Monday, June 18, 2012

Mesa Verde National Park - Pueblo Cliff Dwellings

While camping in the small Colorado town of Mancos for a friend's wedding, I didn't know the Mesa Verde National Park was only seven miles away. When I spotted a postcard in the local grocery store that displayed the iconic Pueblo Cliff Dwellings, I knew I had to visit before I left. After the Saturday festivities, I woke up early on Sunday and drove over to the park before my evening flight home.

On the long winding drive through Mesa Verde, I stopped first at Park Point, the tip of the highest mesa overlooking Mancos. It was a great view from 8,427 feet, but I wished the puffy white clouds crossing the sky on Friday and Saturday had hung around for one more day. Continuing on, I reached the Far View Visitor Center. The name perfectly describes the vista stretching deep into the park from its deck. While there are a few cliff dwellings visitors can walk to on their own, the best ones can only be reached on ranger-guided tours purchased at Far View. With my flight at 8pm, I was able to purchase tickets ($3 each) for Cliff Palace at 2:30 and Balcony House at 4:00. If the park is too crowded, they will limit visitors to only one tour.

Spruce Tree House is the best preserved and third largest (216 wide, 89 feet deep) of the cliff dwellings. Since it is self-guided, I was able to hike the 100 feet down into the canyon and check it out for myself before my tours started. I have always wanted to see the Pueblo ruins since I was a child and Spruce Tree didn't disappoint. Constructed between 1211 and 1278 AD, 60 to 80 people lived in this cave's 130 rooms. (Discovered in 1888.) I took a lot of pictures and I was able to climb a ladder down into one of the 8 kivas, covered underground pits used for ceremonial purposes. To prevent visitors walking on the sacred floor, the park put down a foot of dirt to protect the original surface.

After visiting Spruce Tree House, I cooled off from the 90 degree heat in the Chapin Mesa Archaeology Museum perched on the plateau above. The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Mesa Verde area from 550 to 1300 AD, but only constructed and lived in the cliff dwellings during the last century before migrating down to Arizona and New Mexico due to severe drought. Besides rainfall, their only source of collected water was from seep springs emerging from a layer of shale a hundred feet down. Most of the park's 600 dwellings inside the sandstone alcoves are located near these water sources at 7,000 feet.

After visiting the museum and eating a tasty Navajo Taco for lunch, I drove south along Cliff Palace Loop where my afternoon tours were located. The one-lane road circles the top of Chapin Mesa with shear drops along the side and nice turnouts to stop and enjoy the view. Before resettling down into the cliffs, the Pueblos lived on top of the mesas alongside their fields of corn, beans and squash. Because of a huge fire in 2000, several areas had large expanses of dead trees creating a very dramatic landscape.

Cliff Palace is the largest and most iconic of the cliff dwellings. The ranger-guided tour started high on the overlook with a great view down the long Cliff Canyon into the famous dwellings below. The ruins were only 100 feet down, but the access path was narrow with uneven stone steps and five ladders. With 150 rooms and 23 kivas, the ranger said Cliff Palace may have been the administrative or ceremonial hub for the surrounding communities. Constructed between 1190 to 1260 AD, 100 to 150 people lived here before it was abandoned in 1300. While Spruce Tree House had been in the shadows, at this time of day the sun lit up the interior of Cliff Palace. Looking through the tiny door of the four-story Square Tower House, a rare pictograph of red paint is still preserved high up the interior wall.

Balcony House is the park's most adventurous tour as the cliff dwelling is high up on the cliff face with steep drop to the canyon floor below. We had to clamber up a 32-foot ladder to enter and crawl through a narrow 12-foot tunnel before another climb up a 60-foot open cliff face with stone foot holds in the rock and two more 10-foot ladders. Constructed around 1278 AD, Balcony House has 40 rooms and only 2 kivas. (Discovered in 1884.) Standing on the ledge of the cliff dwelling, there is a great view of Soda Canyon. As the ranger was talking about the small spirit hole at the bottom of one of the kivas, four large ravens began swooping back and forth and cawing just outside the cave. She took this opportunity to tell us the Pueblo's creation story that involves the raven spirit. As we were leaving, strong gusts of wind kicked up dust and dropped pebbles on my head.

Mesa Verde was a great way to end my weekend trip to attend Laurel and Nicholas' wedding in the Mancos State Park where most of the other guests were camping as well. Driving from the Durango Airport on Friday, I had enough time to set up my tent and explore the small park before joining everyone for dinner at the Absolute Bakery and Cafe. We all then headed over to the Historic Mancos Opera House to watch Nicholas' band, the Afrobeat Minions, perform. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag around midnight.

The weather on Saturday was beautiful, bright blue skies with large puffy clouds overhead. In the morning, the fathers of the bride and groom served a nice brunch over in the picnic area. (The Chicken and Smoked Gouda Quiche was soooo good.) While waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin at 4pm, I hung out with Melissa and others down at Jackson Gulch lake, paddle-boarding and relaxing in the shade. I also went over to check out Tim who was roasting an entire pig in his wood-burning smoker for the wedding reception. It smelled delicious!

The dramatic white clouds floating overhead with a soft breeze rustling through the trees provided a great atmosphere for the wedding ceremony. It was very musical with drums at the beginning and Nicholas' brother, Michael, closing it out playing the guitar. During the reception, it was my turn to help out with drink-serving duty. After the entire food line passed through, I got a chance to eat and I overloaded my plate. The roasted pig tasted as good as it smelled.

After the reception, the night ended with an open mic talent show, an eclectic mix of singing, poems, dancing and drum/guitar playing by the guests. My favorite performance was Laurel's friend, Amanda, singing a couple of funny songs with her ukulele. The second one was about a mad scientist living on Skull Crusher Mountain who crossbreeds a strange creature (part monkey / part pony / part monster) as a gift that is rejected. (Too many monkeys, not enough pony.)

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