Saturday, July 26, 2008

Exploring the Dwellings of the Ancients

Joe and Ned Enter the Kiva at Spruce Tree House

Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to "preserve the works of man," the first national park to do so. The Ancestral Pueblo people made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. There are over 4,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.

Friday morning we were up and ready for our first cliff dwelling tour, 9:00 am tour at Cliff Palace. After a quick breakfast we drove through the park to Chapin Mesa. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Ninety percent of the cliff dwellings contain 10 rooms or less and one-third have one or two rooms. This means that the more famous cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace (150 rooms), Balcony House (40 rooms), and Long House (150 rooms) are the exception. We started at the Cliff Palace Overlook with a talk by a ranger. Since the tour is considered strenuous because of the five ladders and 100 foot elevation change the rangers want to make sure that you can make it and if you feel like you cannot, turn back now.

The dwelling itself is amazing. We were the first tour so there was no one else in the dwelling. The quiet of the canyon made the emptiness of the alcove more apparent. We learned about the differing theories on why the ancient peoples moved to the cliff alcoves from their mesa top homes and why they left Mesa Verde. Most likely the answer to both questions is resource depletion. While we were on the tour a boy about Joe's age passed out. It was pretty shocking but he was okay. He hadn't eaten breakfast.

After Cliff Palace we toured Balcony House. Balcony House is labeled as an Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour by the park. To enter the dwelling you climb a 32 foot ladder and to exit crawl through a 12 foot long tunnel and climb up a 60 foot open rock face with two 10 foot ladders. At least we didn't have to go the way the original inhabitants used, small hand and foot holds chipped into the cliff face. An interesting fact we learned was that bodies found with broken bones were very few and they were of the old. Balcony House is named for the balconies that were built on the outside of the houses.

After the tour we did a short hike on the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. This leads to an overlook for a view of Balcony House. We were pretty hungry by now so we dropped into Spruce Tree Terrace for lunch. After lunch we walked down to Spruce Tree House which is the best preserved of the cliff dwellings and even has some parts restored. The boys climbed down into a kiva to see what it was like. We then visited the Chapin Mesa Museum. It has dioramas of Ancestral Puebloan life and exhibits of prehistoric artifacts of Ancestral Puebloan culture. While visiting the museum the boys received their Junior Ranger badges.

Driving along the Mesa Top Loop we made a few stops to see earlier pit houses where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving to the cliff dwellings. Then we headed out of the park to Cortez. On the way we stopped at Park Point Overlook the highest point in the park at 8572 ft with a 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside.

We were going to go to the library but it was closed so we stopped at the grocery store for dinner supplies and then back to the park. It started to rain but stopped after a half hour. Later we went to the campground ranger program on the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps and their work in Mesa Verde National Park and then to bed.

The Park Entrance When it Wasn't Raining

Cliff Palace

Ned and Joe Look Over Cliff Palace

Ned Knows the Answer

Joe Reviews Balcony House Before Our Tour

The Big Ladder From the Bottom

Climbing the Big Ladder to Balcony House

The Tunnel Out of Balcony House

Joe and Ned Climb Up the Cliff

Balcony House From the Soda Canyon Overlook

Square Tower House is the Tallest in the Park

Spruce Tree House from the Park Superintendent's Porch

This morning started with a tour of Long House on Wetherhill Mesa. It is a 12 mile drive to the parking area where a tram takes you to the start of the tour. But first the rangers went through their warning speech about climbing, falling, staying on the trail and not touching anything. Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. One interesting feature of Long House is the Great Kiva, an open air kiva like those of Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists believe this is a sign that some of the people from Chaco Canyon came here after their culture collapsed. There are only two 15 foot ladders to climb at Long House making it a nice walk.

After the tour we headed into Cortez and spent some time at the library. We had dinner at Let it Grow a garden center that has a small cafe inside. Our dinner was very good. As we headed back to the park the skies began to darken and it began to pour. As we passed through the park entrance it turned to hail. I worried about our tent but as we came to a bend in the road I was more worried about if we were going to be able to continue farther into the park. The heavy rain was washing the hillside onto the road and there were large rocks scattered across the road. We got through and back to camp.

The tent was okay and fortunately the rain had slowed quite a bit. We went to the campground center to take showers and do laundry. There were a lot of people there and I found out that the park was closed because of the rocks on the road. I am glad we got in though I was worried that we couldn't leave in the morning. It was funny in a way all of the rain we had at Mesa Verde. Normally they only get about 15 inches a year. I think most of that fell in the three days we were there. Once the laundry was done we went back to our campsite and did some reading. Tomorrow we were headed for Arches National Park in Utah and I wanted an early start.

Long House

A Hand Print on the Alcove Ceiling

Long House From the Other Side

Ned Waits for the Tour to End

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