Possibly my favorite national park of the whole trip. I love ruins and the stories you can guess at from them! There really isn’t so much of a story for our day, we rode through the park and hiked down to ruins. Instead of trying to intersperse pictures, I think I’ll give a description of the park and then background on the dwellings then just put a bunch of pictures up.
About Mesa Verde
The park has a lot of driving…be prepared. It’s around 20 miles from the main road to the headquarters. There are two sets of ruins you can hike to on your own and three sets you have to purchase tour tickets for. Two tours and one self-guided sets of ruins are down the same access road, the tour and self-guided are down another road and take around an hour to get to from the first two. We chose to go to Cliff Palace and Balcony House (tours) and Spruce Tree House (self-guided). The cost was reasonable at $3 per person per tour if I recall correctly. While you can only access a few of the dwellings, there are over 600 known cliff dwellings in the park.
About Cliff Dwellings
Apparently the cliff dwellings were occupied for only around 100 years from the mid-1100s to the mid-1200s. They originally were living and farming on the mesa tops but then shortly after Chaco fell (Chaco was a power-center…the only time the Puebloans had an elite group that we know of…located something like 100 miles to the south) they built these cliff dwellings. It seems they had been supporting the elite in Chaco and after the fall they built these either for protection or because they developed their own elite since they no longer sent resources down to Chaco. Among other things their farming resulted in 8 row corn. One guide showed us a sample (sorry, no picture of it) and explained that the first corn was 4 rows and the early development went by additions of four. They still find store rooms with hundreds or thousands of cobs.
Digression regarding Chaco: Chaco had enforced a peace on the region for a long period of time and traded as far south as the Mayans. After 100 years they abandoned them and apparently moved south. Tradition has it that they only moved to the south when they abandoned a region (that probably backs up the idea that most immigrated across the Bering straight). The move from the cliff dwellings was the last move south. When the next time came around the Spanish had come in from south and central America so there was no more moving south.
Back to cliff dwellings: The mesa dwellers (ancestors to the modern Pueblo tribes) apparently built homes that would last around 40-50 years. This means there is significant rebuilding work that continued to be done over the course of the cliff dwelling years. The dates for construction have been arrived at by taking tree ring core samples and comparing the rings for similar patterns. The trees growing on the mesa grow exceedingly slow so a moderate to large tree may easily be over 1000 years old. An adjoining mesa that burned about 12 years ago has not yet regrown any trees.
Access to the cliff dwellings was by a series of hand and foot holds. Basically you had to free solo climb a cliff face to get into your house! Might help to explain the life expectancy that was 35 for men and 25 for women. We had it much easier climbing down because the CCC had carved steps into the cliffs and built ladders. Admittedly though, they did it for something like a dollar a day and meals, so some steps were large, some small, some wide, some narrow, some deep, some shallow or any combination of the above. We went to the three dwelling which were down one road. First we went to Balcony House which is called that due to a balcony on the front of one of the structures. Balcony House had a sheer drop below it and actually had a guard rail that the builders had put in place. Some archeologists think that Balcony house may only have been used for ceremonies. Cliff House was the largest and is the most photographed of all of the cliff dwellings. There were some petroglyphs in one dwelling as well. Spruce house was more easily accessible and had a sweet reconstructed Kiva. When you look at pictures of the Kiva, note what looks like a fireplace in the side wall, it’s actually a fresh air inlet and the vertical stone in the middle is to deflect wind. The fire would have been made in the middle of the room and exit out of the hole in the middle of the roof. The Kiva was much like their ancient dwellings, but by this point it was just for ceremonies.
Now for Pictures