My first visit to Mesa Verde National Park was a last-minute weekend getaway; not a carefully-researched, thoughtfully planned-out destination. At the time, I did not realize that a one-day visit would not allow sufficient time to see both the Chapin and Weatherill Mesas, or that I would be drawn by its mystery and want to explore more archaeological sites as a result of that brief visit. On my next (more extensive) trip, not only Weatherill Mesa, but other archaeological sites in the area beckon to me – Hovenweep, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Canyon de Chelle, and the list goes on.
‘Must-see Places of a Lifetime’
As you can probably tell, visiting Mesa Verde had a profound effect on me. No wonder that National Geographic Traveler named Mesa Verde as one of the fifty “must-see” places of a lifetime! When I arrived at the viewing platform for Cliff Palace I expected to see some rubble that one could possibly discern was once a cliff dwelling. I can now understand the astonishment that the ranchers who found this hidden gem felt on that cold December day in the late 1800’s when they first saw the ruins from across the canyon. I was stunned to see the astonishingly intact 150-room Cliff Palace. It has been preserved so well that I could visualize what it must have been like in 1200 AD, and could almost see the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly Anasazi) bustling about as the children played.
During the ranger-led tour, I looked in the windows and saw soot on the walls, petroglyphs and a rock that was used to calculate the days by using the sun. The indentations in the rock where the Puebloans had climbed were unmistakable; I could imagine them scrambling up the rocks to tend their crops on the Mesa, or gathering in the kivas that were an integral part of each dwelling.
What happened to them?
After touring the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House, I drove the Mesa Top Loop Road. As I looked back across the canyon at the Cliff Palace, the numerous dwellings that dotted the entire canyon as far as the eye could see came into view. At that moment the magnitude of the vibrant civilization that once inhabited this extraordinary place came into focus. In my mind’s eye I saw the villagers ascending the canyon walls and assembling at the Sun Temple that sits conspicuously on the Mesa. The questions began to flow: “Why did these people abandon their homes? For 700 years their growth was dynamic. Did drought drive them away, did disease devastate their numbers, or were they threatened by other civilizations?” Some of these questions were answered when I toured the Archaeological Museum, but my fascination with Mesa Verde remains.
Mesa Verde is located in Southwestern Colorado. The park headquarters are a one-hour drive from Cortez, Colorado, or a 1.5 hour drive from Durango, Colorado. The cliff dwellings are another 21 miles past the entrance station.