Mesa Verde National Park

First up on this year’s national park “spring tour” was Mesa Verde NP in Colorado. We camped in a rather precarious FREE camping area very near the entrance to the park. We managed to get our house level side-to-side without too much trouble and, of course, the electric landing gear legs let us dial in the front-to-back level easy enough. The pictures don’t really do it justice. Our back bumper is less than 6″ off the dirt “road” and our landing gear legs are extended about as far as they can go just to get us disconnected from BBT — turns out that same elevation is perfectly level front-to-back for LCC. The area has a nice view of the nearby mesas and what we can see from our sofa isn’t too bad either.

We took time to cruise the back way through multiple ranchettes into Cortez, CO and the whole area just has an amazing, kick-back, semi-agricultural feel to it — every price point mixed in with all the others — no gentrification here. Unfortunately, the free WiFi at McDonald’s was down and the signal at Taco Bell wasn’t much better. We tired of that struggle and came home early.

Next day, though, we ventured into the park with our geezer pass = FREE and were delighted to learn we can go on the only guided tour available this time of year for five bucks each = done. There were no spots available same day so at 2pm the next afternoon, we had toย be in position (20+ miles of slow driving inside the park) for our guided tour of Balcony House. ย With map in hand we thought it might be a good idea to drive up into the park and see where we needed to show up for our tour…and see some sights along the way.

I’ve been somewhat shocked to learn the Ancestral Pueblo people who once lived here actually cultivated their crops and hunted up on TOP of the mesas and somehow made their way back and forth with toe and foot holds which they carved into the sandstone cliffs — impossible to imagine. These cliff faces aren’t always vertical. Some of them lean out at an angle — not for the faint of heart! Apparently they did have pretty good ropes in those days but no evidence of pulleys to move stuff up and down — little more than their free-style climbing skill and muscle between them and certain death if they fell. Like the human equivalents of spiders . . . while also carrying children and firewood — perhaps some portion of a deer on their backs. I suppose they could just chuck the firewood off into the abyss and gather it back up later, but that might not be good for the meat . . . and certainly not good for the children. There is plenty of evidence the Ancestral Puebloans had domesticated not only dogs at this point but turkeys as well. Nearly all the illustrations show what we today would call “wild” turkeys. It’s clear the turkeys were used for food and tools and many other things but what purpose the dogs served isn’t as obvious — perhaps used for hunting? Though using dogs (and even our beloved cats) as a food source is well documented in many cultures . . . even today.We show up for our tour of Balcony House next afternoon — great fun. The tour takes a little over one hour and involves climbing a 32′(!) ladder just to enter the cliff dwelling site. You also crawl through a 12′ long tunnel which is only 18″ wide *and* climb 60′ up an exposed cliff face, using two 10 to 12′ ladders and a series of stone steps.This particular “house” is certainly far from the largest with only two kivas . . . another location in the area has eight! But it was fascinating to learn that the only original entrance (and exit) was through the tunnel = one narrow 18″ wide passage in and also the only way out. The tunnel began as just a gap between two huge vertical pieces of stone which form a narrow upside-down V and the builders piled wood supports (remaining to this day) and stone (using mere mud as mortar) to create a ceiling for the tunnel — and to fill the gap so nobody could fit through any remaining gap above the tunnel. In one section of the tunnel, you can actually stand up. There are so many examples of how their motivations were far more than just the practical considerations of what was needed to be functional and structural. In many areas, the plastering over the masonry to achieve a smooth surface was not just on the inside of an enclosure but on the outside as well. I suspect they learned from experience (up on top of the mesa) that this extra step allowed the shell to shed water better to preserve all that hard work of stone and mud underneath, but there was a powerful aesthetic consideration at all times as well. The shape of the natural alcoves gave their handiwork great protection from the rain = less of the constant battle against the elements which defined life for 400 years prior up on top of the mesa. (Estimates are that the cliff dwellings were actually only used for the last 200 years of their presence in the area and some brochures claim half of that — before it seems that everyone moved south and down to lower and warmer elevations where the farming of their staples: corn, beans, and squash must have been much easier. Mesa Verde surface altitude runs from 7,000′ altitude to closer to 8,400′ at the upper end. It’s a massive relatively flat area which just happens to slope and face south. Lacking that lucky coincidence, people wouldn’t have been able to survive in this area as long as they did.

In our group, it was surprising to see how many had done the tour before and were back to do it again. Apparently “been there; done that” is never enough when you’re dealing with ancient cliff dwellings. And I have to say that walking/crawling through these ancient structures and still smelling 900 year old soot in the air from fires long ago is not something one quickly forgets. It’s also a reminder of why the ancients only lived to be 35 or 36 years old on average. Their bones provide evidence of incomplete development — usually indicative of low oxygen levels. One can only imagine those long smoky winter months when nearly constant fire was needed just to survive. I wonder how many of the ancients perished from nothing more than CO poisoning. It would seem the bright red color of such victims might set them apart but we can only speculate what that might have meant to survivors at the time. Most of all, I’m just amazed at the expense of human labor it required to build these walls. The gathering and shaping of materials, the mixing of the mud, and all of it while moving up and down the vertical face of a cliff just blows me away.

I know there are comparable human ‘buildings’ on the tops of mountains with nearly impossible access but surely these extreme builders were motivated by far more than just needing a safe place to sleep. It would seem they must have been driven by a force or belief (no matter how illogical it might seem to some of us today) that was larger than themselves — larger than life itself. Why else would anyone work so hard for so little gain? Though the shade of the alcoves and their thermal mass surely moderated temps somewhat — making them much more comfortable during the summer months, all notions of any significant passive solar heating must be quickly abandoned. The canyons in this area tend to run north and south, so these massive alcoves tend to face either east or west. Balcony House, for example, faces east and the sunlight only reaches into the alcove briefly in the mornings and hardly at all during the winter months because the canyon is narrow and deep and the sun must rise quite high in the sky to light up the canyon — another reason why virtually all their farming was up on top of the mesa. Because of this orientation, Balcony House was nearly always in the shade = great during the summer months — not so great during the winter months.

Unfortunately, the Spruce Tree House which is the best preserved cliff dwelling (complete with kivas with rebuilt roofs and ladder access) and was a self-guided site remains closed until work can be done to reduce the rockfall threat. Our brochure explains “Although alcoves naturally and continually form through erosion, the alcove surrounding Spruce Tree House has become particularly unstable. A geologic assessment completed in late 2015, revealed a significant danger of rockfalls along pathways into and within the site. This year, a geotechnical firm will conduct a detailed evaluation using laser imaging that will provide recommendations for treatment.” This is all very exciting for me as I remember seeing pictures of the cliff dwellings at a very young age and being attracted to them even then. They seemed like the ultimate tree house or ‘fort’ were only the most daring could ever bother you. ๐Ÿ™‚ The tunnel we crawled through at Balcony House was actually a feature built into the site by the “ancients” because it helped to keep their community location more easily defensible from any threat but it was interesting to learn that speculation is they weren’t worried about being “attacked” by any one group in particular — it was more about safeguarding their stores of food and firewood that they absolutely depended on to survive the brutal winter months. A flaming torch in that tunnel might be all that was needed to make a would-be intruder back up and think about something else. I can’t help but think these communities surely had guards — much like military compounds of present day — who controlled any coming and going into the compound while the larger numbers of the group slept. For a group of any size, it would be well worth the loss of their labor during the day (while the guards slept) to keep your family protected and able to sleep at night and not worry. And of course any community would also need someone to watch over the corn/bean/squash fields at night to keep the deer and other marauders at bay. I’m guessing if there was any significant loss of crops in the night, there better also be a dead carcass of something laying there to compensate for it . . . or one might be suddenly relieved of their duty and/or tossed off the cliff! ๐Ÿ™‚You also may be interested to know there is a large “crampground” inside the park = 250+ spaces for around $30/nite — all the spots with hookups were full at $50/nite — must provide a pretty good revenue stream for the park but we parked nearby for FREE; little more than a mile from the park entrance. Soon we will have been doing this for 19 months and we’ve only spent $150 in all that time for camping fees — may that figure never increase ๐Ÿ™‚

13 Responses to Mesa Verde National Park

  1. Laurie June 27, 2017 at 4:56 am #

    Love it! Love it! Love it! Annie, your photos are killing me!!! Amazing what those guys went through way back when just to survive. I was amazed too at the work and time and labor involved to do something like that. Friggin mind boggling!!! I would hate to have been the guard on duty the next morning with missing crops and nothing to show for it. I wonder how many guards were “relieved of duty” the hard way over that. I can’t even imagine what it took to survive winter there. Who were their enemies? Other local pueblo tribes or migrating tribes of a different nation? I wonder how many tribe members lived in that place.

    You da man for getting the rig in that spot. Freecampsites.net says it’s 25 foot or less. Suppose you can take some reviews with a grain of salt if you are good at the wheel.

    Have you ever had any trouble/problems in the last 19 months leaving your rig all by itself while you two are out doing things together? For some reason I’d always kinda be worrying about someone coming by and helping himself. Most folks out there are probably there to enjoy themselves but I was hearing yesterday there was a massive influx of thievery going on at Quartzsite this year.

    Have you ever thought of doing the million dollar highway in your rig? I did it last September by motorcycle and I’ll tell you looking over the sides with no guardrails will keep you on your toes. In a 33 foot rig going down a steep, curvy grade with no guardrails that would be the ultimate test of skill.

    http://roadslesstraveled.us/colorado-million-dollar-highway-route-550-ouray-silverton/

    You two and the kitties need to make your own youtube channel!

    • Annie Peterson June 28, 2017 at 10:18 am #

      Thanks, Laurie! Happy to hear you enjoy the pictures.

      Jim has been under the weather the past few days. He may have more to add when he feels better.

      He is good at getting our casa into position. But I guess we should admit this was not really a campsite. It was actually a branch of the road that was so rutted and gnarly it was all but totally impassable just a little further on so we took advantage of it. ๐Ÿ™‚ He did a great job getting us all leveled off between the deep ruts.

      We haven’t had anything stolen while we’re away so far. In fact, we almost always leave our ladder, outdoor rug, broom and spare propane tanks outside. The only time anything seemed amiss was when we were parked on open range land and the cattle decided they liked our shade. We came home almost every day to tipped over propane tanks and hanging trim pieces.

      I’m sure the million dollar highway would be a blast on a motorcycle but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy it too much in our rig. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks again for your interest!

  2. Laurie June 27, 2017 at 5:09 am #

    Forgot this. If you love Pueblo ruins and are in the Sante Fe area checkout the Bandelier National Monument. It’s near Los Alamos so you could kill a few birds with one stone.

    • Annie Peterson June 28, 2017 at 10:19 am #

      Thanks for the tip, Laurie.

  3. Rob June 27, 2017 at 8:47 am #

    Dogs are your first line of defense, your early warning system. They we used to pull a travois too.

    I have wondered about the ‘why’ did they move into the canyon after those 100’s of years on top of the mesa. To me it looked clearly for defense.

    I’m here at The Navajo National Monument and this cliff dwelling was only occupied for like 35 years & they too walked away (about the same time the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were abandoned).
    FWIW the Little Ice Age started around 1250 too….

    Anne, thank you for the directions to the blm land, it is a great place to stay!
    With your access to the park (buy a weeks pass or have the old farts card) you have access to the dump stations, the drinking water at the dump stations & the free showers next to the store/laundromat. Cortez being 8 miles down the road gives you access to all the stuff a town can provide
    All that can make Mesa Verde NP a great place to spend some time.

    • JIM PETERSON June 29, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks Rob for your comment. It all happened so long ago that all any of us can do is speculate . . . still fun though. I guess there just isn’t much evidence of wars or deaths which resulted in anyone dying any sooner than their already premature average of 35-36 years. But, clearly, they were completely dependent on their stores to get them through the long, cold winters of those high elevations and so securing those rations and firewood, etc. in a safe place must’ve been a *very* high priority. There is speculation that the soil was surprisingly fertile but even it may have gotten tapped with such prolonged and continual planting. No doubt, wild game numbers nearby diminished over the years as well. It also seems clear that natural temp cooling of even a few degrees may have made the already marginal growing season too short. If you’re not in a position to put away your usual winter stores, everyone knows how that story ends ๐Ÿ™‚ I suspect they headed south to lower/warmer elevations and never had any reason to go back — much as we snow birds do to this day ๐Ÿ™‚ 21 contemporary tribes in the Four Corners area trace their ancestral lineage to the Ancestral Puebloans.

      • Rob June 29, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

        The whole thing was interesting.
        I have to wonder about the 34-36 age span you’ve got, is that just a quoted number? It’s so easy to mess with average ages.

        About their leaving around the same time, the Little Ice Age is generally credited with starting around 1250.

        I’m at the grand canyon now, can’t get enough of the canyon & really enjoy talking with people from different countries.

        • JIM PETERSON June 29, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

          That’s the number I got from our Ranger — apparently based on physical remains found in the area — all highly speculative of course ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess (like anything else) we run with a narrative which seems to make sense . . . until a more provable one comes along.

          • Rob June 29, 2017 at 6:23 pm #

            I see people all the time talk about really low ages people lived to, in the old days. if you made to to 60 or 70 and your 9 siblings didn’t make it to 5, well you have a low average life span.

            Maybe that substance farming was hard on the body?

            Neat to look at the ruins no matter how the occupants were!

  4. Kevin June 29, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    What a trip, How very awesome. Itโ€™s always nice to read your posts. What a different area. Yes?
    Mesa Verde will always be at the top of my list of interesting places Iโ€™ve visited. That drive back into the park though, slow going as you know. I spent over a month driving around Colorado and south into New Mexico. The Earth ships going into Taos NM are something to see.

    I suggest taking the time to get up to the Great Sand Dune National Park in CO. March/April is when I stopped by. There was snow on the mountains and the creek is beginning to flow, a very nice contrast in the diversity of the landscape and great photo opportunities as well. Later in the spring the creek is running full and has some interesting water features to investigate. The diversity in landscape is amazing in this area.

    Kevin

    Ktfowler.com – Itโ€™s not the Destination, but the Journey
    Colorado, New mexico Photos

    • Annie Peterson June 29, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

      Yes, Kevin, it really is an interesting area to explore. I’m pretty sure we’ll return, especially since we didn’t even get to see everything in Mesa Verde. I love the diverse landscape of NM and hope to spend more time exploring there as well as CO. Thanks for the suggestions for must-see destinations.

      Hope to see you again in our journeys.

      Jim & Annie

  5. Venetia Trombley July 18, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Loved Mesa Verde. Climbed those ladders (did NOT look down), crawled thru that tunnel, walked the sites. The smell of sage everywhere. It was great. The views are amazing. Did you see Sleeping Ute Mountain and hear that story? I have to get back that way again someday.

    • JIM PETERSON July 20, 2017 at 8:20 am #

      Agreed — we could spend a LOT more time there. We didn’t see Sleeping Ute Mountain (or were unaware if we *did* see it — learned more about it here:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ute_Mountain

      During the spring months, all those mountain valleys you drive through are gorgeous . . . we hope to explore New Mexico and Colorado more in the years to come. Thanks for your comment ๐Ÿ™‚

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