Mesa Verde has fascinated me since I learned about it in grade school. It it a mysterious place, and we don’t know exactly what happened here. People lived here for hundreds of years, but they lived on the flat land on top of the mesas. They started out living in simple pit houses, and over time developed more and more sophisticated pueblo structures, and eventually villages. The pit houses never went away, and became kivas, used for ceremonial and religious purposes to this day.

The people, now known as Ancestral Puebloans, had developed a pretty sophisticated culture on top of the mesas. But abruptly, and for reasons we don’t entirely understand, they started building elaborate dwellings in the cliffs. These settlements would be easier to defend than the ones above. Were they under some threat?

Even more mysteriously, they only lived in these dwellings for about one hundred years, then abruptly abandoned them. After all the work constructing them, why would they leave? Did climate change and over-farming make the land unproductive? Maybe this is a lesson we should heed. One of the most fascinating sites here is the enigmatic sun temple. This huge structure was built in the last years before the people left, and was probably unfinished. Why would they abandon such a big, unfinished project? Could this have been a final, failed appeal to the gods?

Walking among the ruins of Cliff Palace.
Walking among the ruins of Cliff Palace.

The ranger who led the tour of the most famous and photographed site, Cliff Palace, couldn’t answer these questions definitely, because there is no way to be certain. He was passionate about the place, the people, and the history, and told us the most likely theories. The mandatory tour, required to protect the delicate site, was only $4. Once again I was impressed with the rangers and the National Park Service.

When you see a picture of Mesa Verde, it’s likely of Cliff Palace, but this isn’t the only cliff dwelling here. Unfortunately, I arrived two days after most of the other sites closed for the season. The upshot was I had the place mostly to myself. So I went on a self-guided driving tour to the other dwellings. The beautiful Spruce House was still open, and had a ranger on hand to answer questions. I was even able to climb into a kiva.

Walking among the dwellings felt like being in a little city. The sense of history was palpable. To think people used to live there lives here was exciting. The museum was interesting, and was an exhibit itself. The dioramas were made during the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps workers. There were no instruction manuals on how to create miniatures at the time, so a lot of improvising was done.

Spruce House in the fall foliage.
Spruce House in the fall foliage.

People come here to see the cliff dwellings, but there are many archeological sites on top of the mesas, and I visited all that I could. It made me a little sad that most people don’t even bother to stop. Sure, these sites were mainly just holes in the ground, but you can still use them to learn about the development of pueblo architecture.

And Mesa Verde isn’t just about archeology. The mesas are set among a beautiful valley. The top is covered with forest, but like many of our national parks, much of it is burned. In Yellowstone new trees were growing, but it just looked like scorched earth here. A ranger sadly explained that Utah junipers would take 300 years to regrow. I walked among the cliff tops to some ancient petroglyphs, or rock carvings. Some attempts have been made to decipher them, but there’s no way to know for sure what they mean.

Mesa Verde was a nice change of pace because of its ancient mysteries. I didn’t have trouble filling a day and a half here. I could have spent another day if all the sites were open. Two more national parks, and my tour would be over.

In an ancient city.
In an ancient city.
What a place to live!
What a place to live!
Terry
I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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