On Friday night, after our stop at Four Corners, we arrived in Cortez, Colorado. We were staying at a KOA and Tyler was beside himself with excitement. In our KOA book he read that this KOA had a fishing pond, the first KOA to offer fishing since Devil’s Tower KOA.
Toby had packed two poles and a tackle bag for just this opportunity and Tyler couldn’t wait. We made sure to get to our site before dark so that he would have a chance to fish.
When we arrived we were guided to our site by the camp manager who also gave us a little background information about the area.
It was a fascinating history lesson. Then he pointed out the mountain range in the distance and told us that the mountains we were looking at were the land of the Ute tribe and what we viewed as the mountain range was actually believed to be a fallen Ute warrior.
If you look at the mountain from left to right, the small peak at the far left side is his toe. The next peak, moving right is his knee. The highest peak is his crossed arms, and finally you see his head sloping down to his hair.
Can you see it?
The river that runs from the mountains is his spilling blood.
It was a beautiful campground!
Toby took Ozzie and Tyler fishing while the older kids helped me with our weekly laundry. This stop also allowed us to get our grocery shopping done for the week. It is such a good feeling when the cabinets are restocked with food and the drawers are filled with clean clothes.
That night we all stepped outside to witness stars unlike anything we see in the east. The Milky Way was vibrant and the number of stars visible, was astounding.
The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park. I woke with mixed feelings about our visit there, excited to see this neat place again and share it with my family, but also a nervous wreck about the tour we had planned.
As a child we toured one of the cliff dwellings. I still have nightmares about climbing down the side of the cliff to walk through those ancient ruins, and I am convinced that at least a portion of the reason I am scared of heights comes from that experience.
We arrived at the visitor’s center and research facility. This visitor’s center houses a small display area that showcases some of the artifacts found on site but is comprised mainly of a ticket desk and gift shop. The main visitor’s center is found deeper in the park.
It was here we purchased tickets for a cliff dwellings tour. While our America the Beautiful pass allows us to enter any National Park for free, some parks have an additional charge for special tours or events. It you choose to tour one of the cliff dwellings in the park you must sign up for a ranger led tour which was surprisingly affordable at $4.00/person… A bargain for the amount of education and experience you get during that 60 minute tour with a ranger.
There is plenty to see and do in the park that doesn’t involve one of the cliff tours, but if you want to see these unique dwellings up close there are 3 different tours available to the public.
The Long House Tour:
“This is the most in depth tour. This two hour tour involves hiking 2.25 miles and climbing two 15 foot ladders.”
The Balcony House Tour:
This is the tour I did as a kid that was so scary.
“This is considered the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour. On this one hour, 1/4 mile tour you will climb a 32-foot ladder, crawl through an 18 inch, 12 foot long tunnel, and climb up a 60 foot, open face cliff with stone steps and two 10 foot ladders.”
The Cliff Palace Tour:
“On this one hour tour you will descend uneven stone steps and climb four ladders with an elevation change of 100 feet.”
We opted to sign up for the Cliff palace tour.
After purchasing our tour tickets for the 1:30 tour we began exploring the rest of the park. The drive from the Visitor’s Center to the ruins at the top of the mesa takes around 40 minutes. Once at the top it was easy to move from one archeological site to another.
Our first stop was the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum where the kids began researching and filling out their junior ranger booklets. Here at the museum we were able to view dioramas of the different dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblonians as they moved from pit houses, to pueblos, to cliff dwellings.
Here they also had a scavenger hunt of sorts. In their booklets they had puzzles about the Ancestral Pueblo people, formally known as the Anasazi people, and their lives at Mesa Verde. The kids had to work their way through the museum, reading the displays to find the answers to the puzzle.
It was fascinating to read more about this ancient people that we have studied about in history class.
Here is a little information about Mesa Verde and the people who used to call this area home:
Established: June 29, 1906
Size: 52,074 acres
“At Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table,” multistoried dwellings fill the cliff-rock alcoves that rise 2,000 feet above Montezuma Valley. Remarkably preserved, the cliff dwellings cluster in canyons that slice the mesa into narrow tablelands. Here, and on the mesa top, archaeologists have located more than 4,800 archaeological sites (including 600 cliff dwellings) dating from about A.D. 550 to 1300.
The sites, from mesa-top pithouses and multistoried dwellings to cliffside villages, document the changes in the lives of a prehistoric people once dubbed the Anasazi. They are now more accurately called the ancestral Puebloans, and modern Pueblo tribes in the Southwest consider themselves descendants of these ancestral people. Some 40 pueblos and cliff dwellings are visible from park roads and overlooks; some of these are open to the public.
Beginning about A.D. 750, the ancestral Puebloans grouped their mesa-top dwellings in pueblos, or villages. About 1200 they moved into recesses in the cliffs. So sheltered, these later villages seem to stand outside of time, aloof to the present.
In 1888 two cowboys tracking stray cattle in a snowstorm stopped on the edge of a steep-walled canyon. Through the flakes they made out traces of walls and towers of a large cliff dwelling across the canyon. Novelist Willa Cather later described the scene: “The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.”
Climbing down a makeshift ladder, the excited cowboys explored the honeycombed network of rooms that they named Cliff Palace. Inside, they found stone tools, pottery, and other artifacts in rooms that had been uninhabited for some 600 years.
Why the Mesa Verde people eventually left their homes may never be known. Indeed, they lived in the cliff dwellings for only about the last 75 to 100 years of their occupation of Mesa Verde. Early archaeologists guessed warfare, and the evidence for this seems to concur. Archaeologists also think they may have been victims of their own success. Their productive dry farming allowed the Mesa Verde population to grow perhaps as high as 5,000. Gradually woodlands were cut, wild game hunted out, and soils depleted. Years of drought and poor crops may have been aggravated by village squabbles. By the end of the 13th century the ancestral Puebloans had left the plateau, never to return.”
The kids finished their booklets and earned their junior ranger badges. Since we still had an hour to explore before we had to meet up with the ranger for our Cliff Palace tour, we decided to drive the Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop and explore some of the other dwellings in the park.
Our first stop was the Pit House:
It is here we find the earliest evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans, from around 600 A.D. Their first dwellings were shallow pits dug into the ground, covered with pole and mud roofs and walls, with entrance through the roofs.
This pit house is one of the best preserved anywhere.
The larger space was the living room with a fire pit in the center where cooking was done. Adjoining the larger space was a smaller room, called the antechamber, that was used for storing firewood and food.
From there we moved to the Square Tower House Overlook:
This dwelling is dated 1200-1300 A.D. and represents the move made by the Ancestral Puebloans from the top of the mesa down to cliff dwelling residences.
It is unknown why the people moved from the top of the mesa down to the cliff dwellings but some possibilities include better protection from enemies or simply needing all available land at the top of the mesa for growing crops.
The name for this cliff dwelling comes from the striking four story structure still standing against the curving wall of the alcove. About 60 of the 80 rooms still remain intact . A spring behind the dwelling provided water for the residents and hand and toe holds were carved into the cliff face for climbing in and out of the dwelling up the side of the cliff.
From there we drove to Sun Point View.
The view at Sun Pont is one of the best in Mesa Verde. From this overlook a dozen different cliff dwellings are visible.
From here we drove to the Cliff Palace overlook where we were meeting up with our tour group. At this point I was still debating whether to tour Cliff Palace with my family or whether I should wait for them at the top.
Especially when I saw how we would be exiting our tour. Can you see the ladder in the distance?!
I finally decided to face my fears and be brave. I am so glad I did!
800 years old, the Cliff Palace is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park. The Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
We walked down steps carved into the rock, and up our first wooden ladder to reach our first stopping point of the tour where we were educated by the ranger on the construction of Cliff Palace.
The construction of Cliff palace was a herculean effort. The basic raw materials were abundant and available. Many of the stones were formed by hand using harder quartzite hammer stones. Water had to be hauled down the cliff face to be mixed with sand, clay and ash to make mortar. When water was in short supply urine was used. Logs were cut and hauled down the cliffs to create roofs and support beams. In the end about 150 rooms were built.
From there we walked to the center of the Cliff Palace where we stopped again and learned more about life for the people that resided at the Cliff Palace.
It is believed that 100-120 people called Cliff Palace home. This number was determined by the 25 living room hearths found at Cliff Palace and the belief that each living room would have housed 3-4 people. It is in these living rooms that meals would have been prepared, and where families would have eaten their meals, slept and engaged in daily living.
The life span for these people would have been 30-40 years.
From there our tour moved to the far side of the Cliff Palace where we learned more about the Kivas, subterranean rooms where religious ceremonies would have been held.
We were also able to look inside one of the towers and see some of the original wood beams and ancient paintings high on the wall.
Ozzie was beside himself as we toured Cliff Palace, having just studied the Anasazi people last year in school.
It was an amazing tour!
Then it was time to climb back out. Though not as scary or challenging as the Balcony House exit, it was still an exciting climb up carved stone stairs, narrow walkways between boulders, and wooden ladders.
As we passed the original hand and toe grips that would have been used to exit Cliff palace 800 years ago, I was grateful for my wooden ladders!
What an incredible place!!
Next Stop: Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico