After leaving the Grand Canyon, we made the relatively short drive (by our standards at this point in the trip) east through Arizona, quickly through New Mexico (with a stop for lemonade and Navajo Fry bread at Four Corners National Monument) and into Colorado for our visit of Mesa Verde National Park. We decided to give it one day, thinking it was a small park and we could probably manage seeing a good deal of it in that time. As soon as we stepped into the visitors center, I decided the place really needed a lot more time than that.
This national park is unlike any of the others I have been to in the west. Rather than having a main focus of nature, you have the focus of an ancient people and what they were able to build in cliffs and the preservation of those structures which have stood the test of 1000+ years in some cases. It is amazing the societies the ancient Puebloans were building during this time in history.
While we were in the visitor’s center we had a chat with a park ranger, picked up a park newspaper and got in line to make reservations for the following morning. Reservations for tours are $4 per person per tour, but they are guided by park rangers who tell stories of the people and the structures. After chatting with the ranger at the visitor’s center, we decided on one tour – the Balcony House. This tour requires you to climb up a 34′ ladder into the house, up another small ladder, then through a tunnel out to 2 more ladders and a cliff face. The kids had no problem and were thrilled by the prospect. The adults were a little more skeptical, but it proved to be no problem. Although I will admit that 34′ seemed a lot less when we were talking about it, than we were face to face with it.
Once you were up in the house, the views up and down the canyon were stunning. And this is where the stories of the ancient Puebloan People began for us. Balcony House was built in 1240ad and was one of the later structures by all accounts. Timbers had been reused from other structures in the building of Balcony House and they have dated them back to 1070ad. From what the Ranger told us, this was one of the newer houses built and abandoned. The Pueblo People left the area around 1300ad.
We learned about the importance of their kivas, and how they were like our living rooms. This is where families came together to celebrate or make important family decisions. One of the final decisions made in these kivas was the decision to leave the area. As our ranger said, “if you ask any of the relatives of these ancient people why they left, they will give the same simple answer – it was just time to go.”
There is also some amazing ancient technology in the up drafts they developed to bring fresh air into the structure. We were in awe of the resiliency, ingenuity, and strength of the people who called this area home for 700 years.
Working your way through this cliff dwelling you get to use the same “steps” as the early inhabitants, which is quite humbling. We learned about the “safety” aspects of the homes and where things were stored. We saw where they slept and where they cooked. It was incredible and I wish I had been on other tours! Our Ranger and the stories he told we fantastic!
After our tour of the amazing Balcony House, we decided to do a driving tour of the park so we could see a few more things before heading back down the hill to get the trailers and make our way towards Moab, Utah.
One of the first things we stopped to see was Square Tower House. This is a very short hike from the parking area down to the view point and gives a great view of another style of cliff dwelling.
After that we drove to the view point for Cliff Palace. Next time, we will do this tour for sure. If you look closely at my picture below you will see a bunch of dots around it, and that is one of the tours going through. This is the cliff dwelling everyone sees in the pamphlets and pictures, and there is a very good reason for that – it is spectacular! From this view point you not only see Cliff Palace, but you see 8 other dwellings – some are very well hidden. If you have binoculars bring them, otherwise you will fight with your kids over the nice big view finders they have stationed there (they will hog them, it is just a fact, but they will say you are hogging them too, which you probably are). It is just so amazing you can’t stop looking!
After we finished our driving tour, and all of the various activities for the Jr. Ranger Packets, we headed to the Park Museum to get the newest Mesa Verde Jr. Rangers sworn in. The Museum is really well done too. You can see how things were built, different artifacts the archaeologists have found, taxidermied animals who call the mesa home, and more.
For this trip we stayed at a campground outside of the National Park, but next time we come for a visit I will stay inside the park the the Morefield campground. We enjoyed our stay at A & A Mesa Verde however, but the Morefield Campground puts you inside the park and gives you a different experience. We didn’t have a chance to check it out, but there is a village near the campground which gives you plenty of amenities which I am sure we would have enjoyed.
This is a real gem in our National Park System and one we will get back to for sure. The whole place is very humbling and inspiring and truly incredible. I would recommend it to anyone!