The Quieter Side of Mesa Verde

Here is a small part of the Mesa Verde formation, seen from the North, as we head west along Highway 160 towards the town of Cortez. My boys and I “camped” at Mesa Verde last month, but we didn’t really camp camp. We just slept in a tent. We drove into town to get our meals, so I don’t call that camping. There were some much more hard-core campers in the sites near ours, including a family who had come all the way from Maine.

Once you have entered the park and the road has begun to climb, you can stop at an overlook and look out towards the East, over Mancos Valley.

The most famous cliff house in Mesa Verde is called Cliff Palace. It’s the one that you usually see pictures of. To get to it, you take a short but steep hike down into a canyon with a ranger for a guided tour. I’ve done this once in the past, but this year, Cliff Palace Loop road was closed for maintenance. So, we (along with every other visitor) went instead to “the quieter side of Mesa Verde” (per the brochure), namely Wetherill Mesa.

Here’ a view from the top of Wetherill Mesa. As you can see, it’s at a very high elevation, with views in the distance of some of Colorado’s majestic mountains. Notice also the many burned trees. The climate is so dry here that you can see the skeleton forests left by many generations of past forest fires.

Wetherill Mesa is a very large area. There are several different sites of ruins that you can visit, including a couple of “overlooks” from which you can see cliff dwellings but not walk to them. As noted last week, my boys and I did one cliff dwelling hike on Wetherill Mesa, to a site called Step House. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the whole complex from a distance, just close-ups of its features. It is not a large ruin, but here are the steps that made it famous:

They look like scattered rocks, but if you look closely, you can see that they have been fitted into steps. To the right is the edge of the “proto-kivas” found at Step House. Farther to the right of that, you would find the dwelling itself, and in front of it a proper kiva (though still smaller than those at some other sites).

This proto-kiva has burned wood still as it was left about 800 years ago, much as that blows the mind.

Some small rooms behind the proto-kivas (the one on the lower left has a reconstructed roof on it).

Here’s the proper kiva, which is in front of the dwelling part of pueblo.

And here are the walls of the pueblo, rising up from the edge of the kiva in the foreground to the underside of the overhang.

The other place we visited on Wetherill Mesa was a series of dwelling sites that were not cliff houses, but were built up on top of the mesa. A few of these sites were pueblo-style (square buildings made with stones, and attendant kivas), but one was an earlier pit house (cool!). I’ll show you pictures of this stuff another time, and give you some basic archaeological information as well, but for now I’ll close because this post is getting pretty long already. I do just want to add that, as we were informed by a sign, as you walk from the parking lot to get to the excavated dwellings, you are walking past other sites that have not yet been excavated. Mesa Verde, and in fact the Four Corners region in general, is literally covered with archaeological sites, some known, some unknown! You think of people in, say, Jerusalem as people whose daily lives are literally lived atop layers of history, but the more I learn, the more it seems this is true everywhere you go in the world. They are even finding ancient human settlements in the Amazon rainforest now.

O.K., that’s enough archaeological nerding out for one day. I hope you enjoyed the tour! Have a great weekend!

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