There are way more ancient dwellings; cliff dwellings, old pueblos, remains of pit houses, etc than most people think scattered throughout the western part of the United States. I find all of them fascinating and have explored many of them. Mesa Verde is one of the finest examples of ancient dwellings I have seen. The history of these dwellings began around 1400 years ago when a group of these ancient peoples inhabited the area now known as Four Corners (where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet) and decided to build a community in Mesa Verde. This community thrived for over 700 years. Dwellings are situated all throughout the cliffs and canyons in the park. At 28 feet in height, the 4 story "Square Tower" is the tallest structure in the park. It was once part of a large 80 room structure complete with 7 kivas (sacred ceremonial rooms). Several of the sites are available to explore using self-guided or ranger-guided tours. Hikes range from short and easy to long strenuous hikes. A good place to get an overview of the history of the peoples and structures associated with Mesa Verde is the Chapin Mesa Museum located near the Spruce Tree House. They also have an extensive library for those looking to do more in-depth research.
Fondest memory: The Chapin Mesa Museum was fascinating. I also really enjoyed touring the Spruce Tree House and the Successive Villages Area.
Overall, it was a good mix of National Park organization and Native American participation with many of the rangers of Native descent. One was left with a good appreciation of the people who cultivated the area that became the park. Being part of the National Park system, it was included on the America the Beautiful National Park Pass. With many Native Americans working in the park, it is hoped that money from the park is funneling down to the park's descendants. More importantly, the history of these innovative people remains part of all American's history and as a visitor, I felt not estranged from their considerable accomplishments. Though obviously not a Native American myself, I felt a pride for a people who are in many ways just as much forefather's of the United States of America as was George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
We left after a few days and headed towards Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, our second Native American park. Less than a hundred miles away but so very far in the way a similarly beautiful place is being managed.
Another fifteen years later, I was showing my German-born wife around the US Southwest, trying to remain neutral and thus not taint the general European romantic notions of the earliest settlers of North America. We had a good first impression at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and locals there highly recommended Chaco Culture National Historic Park. It unfortunately was quite an ordeal to get to so we continued on with our plans through New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah visiting many National Parks along the way. We were headed for Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado, the first of three planned Native American Site parks and did not quite know what to expect.
The park lacked the spectacle of the Utah parks but it was somehow comforting to be amongst dense forests of trees again. The campground was disappointing in its planning, with spots far too close together, and in price, with the park charging a few dollars more than the Grand Canyon which had previously been our most expensive stop.
To be fair, showers were free but enticing campers to use more water than they need does not seem a National Park's creed and we would have preferred a more reasonably-priced campground with showers on the pay system. Aside from that, the park was well organized with good interpretive displays, incredibly well-preserved ruins, and fun informative ranger-led walks into the ruins at nominal cost. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
Putting things into perspective, I liked being the Indian. As a kid, when many of my friends fought over being the Lone Ranger, I was quite content to be Tonto. Of course, Tonto could use a rifle. I wasn't having any of that Indian with a bow and arrow against the Gatling Gun nonsense. One of my strongest childhood memories in the world of advertising is the Indian Chief with a tear running down his face while watching the careless white man littering up the world. Native American wasn't a common term but I'm not so sure Indian was a derogatory one, at least not in the world of kids playing games.
Flash forward about twenty-five years and I was exploring Monument Valley for the first time, finding out that it not being a National Park meant it would cost me to get in. I would also have to fend off the numerous sales pitches for tours of what I was to find out was a very loose interpretation of a park compared to those run by the US government. No, Monument Valley Tribal Park was not part of the National Park Pass I'd been using. It also seemed that suddenly a car that made it up to Alaska on some of the roughest roads in the United States was being questioned to drive around the Monument's admittedly beautiful rock formations. As hard as I tried to take the Native American's plight into consideration, I was left with a sour taste for what should have been an incredible visit into their sacred land. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
My personal favorite part of the trip to Mesa Verde had to be our picnic lunch out in the daytime campsite. Sarah did an excellent job of packing plenty of food for us to enjoy in the open air as a family, and there were plenty of open spots for us to park and have a feast. The options are fairly limited to food in the National Park, so bringing your own is a very safe bet. Plus, if you don't like it, you can complain directly to the chef (you!).
If you did not plan ahead and pack a lunch, you can stop in to the Spruce Tree Restaurant year round for lunch.
Favorite thing: Some people may have reservations or concerns about how difficult the trip may be for them. I have included here a picture of the largest of the ladders you will need to climb to get out of the tour when you are done. There is no hurry, you can absolutely take your time and no one will rush you, however you will need to be able to climb 4 ladders, none of which are more than 10 feet in height. The end of the tour has three in a row, and if you have 30 or so people on your tour it can take a while, but there are plenty of people who volunteer to go last, so don't feel rushed at all. Sarah was able to climb them with the baby on her back with no problem, and the stairs are not clausterphobic at all, as there is plenty of fresh air all around.
Favorite thing: Kivas are the central meeting place in Native Puebloan culture. Typically, the Kiva was build into the ground, or the pueblo was built up in a circular fashion, with brick to the top, then covered in a wood or tree branch pattern covering. During our trip to Mesa Verde National Park, we came across this grand Kiva inside the Cliff Palace on our guided tour. It was amazing to see how much detail the Kiva had in comparison to some of the other buildings in the palace. Each Kiva has its own personality, but all kivas have a couple central themes. One, you can always see a fire pit almost directly in the middle. Second is a chute leading up for fresh air to come in. Third, there are almost always extra "seats" build around the circular edges, however these were not for seating, but rather to place religious articles or sacrifices. Finally, almost all kivas have storage places where these articles would be stored in between meetings.
One of my favorite things about Mesa Verde National Park has to be the beautiful panoramic views you get of the canyons and mesa top. It is truly amazing to see the architecture and skill involved in creating these mesa top pueblos.
Sarah, Anna and I especially liked the outlook we went to for the Cliff Palace prior to the tour, where you get to stand in awe as you wait to travel down to the actual site and witness the grandeur up close.
Favorite thing: Mesa Verde area looks like a spread palms of the hand with its canyons. Each cliff is far away from each other separated by valleys and steep mountains, so it is hard to realize that Anasazis tribes communicated between each other. Through the Mesa Verde area there is strong evidence of cooperation and exchange: ceremonial structures, like Sun Temple, check dams, widespread advances in pottery and architecture.
Favorite thing: The grinding stone and slab – mano and metate on the picture. Grinding corn into corn meal was a constant chore. Dried or parched corn could be stored in pottery vessels for years in the dry, Southwest climate. The strored corn enabled the Anasazi to survive long, cold winters.
Favorite thing: The water came on the back of alcoves. Also in comparison with Europeans, Anasazis didn’t throw away garbage right in dwellings. They threw it down the cliff, and this is how archeologists found out some moments of Anasazis’ life. Moreover, this was a reason why they didn’t have many diseases as Europeans had.
Favorite thing: Compared with today, the Ancestral Puebloan's average life span was relatively short, due, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. Most people lived an average of 32-34 years, however some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50% of the children died before they reached the age of 5.
Favorite thing: When I looked at the size of these doorways, I wonder about the size of the people who once lived here. An average man was about 5'4" to 5'5" (163cm) tall, while an average woman was 5' to 5'1" (152cm). If you compare them with European people of the same time period, they would have been about the same size.
Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials. The Ancestral Puebloans shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called "chinking". Chinking stones fill in the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people placed a thin coating of paint, called plaster, the first things to erode with time.
See tip's pictures for wooden beams, brick wall, and natural stone roof.
Favorite thing: Cliff dwellings were not the major living area of Anasazi. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. Possibly Anasazi used dwellings as a fortified storage from other tribes or even animals. Exception is Cliff House, the largest cliff dwelling, which is thought that it was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.