Mesa Verde National Park
June 30th & July 1st, 1999
After packing our lunches, we loaded into the 'toad' and traveled highway 160 through Mancos, Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park. There is one entrance to the park, at its northeasterly border between Mancos Valley to the east and Montezuma Valley to the west. We checked through the entrance station, then made a steep climb to the mesa top and proceeded onward by the winding roadway along the North Rim to the Far View Visitor Center, our first stop. This fifteen mile trip takes more than thirty minutes from the Park entrance.
Even though it was early morning, we joined the end of a line for tickets to the restricted park area tours. Long House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House are open only to ranger-guided tours. The high demand for access to these areas has also led to restricting visitors to seeing only one of either Cliff Palace and Balcony House on any given day. We chose to tour all three, getting tickets for Long House and Cliff Palace today, and returning to Balcony House the next morning.
After securing tickets, we drove twelve miles (another 45 minutes) through juniper and pinyon pine-covered tablelands to Wetherill Mesa and joined what is touted as the Park's most strenuous guided tour - - Long House (Photos above). Its was an easy hike down the trail to this ancient ruin; but remember, we had to climb back up and out. That was the strenuous part! These multilevel ruins with hundreds of rooms were constructed about 800 years ago by people often called 'Anasazi', but today more correctly referred to as ancient Puebloan ancestors. Looking closely, we could still locate evidence of check dams and terrace farming along the mesa drainage areas. Here the people grew corn, squash, and beans. The ancient dwellers supplemented these foods with wild game like deer and rabbits and gathered nuts, berries, and plants. Then for reasons left for speculation (severe drought, over-intensive farming, nomadic raiding invaders), the people left, traveling south into New Mexico and Arizona. Next Ute Indians migrated into the area; however, they viewed the ancient ruins as haunted and left them undisturbed.
Abandoned for about 600 years, the interconnected ruins of Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table) were rediscovered by ranchers, Richard Weatherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, who were out looking for stray cattle during a December snowstorm in 1888. They stumbled onto the Cliff Palace complex of over 200 individual homes, 23 underground kivas, and towers rising four stories high. They returned, guided others, gathered and sold artifacts. In the next few years, people swarmed over the area gathering up every loose pot or stone tool they could carry. Some Colorado residents recognized the value of the sites and their persistent urgings led to the 1906 creation of Mesa Verde National Park (Today the park is also a United Nations World Heritage Site).
It was here that we first recognized the destructiveness of tourists visiting these preserved treasures. We felt privileged to be able to descend and walk through these cliff-clinging ruins. Each of our three tour groups were carefully instructed not to touch the masonry because natural oils from our hands and skin harm the structures and attract animals. After being shown examples of this type of needless wear and tear, a warning was given that some of these sites would probably have to be closed to these up-close visits. Yet time after time, we saw children allowed to scramble off the pathways and adults ignore the instructions. It was an eye-opening experience for Benjamin and us. Since then we have talked about the problem with Park Rangers and it seems universal. We fear that in a short time, many of our historical and natural areas will be restricted just to protect them from the massive numbers and indiscriminate use of fellow tourists. It is already happening in some areas. Things don't look the same behind glass or through fencing. We imagined being able only view these impressive ruins by binoculars from a distant mesa rim overlook. What a shame. How can we change these behaviors? "Step back, these irreplaceable ruins are protected by Viper!"
Near Long House are two other sites that you can visit on your own. Badger House Community has a trail that takes you to four excavated surface ruin sites. It contains the locations of ancient pit houses, storage rooms, room-blocks, kivas, tunnels, and towers. Also on the Weatherill Mesa, you can hike to a viewpoint for Nordenskiold Ruin No. 16, named after a Swedish scholar who undertook the first scientific archeological study of the area in 1891. Gustaf Nordenskiold, schooled in paleontology and geology, was guided by the Wetherill brothers, Richard and John. The Weatherill's were ranchers from the Mancos Valley east of today's parklands. The nine crates of artifacts that Nordenskiold collected are housed today in the National Museum of Finland, Helsinki - - the largest group of ancient Puebloan artifacts outside the United States. We did not take the time to see it all, and 'had to save some for the next time that we visit.'

Our final tour for this day was Cliff Palace (Photographs above) located on Chapin Mesa. As the crow flies this was only two to three miles to the east of Long House; however, mesas and canyon separate the sites. Therefore we drove back around the U-shaped roadway, about a twenty-mile loop that took us about an hour by Toad. Cliff Palace is just one of nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated in the park; however, it is the largest in North America. The tour reaches Cliff Palace by a stone stairway and then four 10-feet ladders. You have to be able to climb both up and down ladders and not be too afraid of heights.
An upper ledge at the ruins contains the remnants of 14 storage rooms. Here you can see a good example of a dry wall, where rocks were carefully stacked without mortar. Today the ruins show sections of wall and mortar, T-shaped doorways, and in places you can see original timber beams. Here the use of small 'chinking' stones between larger blocks is strikingly similar to the construction found at distant Chaco Canyon - - to the south in New Mexico. Few places have their original plaster covering and wall decorations. What we see today is bare walls. Researchers have found a few un-eroded sections that show that earth tones with off-white and reddish-brown colors were favored. Wall paintings and designs were commonly used.

We returned the following day to complete the third tour, Balcony House (Photos above). This smaller ruin of 35 to 40 rooms overlooks Soda Canyon. This tour took us in via a 32-foot ladder (Right photo) and through a narrow entrance tunnel to view the site's unique cantilevered balcony. Here you get to climb and scramble as you explore. So if someone asks us, "Which tour was the best?", we would answer that they were all three not-to-be missed. Each was distinctive. Long House is the second largest and has its own spring water source. Cliff Palace is impressively big and has the lots of ladders to climb. And smaller Balcony House has its namesake feature, the secure tunnel entrance, and the giant ladder. We also made it to some of the Park's other attractions such as the Petroglyph Trail, Spruce House ruins (This Quicktime VR page takes a little while to load), and the museum.
Its time to leave this great area . . . on to warmer hikes. By the way, pack plenty of water, good advice for anywhere in the southwest.
Created by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 1/99
Updated, 6/00
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