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Wednesday, September 2, 2015 : Mesa Verde National Park


At the lodge, the breakfast buffet price tag kind of puts us off. We fall back on another restaurant, the Far View Terrace Café, a few minutes walk away.


But since this is a self-service restaurant, each item carries its own price tag. So, to eat the same thing as the buffet at the lodge, we eventually end up paying even more, for a rather average breakfast. Let's call this learning by trial-and-error. 


View from Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde National Park

View from Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde National Park


Back in the room to pick our backpacks, we stop for a minute and take this picture of the gorgeous view from the lodge. With good weather, as is the case today, their website claims a breathtaking view 60 miles afar and into four states. It is not too far-fetched to think it could actually be accurate.


Mesa Verde National Park geography is quite straightforward : it mostly consists of two mesas, Wetherhill Mesa on the right of the picture and Chapin Mesa on the left, with a set of canyons in between. Geology is quite straightforward as well : The mesas are what remains of the original Colorado Plateau, which was heaved in a single piece about 250 million years ago The canyons have simply been carved by water erosion. Here, there are no U-shaped glaciary valleys, no volcanos, no faults, no geological or tectonic accidents.


Mesa Verde National Park is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. The park is mostly know for its pre-columbian remains, which we are spending most of this day visiting. Nowadays, the plateaus have become quite dry, and it is hard to think that, from 5th to 13th centuries, the region was fertile and rather densely populated for the time. The destiny of local Ancestral Puebloans is still quite fuzzy after year a.d. 1300, they seem to have vanished without a trace.


Our first stop is at Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. In order to better preserve them by limiting the number of visitors, the access to some of the sites is controlled. We buy tickets for Cliff Palace and Balcony House, two among the most interesting and beautiful sites in the park. The visits will be supervised and commented by rangers.


Cliff Palace seen from mesa top,Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace seen from mesa top


Cliff Palace is located within the side of a canyon. It was an important settlement : it counts no less than 8 kivas, those round rooms used for gatherings and ceremonies, which translates into an identical number of extended families. We can estimate a population in the range of 150 souls, which is huge for a pre-columbian era village. It was assumed to be a local county seat, so to say, where families would gather for important occasions.


Cliff Palace has been built at about 2/3 of the height of the canyon, sheltered within a natural alcove in the rock. The place is hard to access, hazardous and inhospitable. Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the region, and who occupied Cliff Palace during most of our 13th century, necessarily had really good reasons to settle here, perhaps to shelter their families from wild animals on top of the mesa, glacial winter winds or invaders.


By itself, the outstanding state of preservation in which Cliff Palace came to us more than justifies its listing in the UNESCO World Heritage. This site is a pure marvel.


The visit begins with a walk along the edge of the mesa, which offers a great view of Cliff Palace from above. From here, we can assess the very concrete challenges cliff dwellers had to meet : walk down to the river at the bottom of the canyon to pick water, climb up to work the land on mesa top, store grain, protect their offspring from falling off the cliff.


Ceremonial kiva, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Ceremonial kiva, Cliff Palace


From the rim of the canyon, Marie takes this picture of a kiva, which we recognize from its round shape. The room is buried below ground level and is always accessed from the top. Kivas are supposed to be covered with a roof made of branches and mud resting on wooden beams, here long gone.


A kiva is a room dedicated to gatherings and ceremonies. The actual dwellings are the rooms with the square windows that open toward the top of the kiva. The higher building on the right, with its characteristic T-shaped opening, is a granary. The two-post ladder is a contemporary addition. Ancestral Puebloans used one-post ladders, to which they added diagonal rungs.


Granary, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Granary, Cliff Palace


To visit Cliff Palace, we have to walk down a narrow path that takes us to the foot of the ruins, and wait under the shadow that the previous group has left the place. John, our ranger, chooses this moment to share his extensive historical knowledge of the site. Quite expectedly, I ask my usual series of questions.


In this rock alcove, space is pretty constrained. Buildings are all small, and frequently stacked on top of one another. On the picture above, we can see a piece of wall of a dwelling, then a round watchtower, and finally a granary.


Inside a kiva, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Inside a kiva, Cliff Palace


We are standing on the edge of one of the 8 kivas in Cliff Palace. The square opening on the picture is way too small to be a door. It is not a window either, since the room is dug below ground level. It is actually an air duct. Kivas are linked to one another by ventilation shafts that bring the outside air needed for the woodfires. Ancestral Puebloans had planned everything : they even had a stone deflector, to make sure the occupants were not frozen in place by the probably chilly winter air draft.


The attendees at the ceremonies inside the kiva sat on the ground. The stone steps on the outer edge are therefore not seats, but stands for the wooden posts that supported the roof.


Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace


We leave Cliff Palace through its south end. Marie snaps a last picture, on which we can see a kiva on the left, then a few dwellings, and finally a granary. We do not go back up the same way we walked down. We climb a narrow passage between two large rocks, cut in half by a short but rather steep ladder. In Mesa Verde, you have to be ready to climb down, then up. Visitors have been warned.


The high number of granaries relative to population gives us some important information about Ancestral Puebloans' way of life. It is assumed that they were mostly vegetarians, and first and foremost that they stored huge quantities of grain, in case of prolonged food shortages that were bound to happen from time to time.


1960 Pontiac Bonneville, Mesa Verde National Park

1960 Pontiac Bonneville


Back at the parking lot, we have this vision of a 1960 Pontiac Bonneville Coupé, in perfect condition. Is there a gathering of collector cars, for the sole purpose of showing them out ? It does not seem so, it is the only one of its kind. It is just a testimony, in an exceptional state of preservation, of a long gone era, when America was assertive about itself and confident about its place in the world.


We will see this beautiful car a few more times during the day. We know it moves around like any other car.


Cliff dwellings, Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff dwellings, Cliff Canyon


The whole canyon onto which Cliff Palace opens is lined with pre-columbian sites, with ruins just about everywhere. On the opposite side of the canyon, facing us, in the middle of the picture, hooked on the edge of the cliff, we can see dwellings and a granary. I look for the exits out of the hamlet, up to work the land and down to pick water, but they are far from clearly visible. It is probably one of the main reasons why Ancestral Puebloans settled there : contradictory as it may seem, this is probably the place where they felt most secure.


We also better understand how the dwellers communicated with each other. In a narrow, steep-sided canyon, voices are propagated by echo and can be clearly heard from quite afar.


The Rocky Mountains, seen from Mesa Verde National Park

The Rocky Mountains, seen from Mesa Verde National Park


Mesa Verde may be on a plateau, but the Rocky Mountains are no more than 25 miles away. They can clearly be seen beyond the horizon of the mesa.


And, as often in mountainous regions, a storm is brewing. But in Mesa Verde, the weather is bright. The storm will remain in the mountains.


Just watching this picture, it is hard to imagine that the area used to be quite densely settled by farmers. Land is dry, rain is scarce, soil is stony. We have to factor in major climate changes between the 13th century and now. Indeed, Ancestral Puebloans mostly farmed corn, and everybody knows how water-thirsty that crop is. It is probably one reason why they left : although they had been fully settled for centuries, an enduring drought forced them to look for other lands and become nomads again.


We also can see traces of fires, quite frequent in the area. They are caused by lightning occasionally striking the dry brush and setting it on fire.


Access to Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park

Access to Balcony House


We drive a few minutes to Balcony House, our second visit. It is another pre-columbian site, smaller than Cliff Palace, and even more spectacularly hung right on the edge of the canyon, in a way less deep alcove. We first walk down a path that was not the the access used by the dwellers, then climb up a wide ladder just on the edge of the cliff, then a second ladder which we can see on the picture, then a short tunnel where we have to walk half-bent forward, and at last we are at Balcony House.


Balcony House is much smaller, and did not not have the same administrative and ceremonial role as Cliff Palace. It too came thru to us in an absolutely outstanding state of preservation.


Natural alcove, Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park

Natural alcove, Balcony House


Balcony House is built in a natural alcove opening on the canyon. At the deeper end of the cave, where it is no longer possible to remain standing up, we notice water seeping thru the rock, which we can see on the picture. This water was enough to quench the thirst of one or two extended families, and one should look no further for the reason why human beings settled such an inaccessible place.


The building which we can partially see a wall of at the left of the picture is a dwelling.


Inside a dwelling, Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park

Inside a dwelling, Balcony House


We are standing in front of the opening of one of the dwellings at Balcony House. We can see many traces of the fires the dwellers did to cook or keep themselves warm.


Looking at the wall more closely, we realize that Ancestral Puebloans, in the 13th century, mastered a few essential masonry techniques :


  • Stone cutting, which allowed to cut blocks of a given shape and size,
  • Mortar, which allowed to rigidly link blocks together and build walls,
  • And bricks, which allowed to build just about anything they wished.


They built to last, they were here to stay. Indeed, they were sedentary tribes of farmers. We are light-years away from tipis and Western stereotypes !


Grain grindstones, Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park

Grain grindstones, Balcony House


While men tended the land, women raised the children and cooked. One of the activities was grinding corn to extract the flour, naturally rich in various nutrients. Our modern-day tortillas come from that.


To grind, the woman bent forward on her knees behind the large flat stone, on which she had laid corn grains. She used the smaller round stone to crush the grains and collect the flour, which she separated from the bran. She then mixed the flour with a little water and baked corn flatbread tortillas.


To sustain their traditional way of life, Ancestral Puebloans had to have the three following resources in sufficient supply :


  • Water, which seeped at the back of the cave,
  • Corn, which was cultivated on the mesa top,
  • And firewood, widely available on the mesa.


The disruption of this fragile equilibrium at the end of the 13th century explains why the dwellers left. Indeed, there are traces of a drought that lasted at least 24 years. But that still falls short of telling us where Ancestral Puebloans went.


Square Tower House, ruins being restored, Mesa Verde National Park

Square Tower House, ruins being restored


After Cliff Palace Loop, we drive Mesa Top Loop, another one-way loop road on top of Chapin Mesa.


All the sites in the park are not accessible. The one on the picture, Square Tower House, is undergoing restoration, and we can see teams of men at work. Apart from a construction crane, it has no visible access. It is a mid-size hamlet with three kivas, meaning as many extended families. It could hopefully be open at our next visit.


With the exception of Balcony House, which opens toward northeast, all the sites we have seen open at least partially on the sunny side, east to south to west, but never northward. To explain why Ancestral Puebloans settled in so inaccessible places, the meteorological argument seems to be the most significant.


Mesa top ancestral Puebloan dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa top ancestral Puebloan dwellings


Mesa Top Loop has many ruins dating back to the various ages predating the migration of Ancestral Puebloans to the canyons, i.e. from 5th to 12th centuries. We can see the evolution of construction techniques during those times :


  • First, basic wood huts built on a hardly dug-out ground,
  • Then long houses made of wood and mud, dug a little deeper in the ground,
  • Then deeply buried hard houses, with only the roof appearing above ground level, not unlike tumuli,
  • And finally the kiva as we know it, which has its roof exactly at ground level.


After year 1200 a.d., there are no more traces of mesa top dwellings. The inhabitants have permanently abandoned the plateau in favor of cliff dwellings, which they occupied for a mere 100 years.


Cliff dwellings and granaries, Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff dwellings and granaries


There are roughly 4,300 archeological sites in Mesa Verde. It is therefore very mildly surprising to see that each canyon shelters so many ruins of various sizes, from the huge Cliff Palace to tiny hamlets for one or two extended families, like the one on the picture.


At each place, the same setup can be found :


  • Kiva in the middle, for gatherings,
  • Dwellings around the kiva,
  • Granaries within easy reach of the dwellings


And each time, we look for accesses to water and food, seldom easily found.


Vulture near Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park

Vulture near Spruce Tree House


We have completed our visit of Chapin Mesa sites, we are now back at the museum. Just below us, quite close by, is another also remarkable site, Spruce Tree House. Unlike Cliff Palace or Balcony House, Spruce Tree House is a self-guided visit. Perhaps the foot walk to the bottom of the canyon (1.4 mi. roundtrip, 170 ft elevation difference) deters the less motivated visitors.


At the time I am writing this article (January 2016), following a recent rockfall close to the path of visitors, Spruce Tree House is closed, while all relevant safety assessments are performed.


As can be seen on the picture, Mesa Verde National Park is not only about pre-columbian ruins. Flora and Fauna also deserve visitors' time and attention. The vulture on the picture is but one example of the park's biodiversity.


Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park

Spruce Tree House


Spruce Tree House is a mid-size settlement, also in an absolutely outstanding state of preservation. We can see the traditional village setup, with the kiva at the center, dwellings around and carefully sheltered granaries. Some parts have been restored with due respect of 13th century techniques.


On the picture, we can pretty well see the wooden beams that were used to support each story. Those beams all significantly extend outside the building, and we understand the external part was used to support a footbridge giving access to the upper floors.


Right in front of us, we can see the kiva, its rootop entrance and its ventilation opening. The ladder whose two wooden posts protrude outside the opening is by contrast a much more contemporary addition.


Inside the kiva, Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park

Inside the kiva, Spruce Tree House


After exchanging a few words with the ranger, we climb the ladder down to visit the kiva. On the picture, we can see the posts supporting the roof, which has been reconstructed. Just behind the ladder, we can see the stone deflector, which prevented the kiva occupants from being frozen to death by icy winter air currents. We also notice the benches on the edge of the kiva cannot be used as seats : first, they are way too high, and second, they are already used to support roof posts.


After Spruce Tree House, we give up walking the trail at the bottom of the canyon. Indeed, Marie is once again beginning to feel her sciatic.


Life of ancestral Puebloans at the museum, Mesa Verde National Park

Life of ancestral Puebloans at the museum


Back on mesa top, we spend time visiting the museum, quite rich in all sorts of artifacts and highly educative. We see a series of five windows, the second one being on the picture, illustrating the five ages of Mesa Verde occupation, from hunters-gatherers to cliff dwellers.


I stubbornly look for an explanation to the sudden vanishing of Ancestral Puebloans around year a.d. 1300. Hypotheses exist, of course, but they are less than satisfying for the mind :


  • They have been invaded and slaughtered : but Mesa Verde has no traces of warfare,
  • Drought and starvation eventually killed them off : but nowhere near enough skeletons have been found to support this thesis,
  • They migrated to more hospitable lands : in this case, we should find traces of their presence somewhere else, but none were ever uncovered anywhere.


Eventually, the most credible hypothesis, though not fully scientifically proved, is that, their numbers already quite seriously depleted, they finally left Mesa Verde and were soon assimilated into more populous surrounding ethnic groups, such as the Hopi or Navajo, newly settled in nearby areas.


We then drive back to the lodge. We have not been driving a lot today, and we did not actually exit the park, quite large indeed.


We have dinner at the coffee shop above yesterday's restaurant, about half the price and with quite decent food.

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