On our way to Mesa Verde National Park we paid $5 per person to enter the Four Corners. We took one another’s picture while sitting where the borders of four states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) intersect and used the toilets provided by the Navajo Nation. Booths surround the site where Navajo artisans sell handmade jewelry, crafts, and Navajo traditional foods.

Long House

Long House

At the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center we purchased tour tickets for Long House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House. We learned that the park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people. There are 600 cliff dwellings and more than 4,500 archeological sites. It took more than an hour to navigate the sharp curves and steep grades of the 29-mile park road to the Wetherill Mesa Information Booth. Our tour began with a safety talk followed by a short ride on a tram powered by biodiesel fuel to a trailhead where we then descended 50 concrete steps to Long House. This cliff dwelling has about 150 rooms and is considered the second-largest village. It was excavated between 1959 and 1961 as part of the Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project. Much of the floor sloped sharply downward making construction difficult. Expansion upward and outward tested engineering techniques. We climbed two 15 foot ladders and could see two overhead ledges, one seemed to include an overlook with small holes in the wall. An unusually large kiva seems to indicate special significance for this site. A spring is accessible within several hundred feet and steeps are located in the rear of the alcove. To exit we climbed about 130 feet. Because of the lateness of the hour and the threat of rain (which materialized), we did not fully explore the tram route to Kodak House and Badger House nor did we take the Step House self-guided walk.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

We started our second day with a tour of Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. There have many changes since I visited this site 33 years ago. Instead of being a crowded free-for-all, tickets are now required for a one-hour ranger led tour for 40 visitors. We were asked not to bring gum, food, or sugary drinks into the site and to respect the architecture by not touching it. We now call the inhabitants Ancestral Puebloans not Anasazi. It wasn’t until around 1200 that people living on the mesas moved down into alcoves. The construction occurred in a short period of time, only about twenty years. And, they stayed for less than 100 years. Cliff Palace continues to be the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park. It is located in an alcove that 89 feet deep and 59 feet high. The complex is 288 feet long with 150 rooms and 23 kivas. We needed to climb four ladders. Current speculation considers that the 100 to 120 people who lived here may have been “caretakers” who looked after the stored crops. There may have been seasonal gatherings in the large courtyards that could accommodate another two hundred people. Why the people left continues to be a haunting question.

Balcony House

Balcony House

Balcony House, with 38 rooms and two kivas in a two-story masonry structure, is physically the most challenging of the ranger-led tours. It requires climbing three long ladders (one 32-feet, and two10-feet), navigating a steep 60-foot open cliff face with stone steps, and crawling through a narrow 18 inch wide 12-foot long tunnel. This alcove is 39 feet deep and 20 feet high. The complex is 264 feet long and 600 feet above Soda Canyon. A spring at the back of the alcove was probably the main water source. We later took the 1.2 mile Soda Canyon Overlook Trail for a distant view of Balcony House.

At the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum we viewed an introductory movie and looked at dioramas and artifacts. We then drove the Mesa Top Loop. We stopped at the Square Tower House Overlook, the Pithouses, and the Sun Temple. The Square Tower House, with the tallest structure in the park, had 60 rooms and 8 kivas. Stabilization of the Tower is ongoing. The Fire Temple Overlook allowed us to see the Dance Plaza and New Fire House. As we waited for the Cliff Palace tour in the morning we heard drumming from a ceremony at the Sun Temple. During our stop there, we were able to get good views of Cliff Palace. The Sun Temple was likely going to be a ceremonial structure but wasn’t completed before the people abandoned the area. Our final stop as we exited the park was the Park Point Overlook where the employee in the fire lookout was busy looking for lightning strikes. Because of the rain we missed “one of the grandest and most extensive views in the country.” Nevertheless, Mesa Verde National Park has earned its status as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

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