When we woke up on Sunday, August 29, our final morning at Mesa Verde National Park, we still had some adventures waiting for us. These included one of the highlights of our entire National Park travels over a decade: descending with a small group to Square Tower House. After that singular experience, we lingered at Mesa Verde, strolling around the mesa top Far View sites and finally having a look into the Visitor Center, before continuing on to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
I slept fitfully. I woke up in the four o’clock hour. In the five o’clock hour. Then in the six o’clock hour, I turned off my alarm, rose quietly, and let myself out of our room in the pre-dawn coolness to get coffee from the lodge lobby. I was startled by a young Mule Deer buck browsing on the grass of the lodge grounds.
Back in our room, Sean stirred and rolled over. I let myself out onto our balcony.
We had been warned that we’d have nonexistent cell service at Black Canyon, so I wrapped up a few talking points for a client and sent a few final emails before it was time to start getting ready for our morning adventure.
It was quite the busy Sunday morning near the lodge. As we gathered our things for our tour, we could hear a Coyote howling nearby. And then there was a flock of Wild Turkeys moseying about by our door.
We drove down to the Terrace to grab food. Sean went inside to grab breakfast sandwiches, while I wandered over to see if I could spot the Coyote that was carrying on, now quite close.
In fact, the coyote was standing near the road across from the Far View Terrace parking area. I didn’t capture the coyote on video—although I saw it—but I was able to catch some of the howling. It was like everyone was coming out to see us off on our final morning in the Park.
Sean returned with our sandwiches, and we drove down to the parking area for Square Tower House.
Emerging from our car well before the 8:30am start time for the tour, we saw a couple people waiting by the curb. We asked if they were there for the tour. They were, and asked if we knew where to go. I said that the tickets said to meet at the overlook, so we should probably head over there.
While we walked over, we introduced ourselves. The fellow was Rory and the woman was Leslie. She was “a woman of a certain age,” so of course we started chatting right away. She was from New York. Rory was from Philadelphia. And we were of course from Chicago. This theme of visitors on that morning’s tour being from major cities would continue.
While we waited for the rest of the tour and the ranger to arrive, we gazed down at Square Tower House, contemplating it in the quiet morning.
A young straight couple walked up. Beaming, the guy said, “I guess we were all clicking refresh on our browsers exactly two weeks ago.” He was referring to the demand for tickets to the Square Tower House tour. It was only open to ten people. And tickets were released two weeks in advance. The morning we purchased ours from Recreation.gov, it sold out in less than a minute.
Now we were six. A few more people were milling about across by the parking area. Then they were joined by a Ranger. She called to us and asked if we were waiting for the tour. We called back, yes. She called, “We’re meeting here!” We called back, “Oh but…”
The Ranger laughed, “No no. I’m teasing. You’re in the right place. We’ll be right there.”
In total that morning, there were thirteen of us. The group of ten ticket holders, Ranger Candace, Volunteer Bill, and Ranger Candace’s supervisor, who was doing an evaluation. Our group included a gay couple from Boston on an extended roadtrip and a pleasant man from Appleton, Wisconsin.
Ranger Candace led us down a short trail along the canyon rim to a spot where we could all spread out while she oriented us.
Like Ranger Drew the day before, Ranger Candace oriented us in time and space to the Ancestral Puebloan world. Where Ranger Drew had focused on the changing mores of the Park Service and our understanding of the sites of Mesa Verde, Ranger Candace emphasized the specialness of this place—and the place we were about to visit—through time.
Ranger Candace knew that getting to Square Tower House was part of the adventure. When she asked if anyone was afraid of heights, both Leslie and I raised our hands. Ranger Candace walked us through what we could expect: a ladder, a curving ledge, steps carved in the stone, and another ladder.
Steps carved in the stone.
Hey there, stone steps.
And then down the second ladder.
Throughout, Ranger Candace made sure we were feeling ok.
We were now at the same level as Square Tower House, and a trail took us along the cliff face straight over to the cliff dwelling.
Ranger Candace asked us to gather just outside the cliff dwelling, to take a moment before entering this place of ancestors.
Then we stepped in.
Of course the tower pulled our attention and provided a visual centerpiece.
But nearly as dramatic was the “crow’s nest” built into a chasm and reaching nearly to the mesa top.
Ranger Candace explained that there were two routes in and out of Square Tower House. One was the way we had come, only with toe holds in the cliff rather than ladders. The other was a route down through the built structure of the crow’s nest.
After orienting us to the site, Ranger Candace split us into two groups and challenged us to spot petroglyphs.
The gay guys from Boston spotted not a petroglyph, but the No 8 and initials JW that indicated that Square Tower House was the 8th Mesa Verde site to be excavated by cowboys Richard, John, and Al Wetherill, who “discovered” Mesa Verde in 1893.
Most of the petroglyphs were in the upper section of Square Tower House.
Our half of the group stayed in the lower part of the cliff dwelling first. And in between looking at the architecture, got chatting. Sean talked to the Boston guys. One of them was between jobs and the other worked remotely, so they were on an extended road trip exploring the country.
When it was our turn to see the upper areas, first we had a look at the dwelling’s intact kiva roof.
And a closer view of the crow’s nest.
Then we began to notice faint petroglyphs.
Shapes and figures.
A humanoid figure similar to those at Petroglyph Point.
Ranger Candace had distributed laminated sheets to help us spot the petroglyphs, some of which were very faded.
The circular shape with a hand and something that looked like a leaf or a fan emerged from the cliff face.
And we spotted what resembled a turkey with a human figure inside.
And a row of triangles like mountains.
All too soon it was time to leave this splendid place.
After pausing again to thank the ancestors, we headed back the way we’d come.
Ascending the tricky part, I was just ahead of Leslie, who was having a little bit rougher time than I was. I helped by describing what she was about to experience (“There’s a foothold here and a good hand hold there,” etc.). She said I was her “Emotional Support Brandon.” Sean said that everyone needs an “Emotional Support Brandon.”
Back at the mesa top, while Ranger Candace gave her closing remarks, a hummingbird flew by. She observed that hummingbirds are messengers and that we should think about any messages we’d received during our visit to Square Tower House.
Although very different in style, Ranger Candace was every bit as wonderful as Ranger Drew had been the day before. We looked her up afterward and found that Ranger Candace has her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Archaeology, an MS in Solar Architecture, and a BA in Architecture.
We had a couple of truly spectacular Interpretive Rangers at Mesa Verde.
We lingered at the overlook and said goodbye to our little group before heading back to the car.
Back at the lodge, the Wild Turkeys continued to mill about and watch us as we had thirty minutes to shower and load the car. Which we did successfully.
When I went in to check out at the front desk, I asked Sean if there was anything he wanted.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s a weird green mug I saw.”
When I purchased the mug, I told the fellow that my husband had told me to get the weird green mug.
“I like your taste,” he replied. “And I’m glad you called it that. It is a ‘weird green mug.'”
The weird green mug now holds pens and pencils in our kitchen.
All checked out, we still weren’t ready to say goodbye to Mesa Verde. We drove a short distance to the Far View sites, large mesa top dwellings in an area that was occupied by Ancestral Pueblo people from roughly 800 until the middle of the twelfth century.
Far View House was a Great House, one of many scattered across the Chacoan-influenced Ancestral Puebloan world. Constructed around 1000, Far View House had some seventy rooms, forty on the ground floor and thirty on the second level.
Pipe Shrine House, next to Far View House, is so named because of the multiple tobacco pipes found in its kiva.
Coyote Village sits nearby, but is separated from Far View House and Pipe Shrine House. It is more modest, and was one of many small villages in the Far View complex. When occupied, the area would also have boasted farm fields near at hand.
The metates at Coyote Village are very well preserved. Metates were vessels for grinding maize.
A longer path led us to Far View Reservoir, a large chamber for holding rain water for the village’s use. Some ninety feet in diameter, the reservoir was put into use collecting water around 900.
It has even been dedicated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Near the reservoir, we visited a small family home.
And then looping back toward Far View House, we passed the remains of a tower, a cluster of rooms, and a couple kivas.
After our brief visit to the Far View sites, we stopped for lunch at Far View Terrace before finally beginning our descent off of Mesa Verde.
It was a beautiful day, so we lingered at some pullouts. It was almost as if we were reluctant to leave Mesa Verde.
Down off the cuesta, we stopped at the Visitor Center just in time for it to be closed for the staff’s midday meal break. So we waited. We said hello to the Boston gays, who needed to get going and weren’t able to stay for the half hour until the Visitor Center reopened.
Inside, the bulk of the actual Visitor Center was closed because of the county’s high COVID rates, but the bookstore was open, so we bought (a lot of) books.
Down in Cortes, we were able to get a wider view of the dramatic north end of the Mesa Verde cuesta before it was time to continue on our adventure.
We stopped in Cortes and gassed up for our drive back into the San Juans and beyond to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.