For more than 700 years—nearly triple the age of the United States—Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited what we now call Mesa Verde, a cuesta rising above the Colorado Plateau. Beginning in the mid-500s and lasting through the late 1200s, Mesa Verde was constantly inhabited, first by small assemblages of family units in modest pithouses on the mesa top, and ultimately by complex villages climaxing in the dramatic, world-famous cliff dwellings, including the largest cliff dwelling in the American Southwest, Cliff Palace. Then by the end of the 1280s, Mesa Verde was abandoned completely as the Ancestral Pueblo people migrated en masse to the Pueblos along the Rio Grande in what is now New Mexico or to Hopi lands in Arizona.
Sean and I had budgeted 2.5 days to explore Mesa Verde in a series of four tours. While tickets for ranger-led tours into the cliff dwellings are only available two weeks in advance, bus tours operated by concessionaire Aramark were available to book months ahead of time. Usually we’re much more interested in ranger-led options than in those handled by private companies, but we figured that the 700 Years Tour would be a good introduction to the Park on our first morning. And it concluded with a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace. As we booked the tour in early April, we weren’t necessarily certain we’d be comfortable riding a tour bus with some 30 other people, but we’d cross that bridge if we had to. As it happened, the Delta variant was not yet raging in Colorado when we were there, and everyone was required to be masked, so we felt comfortable. Unfortunately, the Cliff Palace tour was a no-go because road work in the Park made it completely inaccessible in the summer of 2021.
And so on Friday, August 27 we began our exploration of Mesa Verde.
I woke with my alarm at 6am. The tour began at 8am, so that gave me a bit of time to do a little work on the balcony of our room at the lodge. This would be a theme.
But the view was so incredible that it was nice to sip a coffee and work a bit as the sun rose.
Sean woke up, and we both showered and dressed for our morning tour.
We checked in for the tour at the nearby Far View Terrace complex, which contained the concessionaire-operated gift shop, cafeteria, and tour hub.
After checking in, we grabbed breakfast sandwiches and yogurt to eat outside while we waited to board the bus.
Tour guide Lee and bus driver Grady welcomed the twenty or so of us onto the tour bus and oriented us to what was in store over the next several hours. As we pulled out of the parking area and drove up to Park Point, our first stop, Lee shared some of the history of Mesa Verde National Park, which had been established in 1906. At only 52,000 acres, it is relatively small. But it contains at least 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings.
At Park Point, the highest point on Mesa Verde, we were treated to huge views into four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Beginning the tour at Park Point helped to place Mesa Verde into its geographical context.
Beyond the table land of the Mesa Verde cuesta there are major geological markers in almost every direction: the Chuska Mountains to the southwest and the San Juan Mountains to the northeast, Sleeping Ute Mountain immediately to the west, Shiprock in the distance to the south. Even the Bears Ears are visible to the northwest on clear days.
A woman of a certain age remarked to me that this was the first truly clear day that they’d had in weeks. She noted that Shiprock would not have been visible otherwise.
Sean and I were lucky that while we were at Mesa Verde we had very little visibility impact from the wildfires raging in California.
After orienting us to the vista and landmarks, Lee called our attention to the Montezuma Valley north of and below Mesa Verde. Today the valley holds the towns of Mancos and Cortez, Colorado, combined populations around 10,000 people. In the time of the Ancestral Pueblo people, the valley was home to 30,000 people, triple the population.
Lee pointed out the roof of a Walmart in the valley and noted that it was nearly adjacent to one of the most important dwellings found there. It was a reminder that for all of the drama of Mesa Verde and the cliff dwellings, it was only a very small part of a larger Ancestral Puebloan world. The population of Mesa Verde proper was likely never more than 5,000 people, dwarfed by the population even of the adjacent valley.
The Mesa Verde area was the northern extent of an Ancestral Puebloan homeland that encompassed what is now the Four Corners region. From roughly 900 to 1150, the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture was the city at Chaco Canyon, 100 miles or so to the south. Chaco and other urbanized areas of the Southwest—such as the Hohokam culture and their canal-supported city at what is now Phoenix—were themselves the northern extent of an urban-oriented Mesoamerican tradition that reached its climax with the great city of Teotihuacan (~1-500 CE) near what is now Mexico City.
The people of Chaco and Mesa Verde were connected to the people of what is now Mexico by established trade routes. Macaw feathers from tropical forests and shells from the Sea of Cortez are among the artifacts found at Ancestral Puebloan sites.
The earliest Anglo archeologists from the northeastern United States saw this connection clearly in the early years following the Mexican American War (1846-1848). Montezuma Valley is named for Motecuhzoma, the final leader of the Triple Alliance, or Aztec Empire, executed by Hernán Cortés in 1520. An important Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site between Mesa Verde and Chaco is known as Aztec Ruins. While these Anglo-bestowed place names in the Southwest are not properly attributable to the Triple Alliance, they recognize the southward orientation of peoples of the region and the irrelevance of an international border that didn’t exist until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Even as American archaeologists in the latter part of the nineteenth century celebrated the existence of “antiquities of our own” in the recently conquered territory that had been northern Mexico, they also participated in a deliberate attempt to minimize the presence, sophistication, and accomplishments of the Native Peoples of the Americas. For example in 1866, Lewis Henry Morgan, father of American Anthropology, argued that Motecuhzoma was not an emperor but merely a warlord. (This assessment would likely have shocked Cortés).
This minimization of the population, cultures, and accomplishments of the Native Peoples of the Americas continues into the twenty-first century. Quite simply, the more sophisticated the Indigenous societies of the Americas, the more monstrous the genocide. Minimizing the cohesion of Indigenous polities makes the invasion seem benign.
Names and narratives are deeply part of the Mesa Verde story in the twenty-first century. The people of Mesa Verde, Chaco, Aztec Ruins, and thousands of other sites the Southwest were known throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the “Anasazi.” I was curious whether Lee would address the name issue. He did early in the tour and quite well. “Anasazi” is a Navajo word. The Navajo and Utes inhabited the region after the departure of the Ancestral Pueblo people. And so it was in a Navajo context that the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were originally defined. Anasazi means “ancient people” or “ancient enemy,” and has a negative connotation. In the 1990s, the modern Pueblo people requested that the National Park Service (and others) cease using the term Anasazi to refer to the peoples of Chaco, Mesa Verde, and elsewhere. Because no one knows how these people referred to themselves, the preferred name is “Ancestral Pueblo.”
“Ancestral Pueblo” is important also because it underscores that the people of Mesa Verde are the direct ancestors of the modern Pueblo people. Pervasive narratives around the “mysterious vanishing” of the people of Mesa Verde purposefully ignore that, while we may not fully understand why the Ancestral Pueblo people migrated from the Four Corners to the Rio Grande, we certainly know they didn’t vanish into thin air. They simply moved to Taos Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, and the dozens of other Pueblo communities.
The Hopi, who trace their ancestors to the Ancestral Pueblo, call Mesa Verde “The Place of Songs.”
We climbed back on the bus and descended from Park Point down the gradual slope of the cuesta. As we headed south on Chapin Mesa, we passed through an area that was extensively burned in 2002. Much of the surface of Mesa Verde has seen wildland fire damage in the previous fifty years. The National Park Service at this Park has to walk a careful balance in fire management. Although occasional fire is part of the ecosystem, it can endanger the archaeological sites that are the Park’s priority to protect.
On Chapin Mesa, we stopped at the site of a pithouse from early in the era when the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited Mesa Verde.
This is the site of a pithouse, one of the earliest permanent dwellings on Mesa Verde. The family that lived here was not isolated, but was part of a community. Their neighbors lived in at least seven pithouses nearby, and small fields or gardens were probably located close to the homes, wherever growing conditions were good. They raised corn, beans, and squash, hunted animals, and gathered an impressive array of wild plants.– National Park Service sign
Our tour disembarked the bus, entered the corrugated metal enclosure protecting the pithouse, and spread out around it.
Architectural details, such as the holes that would have held the posts supporting the roof, were still present.
As was part of a low, dividing wall.
In this 1,400-year-old pithouse, we could see some of the elements that would come to much fuller fruition in later Ancestral Puebloan architecture: the slight submersion, the central hearth, the cluster of community dwellings.
After our brief visit to the pithouse, we climbed back onto the bus for a short drive to Square Tower House.
As we approached, an NPS law enforcement vehicle passed us with siren blaring. It stopped at the parking area for Square Tower House. The bus pulled over and we disembarked, intending to walk out to the cliff dwelling’s overlook.
There were multiple Park Rangers onsite. Lee asked one what the situation was. Apparently there was some sort of emergency with a visitor on that morning’s tour to the cliff dwelling. The ranger asked Lee to keep our tour group away so that they would have room for whatever emergency procedure might be necessary.
This was Friday morning, and Sean and I had tickets for the tour into the cliff dwelling for Sunday morning. The woman of a certain age who had commented on how clear the skies were earlier pointed out the access ladders for the cliff dwelling. They were attached to the cliff face opposite. She noted that the ladders followed the same access route that the Ancestral Puebloans had used to reach Square Tower House. She said that particularly when we descended the lower ladder on our tour, we should look for the hand and foot holds hewn into the cliff.
I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of the ladders and rope access. But that was a reserve of bravery to find on another day. Meanwhile, it was back on the bus for our next stop.
Up next was another mesa top site. This time a series of three subsequent villages—from 900, 1100, and 1075 successively—each built upon the foundation of the others. This tradition of abandonment, return, and reuse was widespread at Ancestral Puebloan sites.
The third and final village was built around 1075, just before construction of the cliff dwellings began. While the village’s foundations and subterranean architecture are very well preserved, there was little stone rubble found at the site. It is quite possible that the stones used for this village were repurposed in the nearby cliff dwellings.
Ancestral Puebloan kivas likely developed from earlier pithouses. Kivas, however, were likely public spaces—religious, ceremonial, or political. Like the earlier pithouses, they featured a central hearth. Platform benches encircle the space. Depressions for foot drumming highlight the floor.
Post-excavation, it was easy to see how the newer kiva (left, above) had replaced and partly filled the older kiva.
We climbed back into the bus for the short drive to the intersection of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, where multiple cliff dwellings, including the most famous, Cliff Palace, were visible. After not being able to see Square Tower House because of the emergency earlier, we’d waited all morning to see a cliff dwelling. Now, here they were.
Even at a distance, the size of Cliff Palace dwarfed the other cliff dwellings near it.
The evocative names—Cliff Palace, Mummy House, Fire Temple—have nothing to do with what the Ancestral Pueblo people would have called these places. Some of the names we have for the cliff dwellings are romantic (Cliff Palace, Fire Temple) while others are merely descriptive (Balcony House, Long House). Others are named for something found there (Mug House, Mummy House).
As our eyes became accustomed to seeing the dwellings, we began to notice more structures along the peripheries.
What led the Ancestral Pueblo people of Mesa Verde to move down into the cliff alcoves after some 600 years of living on the surface of the cuesta? We don’t know for certain, and the way that the National Park Service has discussed it has evolved over time (more on that in a subsequent post). But we do know that the construction of the cliff dwellings was something of a climax event. A segment of people on Mesa Verde or in the region moved into cliff dwellings during a period of roughly a century between the collapse of the the power center at Chaco Canyon and the complete emptying of the people of the Mesa Verde region.
Intriguingly, the structure known as Sun Temple (above) was built so late in the Mesa Verde era that it was unfinished at the time of the depeopling. It is similar in style to the structures at Chaco, and some archaeologists suspect it may have been a late, last-ditch effort to assert the power of Chaco at a Mesa Verde being abandoned.
Whatever the reason, there were many advantages to living in the cliff alcoves rather than in the canyon bottoms or on the mesa top. The dwellings were cool in summer and warm in winter. They were defensible. They were closer to water, both seeps in the cliff walls and springs and creeks in the canyons. However, even as the people moved into the cliff dwellings, they continued to tend agricultural fields on the mesa top.
Even from across Fewkes Canyon, we could see the remains of pigment on what had been interior walls of a structure in Fire Temple.
Our fellow tourists were mostly older than we were (although there was a family with two kids). I most enjoyed the woman of a certain age who knew a lot about the flora and fauna of the region and who pointed things out to us. We were a little baffled by the folks who didn’t know whether you could enter the cliff dwellings. How do you make it to the Park and onto a tour without having absorbed how to visit one of the dwellings? Lee patiently explained that there were tours led by National Park Rangers and that one cliff dwelling on Long Mesa was accessible without a tour.
We hopped back onto the bus and headed to the other side of Fewkes Canyon to Sun Temple.
The name Sun Temple didn’t come from any particular cosmological alignment, but from a decorative stone at one edge of the structure.
Whoever had been building Sun Temple before the work was abandoned, it was clearly intended to be impressive.
Near Sun Temple, we had a better view of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the Southwest.
Normally, Cliff Palace would be bustling with tours, including ours. But the road construction above it had cut it off, allowing for relatively rare photos of it without any visitors.
After everyone got their photos of Cliff Palace, we boarded the bus and drove to our last stop, the Chapin Mesa Historical District.
The Historical District was the original hub of visitor activity at Mesa Verde National Park and boasts a suite of buildings from the first half of the twentieth century constructed in a rustic Southwest architectural style. The area was developed under the guidance of one of the National Park’s earliest superintendents, Jesse Nusbaum, who had been hand-picked by legendary National Park Service founder, Stephen Mather, to improve the visitor experience, interpretation, and educational programs at Mesa Verde National Park.
Here on a veranda overlooking Spruce Tree House, Lee wrapped up our morning’s tour.
Spruce Tree House was also closed to visitors (and will be for the foreseeable future) after the Park Service discovered that the immense slab of rock forming the alcove’s ceiling is unstable. The Park Service continues to work on ways to stabilize it so that it doesn’t suddenly collapse and destroy Spruce Tree House.
We boarded the bus one last time to return to Far View Terrace. We tipped Lee and thanked him as we exited the bus. Although it was a concessionaire-operated tour, I thought Lee did a really fine job.
We grabbed a lunch of paninis and salad to go from the cafe at Far View Terrace and took it back to our room. There we sat on our little balcony and enjoyed the privacy and view while we ate.
I remarked that I could just sit and watch the view all day. But we had more adventures ahead of us that afternoon. We had tickets for the 3pm tour into Long House. After our morning of viewing them from the mesa top, we were excited to actually get to enter a cliff dwelling.
Juan, taking care of Elsa back in Chicago, posted an update to Instagram.
Grant Noble, David, ed., The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Pueblo Archaeology, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM, 2006.
Lekson, Stephen H., A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, NM, 2008.