Friday, May 5, 2017

Four Corners, Mesa Verde and Anasazi Heritage Center

Seems like this spring we are on a mission to check items off our bucket list. We did the Trinity Site and VLA in Socorro, then Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation. Mesa Verde is another place that was high on our list when we went on the road that circumstances always seemed to cause us to miss.  It is now checked off and was well worth the wait. When we looked for a place to stay near Mesa Verde we found that there was a lot to do around Cortez. The long range forecast looked good so we booked a week. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse, cold and s##w, so we did not get to do all we had planned.  
On our way to Cortez we stopped at Four Corners, the only place in the country where four states; Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, meet. We have been here before but if you look closely at our picture on the left you can see why we needed to return. When we looked at that picture we took on our first visit we noticed that someone was only in three states.
What a perfect entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. In addition to being a national park, Mesa Verde is also a World Heritage Site. While we were only eight miles from the RV park to the entrance and visitors center, it is over 20 miles from there to the cliff dwellings on a road over, under and around this mesa.
The visitors center has a few exhibits and is also a research center for archaeologists.  This is where you buy tickets if you want to get an up close look at the dwellings. Left are pots that have been excavated from the ruins. Most of them are broken beyond repair. The sculpture, center, shows a person using the hand and foot holds cut into the rock climbing to their home. Right are examples of native pottery and jewelry. 
The Chapin Archaeological Museum is the best place to learn about how the Puebloan people lived. They have excellent exhibits about the crops they grew, how they built their homes and the baskets and pottery they made.
These dioramas show how the early people changed from hunters and gatherers, to farmers living in pit houses, to building and living in these impressive structures we see today. These exhibits and many of the park facilities were built by the CCC during the Depression.
There are hundreds of ruins in the area (see Canyon de Chelly post) but only a few have been restored and even fewer are open for visitors. This is Spruce Tree House, the third largest, best preserved and easiest ruin to get to for a self guided tour. The bad news is it is closed because a 2015 geologic assessment found there is a great chance of a rockfall within the site and along the paths. Rockfalls were always a concern of the Puebloans. They would put prayer sticks in any cracks they found. If the stick fell out it was a warning that the crack was getting bigger and in danger of falling.
Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling with 150 rooms and 23 kivas, was discovered in 1888 by two cowboys looking for stray cattle. Over the next 18 years they lead tourists and explorers to the site. These early visitors often slept in the ruins and took artifacts. It was not until 1906 when Mesa Verde became a national park that it became illegal to remove items.  
Cliff Palace today is open to ranger lead tours starting in May. The tour is only a 1/4 mile long but requires climbing five 8 to 10 foot ladders and 120 uneven steps. This sites is undergoing continuing restoration and preservation. 
We opted for the tour of Balcony House and it did not disappoint. This ruin contained 38 rooms and two kivas.  This tour is the most adventurous and after going down a 100 step staircase, it required climbing and crawling to give you a real up close look. You can see the ladder on the right. 
Here is our group going up the 32 foot ladder to get to the ruins. This climb is not for the faint of heart. When people lived here they used hand and foot holds cut into the rock to get in and out.
At the top of the ladder you pass through a narrow tunnel to the main courtyard. Like a house today, they had different rooms for different purposes. The rooms in the background were for storage so they have small entrances and vent holes so the food would not spoil.
The view for Balcony House. While the people lived in these cliff dwellings where they did all the daily jobs we would expect; cooking, weaving, making tools and weapons, they grew their food on the top of the mesa. The building is 600 feet above the canyon floor. 
Kiva Plaza. The Anasazi, Ancestral Pueblo people, had lived and farmed on the mesa going back to 550 AD. They only began to build these cliff dwellings in the alcoves in early 1200 AD. By the early 1300's they had moved. While there is much speculation about why they left, no one knows for sure. It was probably a combination of drought and depletion of resources like wood, soil and water.     
The kiva is a common feature of every Puebloan structure. They were all similar in design being  round and dug into the ground. It would have been covered with a roof made of timbers, juniper bark and mud with a ladder through a hole in the roof to enter. The kiva was used for religious, utilitarian and social purposes. 
All the ruins have black streaks on the ceiling from years of fires. The structures were built using sand stone blocks that were cut with harder stones because they had not metals. The few dwellings that are open for the public have been restored and reinforced to preserve them. 
The roofs of  the buildings were made with logs and fire was a constant danger. Here a fire was so hot that the color of the stone has been permanently changed. 
This is typical of the size of the rooms. Like a modern family each family would have several rooms for various purposes. 
Once you get into the ruins you have to get out. That requires crawling through this narrow tunnel. There is a mock up of this tunnel at the visitors center that people can use to see if they fit before buying tickets for this tour. There are other tours that do not require going through a tunnel.
After the tunnel there are two more 10 to 12 foot ladders to get back to the top. We would recommend the Balcony House tour for anyone who wants a tour that gives you not only an up close look at the ruins but also what it was like for these ancient people to get in and out of their homes.

Below are several ruins that can be viewed from the Mesa Top Loop Road. 
At 28 feet high, Square House Tower is the tallest ruins in Mesa Verde.
This site was used for ceremonies, not for housing.
This one is unique as it was built on two rock shelves. There is some speculation that these structures were built off the mesa because of a threat from outside forces.
The Sun Temple was a religious site built on the top of the mesa.
These ruins are a mesa top Pueblo that was used before they began building the cliff dwellings.
These are ruins of a pit house that the earlier people built before they began building the stone pueblos. They would dig a hole and then erect a roof over the top. Entrance would have been through a hole in the roof. The exhibit on the right and the ones below were at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores that is part of the Canyon of the Ancient National Monument. This national monument, which has hundreds of ruins, is one the current administration wants to review and possibly open to mining and energy companies. 
The center has several excellent exhibits about how the Ancient Pueblo people lived. There is also a special exhibit about the Wetherill family. They are the people who found the ruins in 1888 while looking for their cattle. The center is a great place for an additional look at the story of the ancient Pueblo culture.
The Mesa Verde area is rich with Puebloan history and, unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Canyon of the Ancients because of the weather.  We very much recommend a visit to this beautiful and historic area.     


Jan Mains said...

That's a great review of Mesa Verde. It's been about 8 years since we went and I forgot a lot of it.

heyduke50 said...

Love Mesa Verde... some good craft beer in Cortez, hope you got to partake in some!

Doing It On the Road(Part II) said...

Great post of a special place! We loved our visit there.