Trail of the Ancients Day 3 – Mesa Verde, Colorado

We spent a month in the four corners area of Colorado, exploring the ancient history and beauty of this surprising area. The Mesa Verde National Park was a full day trip all by itself.  It would not be hard to enjoy two or three days just in this one park, especially if you choose to hike into all of the accessible ruins.

Mesa Verde National Park is located about 20 miles east of Cortez, Colorado, very close to the borders of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Getting Organized

The park sits high on Mesas cut by steep canyons running north and south.  When you first enter from the north, there is a visitor center before the main gate.  If you wish to purchase tours ($5.00) to some of the ruins, you can schedule them here.  You will not be able to walk down to the ruins without the tour guide, although you can see them from above if you prefer not to hike.

Mesas and Cliffs of Mesa Verde and dotted with the ruins of the Anasazi culture

Let me make one recommendation on an “efficient” day.  When you enter the park, heading south, you will have a choice of heading to the Chapin Mesa or the Weatherill Mesa.  Head to Chapin first.  Weatherill is a long (pretty) drive to a barren point.  If you don’t plan to hike to the ruins below, it will be a fruitless trip, except for the scenery of course!

Do NOT miss the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, about five miles from the Visitor’s Center.  This is the only place to see many of the artifacts that have been removed from the restored sites.  Samples of weaving, pottery, tools and weapons are presented in a way that really helps you get some context on the development of this magnificent civilization.

Why is Mesa Verde Unique?

So what is so interesting about Mesa Verde versus the other Anasazi sites?  For me, this site gave me some context.  The classic period of Chaco Canyon was almost 100 years before Mesa Verde’s pinnacle.  In fact, it appears that some people from Chaco actually travelled here when they left Chaco.

Far View community – appears to be a Chaco influence
Far View community – appears to be a Chaco influence

Earliest Pit Houses

However, this site was inhabited for at least 1000 years before the Classic Pueblo Period. If you follow the Mesa Top Loop on Chapin Mesa, you can see examples of several periods of development, from simple Pit Houses of Basketmaker I and II all the way to above-ground multi-story villages of Pueblo III.  Be sure to take the time on this loop to visit each restored area.  The walks are very short and mostly paved.

The loop at Mesa Verde illustrates a progression of construction from the Basketmaker through Pueblo periods
Mesa Verde Pit House
Pit House Approximately AD 850

Cliff Dwellings

Another feature of Mesa Verde, of course, is the Cliff Dwellings.  Many of the dwellings are large complexes: Some were three to four stories, housing several hundred people.  But rather than sitting on top of the mesas, they hang off of the cliffs, nestled under alcoves high above the floor of the canyon.

Kiva at Pipe Shrine Mesa Verde
Kiva at Pipe Shrine House Mesa Verde. Inhabited before the Cliff Dwellings

The sequence of some of the construction shows that people lived on the mesas first, planted crops and built villages and cisterns, and then later moved to the cliffs below them.  The agriculture on the mesa above continued, so people had to haul crops and building materials down the steep ladders and stairways to the homes below.

You can see some of the largest cliff dwellings from overlooks on the road above them.  If you have time to schedule a tour, the guide will take you down into the ruins themselves.  The walks vary in difficulty.  The visitor center has great details on how many steps and ladder-rungs are required to go through them.  Be sure to purchase your tours in the morning so you can be sure to get a slot.  It takes over an hour to get to the tour start from the visitor center, so an early start is really important.

Spruce Tree House – kiva has been backfilled to protect it
Cliff Palace

Take the time to Explore

Because we travel in a motorhome, we can choose where to “live” as we explore.  There are several parks in Cortez. We chose a small park in Dolores.  From there we could reach Mesa Verde in less than half an hour.  Your pass into the park lasts for a week, so take advantage of that and take a couple of days at least to really explore Mesa Verde!

How about you?

Have you been into this park?  Please share with us the things you enjoyed and any ideas for making the trip more fun!

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