Mesa Verde Mystique
Late afternoon sunlight glints off Square Tower House; the ancient stonework gleams in bronze hued patinas. Tucked beneath Chaplin Mesa in an eroded alcove, walls of the deserted pueblo stand straight and tall centuries after construction. Questions immediately spring to mind: who were these people, why did they leave, where did they go?
Mesa Verde National Park brings the 21st-century visitor face-to-face with the rich remnants of a civilization that thrived a millennium ago in Southwestern Colorado. For more than 100 years archaeologists have excavated, classified and analyzed the treasure trove left behind. As scientific research continues an intriguing story unfolds.
At one time, these people were referred to as Anasazi – a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient enemies” – and were thought to have disappeared after they left the Four Corners region. Evidence shows they traveled south into Arizona and New Mexico. Today, 24 Pueblo Nations regard Mesa Verde as their ancestral home. Respecting their modern descendents, we now refer to them as Ancestral Puebloans.
Mesa Verde visitors face a modern day mystique – how best to experience the park. The choices can be confusing especially for first time tourists. The most famous of the cliff dwellings are found on and around Chapin Mesa, along with park headquarters, museum, visitor center, lodging, restaurants, bookstore and gift shops. Most tourists want to explore at least one of the alcove sites. Only Spruce Tree House and Step House on Wetherill Mesa are available for self-guided tours. Visits to popular Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House are by ranger-guided tours only – modestly priced tickets required.
Far View Visitor Center, 15 miles from the park entrance, is the best orientation stop from mid-April to mid-October. Staff will help plan visits, select the most appropriate tours, and sell the tickets. While all tours involve walking over irregular surfaces and climbing ladders, a Balcony House visit also requires a hands and knees crawl through an 18-inch wide tunnel. Wise choices advised – no one wants to leave Grandma stuck in a tight place or deal with a six-year-old petrified to ascend a 32-foot ladder – unless they’re writing a Chevy Chase “Vacation” sequel.
In response to the inquiry, “How long will it take a person to visit the ruins?” S.E. Osborn answered in 1891, “…it all depends on a person’s curiosity and endurance…” The same holds true today and so much more has been discovered since 1891.
Many visitors opt to join an interpretive guided tour offered through the park concessionaire. The full- and half-day excursions travel via motor coach with a National Park Service trained guide. Visits to sites along Chapin Mesa graphically display the centuries of development from pit houses to the early mesa top pueblo dwellings and finally the cliff dwelling communities. Photographers appreciate the stops at key photo locations. (Personal note – I’m normally a do-it-yourself traveler but truly enjoyed sitting back and listening on this tour. Our guide was a Navajo gentleman from the Four Corners region. The stories and information he shared totally enriched our Mesa Verde experience. Sometimes breaking the mold rewards beyond anticipation.)
West of Chapin Mesa stands Wetherill Mesa – named after the ranching family that first drew national attention to the cliff dwellings as they excavated Cliff Palace. Wetherill contains the second largest concentration of ruins in the park and is open for visitation from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day. The 12-mile, 45-minute drive from Far View Visitor Center leaves the crowds behind and promises some of the park’s most scenic vistas. The narrow, winding road is slow but this is time well spent. Smart visitors plan to spend at least a half-day on Wetherill and go prepared with water and snacks or picnic lunch.
Free tram service transports Wetherill Mesa visitors from the parking area to trails and overlooks. The 90-minute Long House tour is considered the most comprehensive ranger-guided visit. Ranger Pat Westover relates, “This is our favorite location, we only get assigned out here about once a week. There’s just as much to see and all the people are over on Chapin.”
Standing below Long House with a sweeping view of the complex, once home to approximately 150 people, Westover sets the scene. “They were living here in the 1200s, about 100 years of occupation. They had no metal, no horses, no wheel, no written language. By 1300 they were gone, Mesa Verde was abandoned.”
This site contains 21 kivas, circular chambers used for sacred ceremonies; but, also a place for men to weave and tell stories. Check dams and farming terraces offer strong agricultural evidence. They were farmers; but, also traders. Artifacts of cotton, turquoise, Pacific Ocean shells and Macaw feathers show they had contacts south into Mexico and westward.
The question remains, why did they leave? It was a period of drought; however, they had survived other droughts. Were the soils and timber depleted? Did they face pressure from other groups? Archeologists today believe all of these reasons and possibly others affected the departure. Did the Gods tell them to leave? We will never know all the answers – the whys. That’s part of the mystique.
- This article by Nancy Yackel was previously published in Buzz in the ‘burbs, a suburban Denver lifestyle magazine.