in.

A looping track drew the two men near the mesa’s edge, where a cliff dropped sheer to the talus below. They dismounted, walked to the rim, and gazed east across the head of Cliff Canyon. Suddenly Richard blurted out a cry of astonishment.

Half a mile away, in the cliff forming the canyon’s opposite wall, loomed an overhang that sheltered a natural cavern fully four hundred feet long by ninety feet deep. Inside it stood the pristine ruins of an ancient city, more than two hundred rooms built back-to-back of stone and mud, dominated by a round three-story tower. So this was the place Acowitz had told Richard about! “It looks like a palace”, murmured Mason.”

I love the way the original park buildings were made to resemble the cliff dwellings. The ancient ones were small, the women 5′ and men 5’5″, so doors were smaller. Windows were smaller before glass. Doors were smaller too, although they may have hung a rug or deer hide.

In 2015 the National Park lit luminaries in Cliff Palace for a centennial celebration. From the Durango Herald:

Mesa Verde National Park

Tuesday, August 2, 2022 

62 degrees at 4:00 am, high of 92

Mesa Verde and San Juan Mountains

Mesa Verde National Park is an American national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma CountyColorado. The park protects some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States.

Established by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the park occupies 52,485 acres (21,240 ha) near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. With more than 5,000 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings,[2] it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.[3] Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”, or more specifically “green table mountain”) is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

Starting c. 7500 BC Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians known as the Foothills Mountain Complex. The variety of projectile points found in the region indicates they were influenced by surrounding areas, including the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Later, Archaicpeople established semi-permanent rock shelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BC, the Basketmaker cultureemerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 AD the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture.

The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Rio Chama, the Albuquerque Basin, the Pajarito Plateau, and the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From:

We went to the visitor’s Center for a more complete study. It was crowded, but we worked our way around exhibits and signs. Then we went for the mesa top loop drive, but getting there takes 30-40 minutes on a twisting mountain road and going through one tunnel. Several overlooks gave the big picture of the four corners area of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. We are driving “The Grand Circle” trying to see all the National Parks and Monuments. These parks house some of the most incredible stone, rock, field and cliff structures that were built around 1,000 years ago. All of these sites were abandoned around 1300. As the modern Indians say, “We are still here. We just moved.”

Mostly, they lived below the mesas, in the many natural alcoves that provided protection and cover. There was more water then, and they developed farming techniques and incredible building techniques. They are known for their beautiful bowls, rock art and baskets. So many questions run through my mind. Why did they live there? How did they live there? How did they climb those cliffs? Why was it abandoned all over the Colorado Plateau? What were they afraid of?

Early Anglo explorers of these dwellings were often so struck with these places, they became obsessed, like Richard Wetherill, Dominguez, Escalante, Jackson, and others. I am reading a book called, “In Search of the Old Ones” by David Roberts. He too became obsessed in his travels and study, looking for answers, but also just being in these sites thrilled him.

For the many tribes still living in these areas, these areas are sacred. They believe these were their original homes, and the spirits are still there. They are not interested in thousands of people walking through these places. They don’t want them dug up for archaeological study. Yet, they often let their cattle and horses graze the land.

Mule Deer in camp

Perhaps cursed by the spirits of Chaco Canyon, our pack rat licked the peanut butter off two mouse traps, so I put Swiss cheese on them.

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