Mesa Verde National Park!

Review: WOW, just wow!


So WOW, that in 1978 Mesa Verde National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site; one of the most important designations a site anywhere in the world can receive.

Let’s jump right in, we sure did! Having booked a ranger tour online for Balcony House we had to get moving early the next day. We were advised to be in the Park by 0830, so we made lunch and filled our water jugs that night. It takes about 45 minutes to get to Balcony House from the Visitors Center on the hiway.


One of the best preserved sites in the park, Balcony House – our destination – requires climbing a 32’ ladder, crawling through an 18” wide – 12’ long tunnel and climbing up a 60’ open cliff face with stone steps and two 10’ ladders to exit. Visitors are duly warned when tickets are purchased.

The first view one gets of the site is when you step into Balcony House. There are 38 rooms and two kivas and divided into three plazas. The engineering skills required to build in this deep cliff alcove are considerable. The two kivas are a good example. Built side by side they are shaped like old fashioned keyholes. A bench or banquette runs around the inside broken only by a tunnel for air that has a rectangular rock about 6” wide and flat on both 2 to 3 foot sides that deflects incoming air. Rising from the bench are six pilasters that would have held up the roof beams. In the floor is a fireplace and a smaller hole called a sipapu (believed to allow the spirits of elders entry and egress).


The only site at Mesa Verde with a retaining wall and each room sporting strong wood vigas. The vigas stick out in front of the doorways and were covered with brush or smaller wood pieces and plastered with mud. The People traveled from room to room on the balconies. One cool thing was the two types of doorways – one was a normal rectangle denoting a room that was likely a home; the other was shaped wide at the top and narrow at the bottom to allow one to carry things in and out of the room, probably used for storage. The rooms were two and three stories – with plastered floors similar to the balconies.


I could go on and on about this site and don’t want to spoil it for anyone planning to go. Over 750 years old it is precious and I felt honored to be allowed to enter it at all. We spent the rest of the day driving the loop road and going back further in time.

Mesa Top Loop Drive is billed “from Pithouse to Pueblo.” Ancestral Puebloans lived in Mesa Verde for more than six centuries from around 600 to 1300 AD. These folks didn’t start with the incredible engineering and architecture we see in the Cliff Dwellings.


The first People, in 550 – 700 AD or the “Basketmaker” period built pithouses – shallow pits dug into the ground that were covered with pole and mud roofs and walls. Entrances were through the roofs. Each pithouse had a fire pit, and a hearth with a stone in front of it to deflect the outdoor air brought in by small tunnels. Think about these people. They needed a snug shelter and chose to dig pits, with a stick in hand. These People farmed corn, beans and squash; hunted wild animals and gathered a wide array of edible and useful plants.


There are whole villages of pithouses built on the mesa around 750 AD. These dwellings were cut deeper into the soil, had irrigation to keep them dry and divert water to crops for these Ancestral Puebloans were farmers and prosperous and their population grew. They depended on the land for everything; food, water, fiber, shelter, animals, and clay for pottery. Inside the houses archeologists found metate and manos for grinding corn and seeds, deer bone awls and turkey bones, pottery sherds and a charred piece of someone’s woven sandal.

By 850 AD, the People began to build above ground. Most villages we could see from this time were series of rooms delineated by slabs of rock – the rooms would have had lattices of poles and sticks plastered over with mud.

Interestingly, the pithouses evolved from 550 to 900 AD into the kivas found in all later dwellings. There are hundreds of dwellings spread over the tops of the cuestas. Yes, cuestas, a mesa is flat while the Mesa Verde (so named by the Spanish) ranges from 7000 ft to 8,571 ft in elevation. It is more angled than flat – that angle helped the People capture water.

The next day we had another tour scheduled! This tour was at 0900 (we had to be in the National Park by 0730, ugh). We drove out to Long House. The instructions on our tickets warned that we could be hiking about 2.25 miles and climbing two 15-foot ladders to deal with an elevation change of about 130 ft. Long House is on Wetherill Mesa (1.5 hours from the Visitor’s Center).

Long House is the largest of the cliff dwellings and is South facing. Where do I start? Long House is enormous and was built in pieces during the Pueblo III period, 1200 to 1280 AD. It served as an administrative center for various smaller cliff dwellings and housed around 150 at any given time. With 150 rooms and 21 kivas – think one kiva per family who built their own group of rooms. The most frontal of the dwelling is a large plaza with rooms built nearby, possibly for travelers from other cliff dwellings or further away.


The porous rock at the back of the alcove provided a seep of water. The People scraped small bowls into the sandstone floor with channels leading one to the other. Found in Long House were small handled ladles that were used to scoop up water from these bowls. A baby was found buried in the back of the alcove, in the crack between floor and ceiling; this is of note because most of the dwellings had no burial component. In fact, the ranger said that it is likely that bodies were tossed off the front of most of the cliff dwellings with other rubbish.

Sites in the park range from one room dwellings to Long House with it’s 150 rooms. Some sites have not been stabilized or excavated. More mesa top sites were exposed by the fires that burned recently. Once dense forest of Juniper and Pinyon Pine has been vastly reduced. Some stands of forest that have escaped the fires hold Juniper that are over 1,000 years old and Pinyons that have lived 700 years. The trees have never been tall, but now so many are just gone. It is disturbing to think of how long it will take for contemporary grassland to grow the forests that once were.


Now, I know I’ve woven you between times from 550 to 1280 AD and it’s probably been a bit confusing since I didn’t write a time-line. The Mesa Top Road sites and the tours aren’t chronological either. The whole place put me into a state of overwhelm. My eyes ached from trying not to miss a detail – thank goodness for cameras – and from looking over the distances and views.

Here’s the most overwhelming piece of the whole of the Mesa Verde experience (3 days worth, for us), the cliff dwellings are gorgeous and took many years and incredible skill to build and the Ancestral Pueblojans lived in the cliff dwellings for only around 100 years!

I am reminded by the desertion of these Peoples about attachment to Things. In no spiritual tradition are we urged to become so terribly attached to Things that we imperil the driving force of life; love. Whatever the reason for the migration, the People were not attached to these structures. In fact, in some ways, we people of the future seem terribly attached to the structures and to the other Things of our lives.

There is much speculation about what caused the People to leave: first, the last quarter of the 1200’s were drought stricken with attendant crop failures, but the People had survived times of drought before; second, perhaps the soils, animals and forests (of Juniper and Pinon Pine) were depleted; third, maybe political and social problems erupted in the community and the People simply looked for new places to live. It is known that the people joined thousands of other Ancestral Pueblo People who were moving South into New Mexico and Arizona. Today the Hopi of Arizona and the People of Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the pueblos along the Rio Grand trace their ancestry to the People of this area and some to the ancient builders of Mesa Verde.

Note: I use the capitalized word People/s to denote persons of Native American ancestry as a sign of my respect, especially as I am an immigrant.