During the 7th Century, while Mohammed was busy starting the Islamic religion, the [would-be] Koreans were perfecting Tae-Kwon-Do, Europe was heading into the Dark Ages, China was hard at work making the world’s 1st books, and quill pens were the iPhones of the times, there were actually some things happening in America, too.
Who knew, right? Not me. Either I slept through every history class I’ve ever taken, or Oregon public schools simply didn’t find it very important for me to know much of what was happening to the ancient people of what would be the United States. Granted, I didn’t learn about the beginnings of Tae-Kwon-Do, either, but I couldn’t resist adding that fun fact.
In the American Southwest, in an area that is referred to as the Four Corners Region (meaning where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet), an ancient civilization was also taking off. This civilization is often referred to as the Anasazi.
The term “Anasazi” is actually no longer considered correct. Archaeologists originally used the term because it is the Navajo word for “ancient foreigners.” However, the Anasazi are believed to be descendants of several Puebloan tribes currently in the Southwest, and the Puebloan people wonder why the word for their ancestors actually means “enemy” in their language.
So they prefer for their ancestors to be referred to as “Ancestral Puebloan People.” Seems fair.
And when they left in the 1200’s, they left ruins of their civilization behind for us to find almost 700 years later (the ruins were discovered by a couple of cowboys in the late 1880’s). Mesa Verde National Park is in Southwestern Colorado just outside of Cortez.
Since I was determined to be way more prepared for this visit to Mesa Verde National Park than I was for our spontaneous stop at Petrified Forest National Park, I had read up on their website to see what all we needed to see. I saw that there were ranger-guided tours that allowed you inside the ancient cliff dwellings at the park. Um, hellooo. Yes, please! There are a few different options regarding the guided tours: you can visit the Long House, the Spruce Tree House, the Balcony House, or the Cliff Palace. Or all of them if you have the time and desire!
Because we were visiting so late in the season (October), the Cliff Palace was already closed for the winter. I researched the other tours and decided that the Long House tour would be the best fit for our little family.
I also read that the tours fill up quickly so be sure to get there early in the morning.
They were not kidding.
We arrived at the visitor center parking lot at 8:05 a.m. Five minutes after the park opened. We walked in, Kevin went straight to the line for tour tickets while I chased the toddler around the visitor center (toddlers hate standing in line), and the people ahead of us got the last tickets for the Long House tour.
Getting there at 8:05 is five minutes too late.
We asked about the other tours. The Spruce Tree House tour wasn’t available due to unstable conditions (yikes). The Cliff Palace was closed for the season. That left us with the Balcony House.
The Balcony House is listed as the most physically challenging site to get to. It involves a climb up a 36-foot primitive ladder, another 9-foot ladder, scary-steep “steps” carved into the face of the cliff, and a tunnel that you have to crawl through that is 9-feet long but only 24-inches square in some spots. Bigger people have to literally wriggle through it. There is a “practice tunnel” in the visitor center if you are worried about claustrophobia or if you simply wont fit. The Balcony House tour is not recommended for people with heart conditions, respiratory problems, joint problems, etc.
Kevin was all, “Sounds awesome, sign us all up. Can I bring my toddler?”
We got into the very last tour of the day, scheduled for noon, so we had a few hours to kill. The ranger gave us a map and suggested that we go on a self-guided tour through the park and visit some of the other ruins until it was time for our tour.
First piece of advice for anyone wanting to visit: Make sure you top-off the fuel in your vehicle before driving through the park. Fill up in Cortez. It takes almost an entire hour of drive time from the visitor center to the “hub” of where most of the archaeological sites are. The only fuel in the park is at the campgrounds, which are near the visitor center, so not particularly helpful. Luckily, we were fine with 3/4 of a tank, but definitely don’t show up on 1/8 of a tank and expect to get there.
Mesa Verde means “green table” for those of you who chose to take French in High School instead of Spanish (like, ahem, moi). The mesa top is where the Ancestral Puebloan people farmed. Early people (like in the 550’s and 600’s) also lived on the mesa tops. Carbon dating shows that by the A.D. 1000’s, they had started to move their villages under the overhanging cliffs to take advantage of nature. So the oldest sites aren’t even cliff dwellings. They are scattered across the mesa tops and are easily accessible to visit by car.
As you are driving along, keep a lookout for a little brown sign announcing the presence of a site. There is space on the side of the road to pull over. When you see one, pull over. I cannot express enough how much you do not want to miss these.
The National Park Service built these huge buildings over the archaeological sites to protect them from further damage from the elements. Even with the buildings, and being literally 20 yards from the main road, these are impossible to spot without the assistance of the signs.
We were very fortunate that we were there early enough, and during an “off-season” time, that we usually had these sites to ourselves to explore.
One of the many pit houses. This one dates to 600 AD, although archaeologists and carbon-dating indicate that the pits have been remodeled and the stones re-purposed up until the 1200’s. There is a short walking loop that brings you to two others on this same path.
The Ancestral Puebloan people dug these pits in the grounds, called kivas (kee-VAH). Like many other things in archaeology, their purpose is debated between archaeologists and generally considered to be speculation. On one hand, they could have lived in these, which would protect the people from the elements and camouflage them from the outside enemies (the original kivas had roofs and blended into the environment). On the other hand, many archaeologists believe that the kivas were used for religious ceremonies or for political meetings.
(I’m over here wondering why they couldn’t have been multi-purpose, since they had to be a royal pain to build, but I am also not an archaeologist.)
One of the more primitive kivas, this one features the usual fire pit and sipapu.
The kivas are very traditionally laid out. The doorway tunnel faces the South. The fire pit is in the center, and towards the North is a small hole called a sipapu (see-PAH-poo).
The modern-day Hopi tell sacred stories of the sipapu as a place where humans emerged from the earth, from the 3rd World into the 4rd World. Different tribes believe their sipapus, or places of emergence into this world, are in different places, such as from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. As such, archaeologists believe it is why the sipapu was traditionally dug into the kiva floors, as a religious symbol to never forget their origins.
The ranger read us the Hopi sacred story about the significance of the sipapu. I thought it was very charming, not unlike the story of Adam and Eve, and there is no way I can do it justice by paraphrasing, so that is something you will just have to Google.
A larger, more-modern pit house. Also, the ruins above-ground indicate that there may have been towers built. This is part of an entire village. The different rings of the kivas intersect, also indicating a lot of remodeling happened to the kivas as the village grew.
A more advanced kiva. The fire pit as the main feature, and now there is a stone in front of the ventilation tunnel to deflect the wind. This caused the wind to circulate around the kiva and push the smoke out of the side vents and the top without disturbing the fire itself. Next to the fire pit is where they ground their corn, and, of course, in straight alignment with the door and fire pit is the sipapu hole. Also noteworthy is the introduction of benches along the outside all for people to sit.
Not all ruins were under ground, either. The Sun Temple is a large structure across the canyon from the Cliff Palace. Again, archaeologists aren’t sure what the purpose of the Sun temple was, but they do know that it was built to last. The masonry was very advanced for the time period and it has withstood the last 700 years very well.
Looking through a window of the Sun Temple.
Sun Temple gutter system for water runoff.
After visiting the Sun Temple, we decided to head over to the Balcony House for our tour. We were a bit early, but seeing as how I was much more prepared this time around, I had packed us lunch, so we decided to eat before we went on our tour.
Sadly, there is no view of the Balcony House unless you are in it. I would have liked to see what it looked like from the other side of the canyon (Soda Canyon), but currently there is no access to the other side.
Our tour guide was awesome. Her name was Jan, and she had been an archaeologist for 20 years before semi-retiring to work for the National Parks system, so she was a wealth of information.
She started off the tour giving us all of the warnings: no heart problems, no joint problems, probably shouldn’t go if you are scared of heights or claustrophobic. If you get to the first ladder (which is 36 feet high) and decide that you can’t do it, that is your time to turn back, because once you go up the ladder, there is no going back down. You have to finish the tour. Altitude sickness and dehydration are also very real possibilities at an altitude of 7000 feet.
We tossed the toddler in the hiking backpack and said, “let’s do it.”
We were not the only ones on the tour with little kids, though. Someone even had an infant in one of those Kangaroo packs, so I felt better.
And now, a bombardment of photos:
Our tour descending to the trail that will take us to the Balcony House
Kevin and the kiddo in “the baby packer.” Caleb, fortunately, loves being in the baby packer. probably because he is up high and can see everything.
The ladder we had to go up to get to the Balcony House. It wasn’t terrible, but I did discover that when people say, “just don’t look down,” there is a reason they say that. It’s oh so very true.
Before we got up the ladder, we had to stop to learn about a natural phenomenon known as a Sandstone Spring. The rainwater landed on top of the mesa, watering the crops, and then seeped into the ground, was filtered by the many many layers of sandstone, and came out of little “springs” under the cliff edge. This was the Ancestral Puebloan People’s main source of fresh drinking water.
Watch your children: there is no railing. There is floor and cliff. Even the kivas are unprotected, and 30-feet deep with a stone floor. Don’t fall in. That might hurt. Plus, I’m not sure, but I think bleeding in a federally-protected archaeological site is highly frowned-upon.
Original timbers that used to support a balcony. Hence the name “Balcony House.”
According to modern-day Puebloan people, they still use balconies to make important announcements or to perform special ceremonies.
One of the two Balcony House kivas. They estimate that about 30 people, or 2 extended families, lived in the Balcony House.
Random people on our tour… I never got tourist-free photos of some of the features. That’s what happens when your tour group has 30 people in it.
See where the sandstone has turned black on the walls? That is apparently what happens when the oils from human hands constantly touch the sandstone. it turns black over time. That is why the rangers ask that you not touch anything; to preserve the architectural integrity of the ruins.
How to get out, Part 1 (Okay, the ranger asked us to hold onto that corner so we didn’t fall).
How to get out, Part 2: You have to crawl through a tiny tunnel under that wall, and if you look closely through the “window,” you can see yet another ladder on the other side.
Tight squeeze, but we made it out! We had to take the kiddo out of the baby packer and send him through the tunnel after Mom. He was all over it.
How to get out, part 3: Once out of the tunnel, you scale another ladder, then scramble up the face of the cliff with these scary-ass steps that were carved into the cliff face. The National Park service had to carve them bigger than they were originally due to modern-day people’s much larger feet… No fancy camera angles, this is literally how steep it was. Hang onto the chains.
This was absolutely worth the trip. I would have happily paid 5x as much as they actually charge for the tour. It was amazing.
Now we can’t wait to go back and take the other tours (see? The Bucket List rabbit-hole).
Of course, if you visit, you can’t miss stopping at the Far View Terrace for their Navajo Tacos. Soooo yummy. Fry bread as big as your head, chili, stewed seasoned chicken or pork (we both preferred the pork), and whatever toppings you want. A word of advice: one taco will easily feed two people. We each got one and couldn’t finish them. The fry bread/chili combo definitely makes the taco. Sadly, we didn’t get a photo because we were too busy stuffing our faces.
But definitely, definitely visit.