Wednesday – October 15, 2014
Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace Loop
A bright, sunny morning greeted us as we prepared for a self-guided tour of Mesa Verde. The temperature is forecast to be in the mid-seventies.
Mesa Verde National Park offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 550 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
The museum has many wonderful exhibits and dioramas that trace the development of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Exhibits include artifacts discovered among the ruins: tools used for hunting, clothing, footwear, basketweaving, pottery, and an exhibit of birds that inhibit this area. The museum also provides visitors with an introductory movie.
Open to self-guided tours, spring through fall. In winter, rangers lead tours, weather and trail conditions permitting. Spruce House is the parks best-preserved cliff dwelling.
Open to ranger-guided hikes only and requires climbing four ladders. It is visible from several overlooks on Mesa Top Loop.
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It is considered the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park. Around 800 years ago the dwelling was inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo people. From the rimtop overlooks, the collection of rooms, plazas, and towers fits perfectly into the sweeping sandstone overhang that has protected it since the thirteenth century.
The construction of Cliff Palace occurred in the 20 years between A.D. 1260-1280. Many of the building stones were shaped by hand, using harder quartzite hammer stones. Water was mixed with sand, clay, and ash to make mortar used to plaster the rock walls. About 150 rooms – living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces and 21 kivas – were eventually built.
Open to ranger-guided hikes only and requires climbing a long ladder and crawling through a short tunnel. It is visible from an overlook on Mesa Top Loop.
Balcony House is one of the best preserved sites in the park. The village offers a stunning view down into Soda Canyon, a tribbutary of the Mancos River, and displays intriguing architectural features: balconies, a long parapet wall, and a tunnel.
The builders of Balcony House, Ancestral Pueblo people, were farmers who lived and grew crops on the mesa tops until A.D. 1300. Beginning about A.D. 1200, many chose to build their homes in cliff-side alcoves. The Ancestral Pueblo people raised turkeys, and stored corn, beans, and squash to last through the long winters. They also had a keen knowledge of the uses of wild plants and animals.
Balcony House is a typical Mesa Verde cliff dwelling: it’s a medium-sized two-story masonry structure, with 38 rooms, and two kivas that divide the site into three plazas or courtyards.
Preservation and monitoring at Balcony House continues today. Park crews still work at the site, protecting the floors and walls from the effects of normal weathering and movement, and the thousands of curious visitors who enter Balcony House each year.
Around A.D. 1300, most of the people who had made this region the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture for centuries had moved on. Insights into their decisions to move away come from numerous sources. Tree ring records shows a long drought at the end of the 1200s, when crops would have shriveled and springs would have dried up. Evidence from ancient trash implies people were eating fewer large animals and more small animals at that time.
Whatever the combination of environmental and social stresses that led them to leave this area, they took many of their traditions, architectural skills, and artistic skills to their new homes. By all evidence, their decendants are the modern pueblo peoples of the Hopi villages in northern Arizona, and the peoples of Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico. For many of today’s pueblo people, Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde are special places, the homes of their ancestors.
Tomorrow another adventure begins.