Mesa Verde National Park
Almost 101 years to the date of the creation of Mesa Verde National Park, we visited the park in southwest Colorado. On June 29, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man," the first national park of its kind.
The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best preserved in North America. Sometime during the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa top for 600 years, many Ancestral Pueblo people began living in pueblos they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. The structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms. While still farming the mesa tops, they continued to reside in the alcoves, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century. By the late 1270s, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended.
The largest of the park’s cliff dwellings are located at the ends of two long mesas–Chapin and Weatherhill–and take about an hour to drive to each from the entrance to the park. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units.
We participated in ranger-led tours of three of the cliff dwellings. Other cliff dwellings, such as the Square Tower House and Spruce Tree House, are closed to the public but can be viewed from overlooks.
The now-closed Spruce Tree House from overlook. Park officials are studying how to stabilize the rock above the dwelling to prevent it from breaking off.
Square Tower House
Balcony House was the first cliff dwelling we toured. At the beginning of the tour, the ranger told the tour group about the obstacles we would encounter during the tour, such as a 32-foot ladder to get into the house, and having to crawl through a 12-foot tunnel with a 12”x18” opening to exit the house, followed by two more ladders to climb back up to the parking area.
Balcony House contains 40 rooms, making it a medium-size dwelling. The ranger explained that many of the rooms were not living spaces, but storage areas. The house is the only one on Chapin Mesa facing northeast, thus getting the least amount of direct sun. I figured that this must have been used as a refrigerator for the storage of the beans, corn, and squash grown on the mesa tops. Since it would have gotten direct sunlight only during the morning days near the summer solstice, it would have stayed cooler than the other Chapin Mesa dwellings.
Long House, the second largest cliff dwelling in the park, is located on Weatherhill Mesa. The ranger-led tour started with a 2-mile hike and a discussion of the plants located on the mesa and how they were used by the Ancestral Pueblo people. The “house” was more like a village set into a nearly 300-foot alcove. It contained about 150 rooms, 21 kivas, and a row of upper storage rooms. As many as 175 people could have called this house their home. The high number of rooms and kivas in Long House, plus the presence of the formal plaza, suggest this cliff dwelling was a significant place for the people living there, perhaps serving both civic and ceremonial functions.
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park. With its square towers and round towers, perfectly plumb and square walls, and colored plaster walls, it is considered an architectural masterpiece.
Cliff Palace from gathering place
Archeologists believe it was built between A.D. 1260–1280. To create a level floor, the builders of Cliff Palace erected a retaining wall along the front of the alcove and backfilled behind the wall, making a flat working surface and solid foundation for rooms. The alcove is around 215 feet wide by about 90 feet deep and 60 feet high. About 150 rooms—living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces and 21 kivas—were eventually built. It was inhabited by an estimated 100 to 120 people. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
View as we approached Cliff Palace
As can be imagined, Cliff Palace is the most popular cliff dwelling in the park, with each ranger-led tour hosting 50 people. For this reason, we opted to take the twilight tour, which is the last tour of the day and is limited to 15 people. Our tour had only four other people on it. In addition to having two hours (twice the normal amount of time), the main benefit was being able to photograph without having so many people in the way. In addition to telling us more about what it was like for the inhabitants of Cliff Palace, the ranger allowed us to move around the dwelling pretty much as we desired.
Original drawings and colored plasterwork inside the square tower
To see more photos from Mesa Verde, follow this link.
Next in the series: Scenic Drive to the next park
Keywords: balcony house, cliff dwellings, cliff palace, long house, mesa verde national park, spruce tree house, square tower house
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