National Park Number: 54 of 59
Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated specifically to protecting archeological sites, and was the inspiration behind the Antiquities Act of 1906, a landmark decision in conservation. It’s the most history-focused park we’ve visited; it’s also perhaps the most spiritual. There are few places in North America where you can so fully envision the life that people once lived here, and while I am inspired every day by nature, there is something especially stirring about preserved human habitations.
Mesa Verde protects almost 5,000 archeological sites, but it’s especially known for its 600 cliff dwellings, which range from food storage rooms to 150-room villages, all of them built in alcoves in the area’s cliffs.
No one knows exactly why the ancient Puebloans started building this way—from the time they moved to the area, around 550 A.D., they first lived in pit houses, then in more complex above-ground structures made of stone blocks and clay. But around 1190 A.D., the people began building structures under ledges and overhangs—maybe for protection, maybe because there were consistent water sources there under the rock. Each alcove was formed when water seeped down through the porous sandstone, carving out a space in the rock until it hit the harder layer of shale beneath. So in the back of each alcove, there is a spring where this water leaks out, and the people would dig pits in the stone to collect a water source for themselves.
Building on cliff dwellings lasted about 75 years, but by the late 1200s, the people of Mesa Verde were gone, migrated south to parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
Accessing the cliff dwellings generally means taking a ranger-guided tour; while Spruce Tree House is normally open to self-guided touring, it was closed while we were in the park. On our first day, we signed up to check out three of the other dwellings: Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House.
Our first experience with a cliff dwelling was at Balcony House. This tour offers terrific access into the dwelling; we climbed up a log ladder, then squeezed through a space between the alcove wall and a room to enter the rest of the space. This dwelling is named for the still mostly-intact balcony built out from one of the rooms—when these spots were inhabited, there would have been balconies attached to most of the rooms and this one serves as a model to archeologists of what was once here. Balcony House exemplifies other key features of Mesa Verde’s dwellings: T-shaped doors, tunneled access and kivas, round underground rooms that served, essentially, as living rooms for the ancient Puebloans. They were spots to gather, hold meetings and perform ceremonies.
We loved climbing up and crawling through the spaces of Balcony House; at 40 rooms, it’s not the largest dwelling at Mesa Verde, but the tour gets you up close to its rooms and passages, giving an intimate sense of what it might have been like to live here (though the average ancestral Puebloan was under 5’4”, so David and I were experiencing the giant’s version.)
After our tour of Balcony House, we headed straight over to Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park with 150 rooms. This little village may have housed more than 100 people, and it’s towers and kivas are stunning under their deep alcove. Super randomly, we ended up being on this tour with a friend of mine from high school—actually the guy who got me my first guitar! Our kids had a blast playing together during the tour, and I loved revisiting two different history timelines at once :).
Mesa Verde isn’t focused on hiking, and actually there are very few trails in the park since the area is chockfull of protected archeological sites. But there are a handful of options for hiking, and getting out on the trail is a great way to shake the crowds and find a little solitude.
So the next day we hiked the Petroglyph Point Trail, which took us below the rim of the canyon to a huge petroglyph panel. The trail ended up being much more fun than we’d anticipated, with slots, stairs, scrambling and a few archeological sites along the way, including a food storage pit, a rock where axes were sharpened and some manos and metates (stones used for grinding corn.) It was such a great little hike!
While Mesa Verde has opened some of its best examples of cliff dwellings for public tours, there are hundreds of other dwellings throughout the park that are inaccessible; some of them are visible from the Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop drives, and we loved trying to spot them tucked into the canyon walls.
Up to this point, we’d spent all our time on Chapin Mesa, which has the highest concentration of sites in the park. The other part of the park is the less-visited Wetherill Mesa, and that’s where we headed next for a tour of Long House.
The second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, with 150 rooms and 21 kivas, Long House was excavated in the late 50s and early 60s. Farther from the road, the tour requires a bit of a hike to get to the dwelling and back, so it was a longer tour and we had an especially terrific ranger leading us. It was our favorite tour yet: large and extensive like Cliff Palace, but with more close-up exploring and intimate views like at Balcony House, it was an incredible peek into the lives of the ancestral Puebloans.
On the way out of the park along Wetherill Mesa, we had terrific views over the surrounding plains; Mesa Verde may be less about scenery than most other parks, but its views still pack a punch.
Mesa Verde is a fascinating convergence of conservation issues. The question of access versus preservation looms large here: you can easily see signs of damage from visitors, places where the stones are blackened from handprints and floors are worn down from tromping crowds. Still, we were tremendously grateful to be able to get a close look at these dwellings and try to feel the spirits of the people who came before us here. And we've heard from so many other visitors to this park who were impacted by getting a close look at these ancient structures.
There’s controversy, too, over whether the National Park Service should be preserving these structures at all. A contingent of the ancestral Puebloan’s descendants feel that the dwellings should be allowed to collapse and decay, that their ancestors left the site for a reason and that by maintaining the area, the NPS is preventing its natural course. Other descendants regard the sites as important tools for sharing their history. But if the tribes universally wanted the sites abandoned, what would be the proper role of the NPS here? When dealing with human history especially, is it more important to save as much history as we can, or to respect the wishes of those with the most connection to that history? Or is it everyone’s equal right to experience this history, and the Puebloan descendants don’t have more of a claim to it than any other group?
Before we started this trip, I never gave thought to how complicated it is to preserve certain areas. More and more, we’re realizing how very complex is the NPS’s mission “to conserve unimpaired.” In the case of Mesa Verde, conserving has frequently meant impairing: early park officials put steel reinforcements in place and reconstructed floors and walls in cliff dwellings, and now these things stay in place because if they were removed, the entire structures they support would collapse.
But while it may not be a simple task, I’m so grateful Mesa Verde’s sites have been shored up and that some of them are open to the public—it was an incredible learning opportunity to be here, and a gift to see the human history of North America intact and in context with the landscape.