It was a warm July afternoon on the mesa just as it has been for thousands of July afternoons. Living here, off of the land, in 2017 would be a difficult life. The summers are hot; temperatures close to 100°F are not uncommon. As the top of the mesas are fairly high, the winters can be very cold. Water is the key to life here today as it always has been. It is fairly scarce, and the rains are few and unpredictable. The area is quite remote other than the surrounding towns of Durango and Cortez, Colorado. Of course, today Mesa Verde National Park can be accessed quite easily by car as the park entrance is only about a 30 minute drive from either Cortez or Durango. The drive to the top of the mesas can be another hour or so. For just a minute I would like you to imagine what life might have been like here nearly 1000 years ago.
There were no paved highways, no cities or towns. Durango and Cortez could not have even been imagined. There was no running water, and the modern conveniences and tools that we take for granted today were not even envisioned in those days. There was no sunscreen for protection from the ever-present high altitude UV rays. There were no tractors with which to pull farm implements; in fact there were not even horses. The modern horse was introduced to North America when the Spanish explorers came in the 1500s. Your tools would’ve consisted of simple carved sticks, stone implements that you had to make yourself, and some simple tools made from animal bones. For protection you had a primitive bow and arrow in the later days. Prior to that you would have fashioned an atlatl — a type of throwing stick/spear. You had to make all of your clothing, and either hunt or grow all of your food. Hopefully now you can experience the feeling of this place when you join me on my tour.
Mesa Verde means green table in Spanish. The Spaniards named these mountains to be mesas for their flat-topped shape. While it is a harsh environment, at the higher elevations there is quite a bit of vegetation. Driving in from the park entrance we steadily gain altitude, and before too long we are on top of the mesa. This is where the first settlers in this land lived before they moved under the cliffs. Sometime around the middle 500s the first natives to this area moved on to these mesa tops and began to carve out a living with a combination of simple farming, hunting and gathering. Their first homes were constructed of sticks covered in clay type mud which made a type of hard sided shelter known as a pit house. The dwelling was constructed partially underground. Remember that this is a very vertical land, and there were no wheeled carts or wagons as they would not have worked anyway.
As we were driving deeper into the park across the mesas, we caught our first glimpse of a very small, unnamed cliff dwelling.
No one knows why the ancestral pueblo people decided to move from their homes atop the mesas to the cliffs under the mesas. But this movement happened after the ancient ones had built their pit houses and subsequent pueblo type buildings on the mesa tops. Over the centuries the building skills improved dramatically with the homes evolving from the simple pit houses to multi-story stone buildings quite similar to the pueblos that are still seen today in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Perhaps they realized that the cliffs offered better shelter. Perhaps the need for more security arose, and the cliffs were more defensible. Most likely it was a combination of all of the above.
Imagine living in this small building complex. Multiple times every day, you would be climbing up to the mesa top to get your crops, to hunt, and perhaps to find water in all kinds of weather. Anyone who has negotiated the southwestern US sandstone knows how slippery it can be when wet. Sometimes the valley floor was hundreds of feet below. Now imagine those trips without modern climbing aides. This was a hard life.
We finally arrived at the trailhead for Step House. Step House is located only about a mile from the paved parking lot near the end of Wetherill Mesa. This is a less popular portion of the park, and as our time was short, we thought we might be able to see more rather than fighting the crowds and the traffic.
The hike down to Step House takes one through varied vegetation and terrain. Step House is tucked away in a secluded cliff alcove that is mostly in the shade in the middle of the day. It was very comfortable in there compared to the heat on the top of the mesa. Perhaps we have just solved one of the mysteries as to why the ancient ones moved under the cliffs — shelter, especially from the summer sun. Step House is one of the smaller cliff dwellings, but it does contain enough room for several families. Step House is also unique as it contains the restored remains of an ancient pit house as well as the stone cliff houses. Tree ring dating places this under the cliff pit house at around 620 AD. So, now we know that some of the ancient ones had already moved under the cliffs 600 years prior to the main cliff house construction. The stone buildings under the cliffs were mostly constructed after about 1150. And by 1300 they were all gone.
The trail leaving Step House winds around the other side of the cliff and ends up back on top of the mesa. There were some interesting photographic opportunities. Yucca plants were abundant on the trail, and were even growing on the side of the rocks. As we were in the park in July, the yucca’s had already bloomed. However, the fruits were ripening on the plants. The yucca fruits would’ve been a nice nutritious snack for the ancient ones. Farming on the mesa tops produced goods crops of corn, beans and squash. In good years the harvests were bountiful, but in bad years the crops would have been quite sparse. Even in the best years, the high elevations make for short summers and short growing seasons. Think for a moment about the challenge of feeding your family and storing enough food to get you through the long winter and spring for just a moment.
After Step House we decided to take another trail to an overlook of a large cliff dwelling known as Nordenskiöld (pronounced nor den ski uld). This cliff house is a fairly large dwelling which would’ve housed many families and also contained many rooms for grain and other food storage. This cliff dwelling is named for its European discoverer, and has not been restored. The photographs that you will see were taken from the overlook across from the cliff palace. It is my understanding that there is no public trail open to go directly to the cliff dwelling. The trail winds around through the burned area on the top of the mesa, so again there were some interesting photographic opportunities. Step House was the first major cliff dwelling that we saw on our tour, and the Nordenskiöld palace dwarfed it.
Now that you can see the larger perspective as to how high above the valley floors these cliff houses are perched, please consider again the daily rituals of climbing up and over the mesa tops. One small misstep could be fatal. Life was not easy for these people. And of course, what good would having a wheeled cart be in this totally vertical world?
On our return trip we met a park ranger on patrol, and she turned out to be an absolute wealth of information. I asked her why I had seen no cedar or juniper trees in the burn areas from over 30 years ago. She told us that those trees can take over 50 years to begin to re-populate after a major fire. Several grasses and other shrub type plants move in first. As the soil conditions gradually change, then eventually the juniper and cedar move back into those areas. She mentioned that if we looked out across the mesa that the mature trees we were seeing were anywhere between 300 and 500 plus years old. Those trees grow very slowly in this type of climate conditions. The ranger also mentioned that given the climate changes we are seeing, no one is sure if the juniper and cedar forests would ever come back. This made me very sad.
I had also asked her about the great migration from the cliff dwellings around 1300. I specifically wanted to know if the experts thought that the ancient ones were related to the modern Navajo or other southwestern tribes. She told us that DNA evidence shows a strong relationship to the Hopi, the Ute, the Zuni, and a few others. However, the Navajo are not closely related as they had moved into the region later from other areas.
On our way back from the Nordenskiöld palace we came upon a wild horse, an older mare who was seeking some shelter among some small trees. As we had been walking along with the ranger during this time, we asked her about the horse as it seemed quite tame for a wild horse. I have encountered other wild horses in the West deserts of Utah, and they seldom let you get within 20 to 30 yards of them. The ranger mentioned that the local tribes frequently let their horses go into the wild if they do not have enough provisions to care for them. She said it was impossible to know whether this horse was born in the wild or had perhaps been someone’s property at some point in its earlier life. The ranger did tell us that the horses here are fairly accustomed to people from the park traffic, so it is not unusual to see her this close-up.
This horse stayed around us for quite some time. She was fairly close to a restroom building, and we had taken a break there to refill our waters before we decided to hike to the overlook for Long House. As we headed downward on the gentle slope towards the Long House cut off trail she was shadowing us off the side of the main trail. As we watched her more closely we noticed that she was limping rather badly. While I was photographing her, she looked at me directly. We had a communication, and I have a feeling that herr time here may be short. Perhaps she was trying to tell us to not forget about her. As a side note, we did not see her on our return from the Long House overlook.
Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. It is nearly equal in size to the Cliff Palace and fills a 298 foot long alcove from end to end. The village has about 150 rooms as well as 21 kivas and a row of upper storage rooms. It may have housed as many as 175 people. According to the park literature there are architectural features in Long House would suggest that it may have been a public gathering place for people from all over Wetherill Mesa and perhaps other locations. Long House is perched very high at the end of a steep cliff.
The people who inhabited these dwellings so many centuries ago were certainly adventurous and strong. They were excellent masons, and constructed elaborate and intricate structures which are still standing over 700 to 800 years later. It appears their entire lives were focused around these mesa tops, and their climbing skills were nearly incomprehensible. Scaling these faces with modern gear is one thing, but living amongst these cliffs on a daily basis and all types of weather and conditions is almost unimaginable to me. The women were even more amazing as they not only carried themselves up and down these cliff faces, but they did their chores and food preparation while also caring their children along with them. The ancient people who inhabited these mesas and built their cities in these cliffs were simply amazing. They not only eked out a living in the harshest conditions imaginable, but they built communities and raised many generations of families. Their structures are still standing today after being uninhabited for over 700 years. We know these cultures traded profusely with their counterparts in Mexico and South America. We know these people had a sophisticated knowledge of time, the seasons and the movement of the sun and the moon. After spending the day in this wonderful park, I am in complete awe at how much these people accomplished with so little to work with.