I can recall easily the first time I ever saw a photo of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. I was in fourth grade and a large photo of Cliff Palace was featured in my social studies book. I remember being mystified by the photo and started daydreaming about what it would have felt like to live there all those years ago. I remember going to a map to find its location and being disappointed by how far away from Illinois it was. I wondered if I would ever be able to see such a magical place.
I think a great many people are enchanted by the Pueblo cliff dwellings. They are magical and mysterious. The early European settlers were fascinated by stories they heard of abandoned cities carved into the cliff faces. Just as we are intrigued by the ghost towns of the “Old West”, those same settlers were intrigued by the ghost cities hidden in the cliffs. We can’t seem to imagine why a people would build something so remote and beautiful and then why they would also choose to abandon it. It was with these questions in mind that we entered Mesa Verde National Park to spend two days camping, hiking and enjoying the beauty of the cliffs and mesa. We came to finally see those beautiful structures that had intrigued both Justin and I since we were little kids.
Mesa Verde National Park is a massive place. Upon entering the Visitors Center, it takes a good forty-five minutes to an hour to drive to the dwellings. The drive is pretty memorable, crisscrossing over steep mountains and going along the edge of some pretty massive cliff drops. The camping at Mesa Verde was also memorable, with mule deer coming to explore our dinner and an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that was the perfect start to a day of intense hiking.
We were able to tackle three hikes to different cliff dwellings during our time in Mesa Verde: Longhouse, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Each hike was significantly different and each cliff dwelling memorable in its own way. At Longhouse, we were a smaller group and were able to feel the serenity and remoteness of life in the dwelling. The hike down into the cliff dwelling was relatively easy and we were able to see some cool lizards as well as a coyote. Cliff Palace is the most popular in the park because it has the largest amount of complete rooms intact but because of that you have to deal with the large crowds within the dwelling. It is beautiful and with the large group, you felt how crowded it must have felt living in such an active city on a mountainside. Our favorite hike was to Balcony House, where we had to climb a 30 foot ladder and squeeze through a very narrow tunnel on our hands and knees. The cliff dwelling had a lot of interior rooms to explore and the strenuous hike kept away the bigger crowds.
While on the hikes, we learned a great deal about the Pueblo people. We learned about seep holes, which was the water supply for those in the dwellings. Water would get trapped and seep down the backs of the sandstone cliff structures and get caught in little holes within the dwelling so those who lived there could have fresh water. We learned about kivas, which are circular structures that would have acted as religious and community gathering areas for the Pueblo people. We learned about life on the top of the desert mesa, and how fertile the land was for growing corn, which helped the community flourish. Corn became the life blood of the people living on the mesa tops as well as in the cliff dwellings and was the center of lives. For a people that had spent their lives being nomadic, it was a dramatic change to become a settled people who farmed corn and built permanent settlements. Corn changed their societal structure from being nomadic to being settled.
No one really knows why, after several hundred years living on the mesa top did the Pueblo people decide to venture down and live within the cliffs. Some think it was to be closer to their supply of fresh water coming from the seep holes. Others think it was for protection and safety or to challenge their skills as builders and engineers. Since there is no real understanding of why these structures were built, there is even more speculation as to why they were abandoned. We were told by a ranger that when he asked a modern descendant of the Puebloans why these dwellings were abandoned that he answered, “It was time to move on.” And so it was, for not only were the cliff dwellings abandoned but the villages on top of the mesa as well. The people when back to a nomadic lifestyle and settled huge parts of modern day Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and of course Colorado.
Should you get the chance to go to Mesa Verde, I recommend spending a few days there, to really take in the beauty and serenity of the Park. It is not just the cliff dwellings that are beautiful, but the entire landscape on the mesa tops and the dramatic canyons and valleys within the area. I think you will be inspired by the majestic beauty of such a fascinating place.