Mesa Verde


The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is literally a textbook example of the ancient Puebloan people, inspiring wonder and a sense of amazement at what ancient men wrought. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed this area as the first National Park to “preserve the works of man”. But the cliff dwellings are a small part of the story to be told here.

Archeologists tell us that the the Ancestral Puebloans began to settle this area in around 400 AD.  By 550 AD they were building pit houses along the rim. These were dug out several feet below the surface with the rest of the structure being above ground. What remains are the excavated dugouts and stone used in the construction.

By 750 AD , construction methods changed to above ground pueblos.

Each Puebloan settlement continued to include recessed structures known as kivas.  The kiva is a round structure with pillars evenly spaced around the room a slightly higher the head level. Three layers of logs were then stacked to support the timber roof, which was then covered with earth.

Early examples are mainly earthen.

While later examples are masonry.

Heat was provided by a fire within the kiva. Fresh air was provided by a tunnel from the surface that entered at the lower edge of the wall.

A flat stone offered the fire protection from strong drafts, thus decreasing the smoke from the fire.

The smoke then exited the kiva via a square hole in the roof, this same hole being used as the kiva’s entrance.

It appears that kivas were originally used as dwellings and later took on more of a religious significance.

During this time period, the Ancestral Puebloans also began to build towers, probably as lookouts, which were often found adjacent to the kivas.

They also built reservoirs to capture runoff from rain and melting snow.

Around 1100 AD, there was a region wide move from the mesa tops to the canyons and cliff dwellings. It is these that Mesa Verde is best known for.

The cliff alcoves were created by water gradually wearing away at the sandstone causing it to collapse. This collapsed stone was used to construct the cliff dwellings, with adobe mortar holding them together.

Much of the common architectural forms were still in use, such as pit-houses, kivas and towers, but would be adapted to fit within the alcoves with no space spared.

Access to these sites was vertically down from the rim, via shallow hand and toe holds chiseled in the rock face.

By this time, the Ancestral Puebloans had a vast civilization with trade goods coming in from both coasts and as far south as Central America. It has been suggested that their development rivaled the Aztecs.

By 1300 AD, Mesa Verde (and most of the surrounding area as well) was deserted. Several causes have been advanced for this. There was a regional drought that lasted 24 years. There is also evidence of deforestation and the resulting loss of wild game. And the construction of the easily defensible cliff dwellings suggest danger from other groups.

Of the over 4700 archeological sites within Mesa Verde about 600 of them are cliff dwellings. Many of these can be send while driving along the cliff rim.

We arrived at Mesa Verde early in the morning and were able to take the first tour of the Cliff Palace, which we think is the best time to go, as our small group had the dwelling to ourselves. As we drove the rim later in the day, we saw there were three groups visiting at a time.

We then saw Spruce Tree House, which is where we were able to see and enter a reconstructed kiva.

After viewing the museum, where Kathryn received her first junior ranger badge, we drove around the rim to see the earlier sites and view the cliff dwellings across the canyon.

One of the rangers told us that this late in the season, the crowds had dwindled from the almost overwhelming numbers during the summer months. I preferred the quiet offered by visiting this time of the year. It made it easier to contemplate the vast civilization these people built and feel the impact of their loss. What must it have felt like to have built all this, to have spent hundreds of years in this beautiful location and then to walk away, leaving, never to return? History is replete with like examples, but here at Mesa Verde we can easily see their loss. Man dreams, builds and advances, but nothing lasts. We are indeed chasing after the wind on this earth.

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One Response

  1. Amanda says:

    Lovely post. One of the places we plan to visit next summer and this post got me excited! I found your blog a few weeks ago. My husband and I also travel and live in an airstream so it’s always fun for us to find others living out the same lifestyle. Can’t wait to see where you travel next.

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