Friday, May 17, 2013

Off The Beaten Track: Mesa Verde

By Jenni Gate

Cliff Palace - one of the largest dwellings in Mesa Verde
Tower in Cliff Palace

These days, Mesa Verde National Park is not too far off the beaten path. It has a rich and mysterious history, a setting high on the mesa cliffs of southwest Colorado with deep canyons and expansive vistas. The Anasazi (ancestral Puebloans) lived on top of the mesas about 2,000 years ago, farming the fertile soils at about 7,000 to 8,000 feet in altitude. The area was most likely settled around 400 AD. By around 1100 AD, resources on the mesa tops were being depleted, and a lengthy drought forced people to the cliffs where water seeped through the sandstone until it hit bedrock, pooling and seeping into springs within caverns. The Anasazi built homes, towers, and kiva structures right in the arched caverns that were cut into the cliff face by erosion. They only lived in these cliff dwellings for about 200 years, and then they disappeared. Modern Puebloan people believe the Anasazi are their ancestors, that the drought drove these ancient people from the mesa and into more fertile parts of the Southwest.
Painting inside Cliff Palace 2-story dwelling

The Anasazi kept dogs and domesticated turkeys. They farmed corn, beans, and squash. The mesa forests provided pinyon and juniper trees.  Various berries were abundant. They traded with other Southwest people for cotton, and they developed unique pottery designs.

Some of the dwellings are decorated with paintings on the walls and hand prints. One of the popular hikes in the park meanders along a boulder=strewn cliff path to a wall of petroglyphs. The petroglyphs throughout the South West only intensify the curiosity about the way people lived, their struggle for survival, and their life in the cliff dwellings. 

30' ladder entry to Balcony House
Through a tunnel & up a cliff face to exit

View from Balcony House

Cougar & Kachina whip petroglyphs

My husband and I went in late April this year, which is a good time to go because temperatures soar into triple digits in the summer, and the altitude takes a toll. Bring plenty of water. The highest point in the park, near the guest lodge, is about 9,000 ft. Most of the sites can be seen from overlooks and drive-to vista points, but if you hike the trails or take the ranger guided tours, be prepared to climb ladders, crawl through tunnels, climb rock faces, clamber over rocks, and be awed by the beauty of this national treasure.

Petroglyph wall


  1. This place combines natural beauty with fascinating history, two of my favorite things. I'm putting Mesa Verde on my list of must-see places to visit. I've been told that drinking lots of water is essential to fight altitude sickness. Your photos are stunning, Jenni.

  2. My family and I visited nearly all 50 national parks in US and Canada. Mesa Verde was our favorite desert park. The hikes are incredible there with the ladders and climbing in and out of some of the ruins.

  3. Thanks, Heidi and Leslie. The lodge we stayed in inside the park was up above 8,000 ft. The accommodations were lovely, the food was great, and we even had wild horses under our balcony, but the altitude messed with us. We both had headaches and sleepless nights, and it was a relief to come down in altitude when we left. We were drinking water like it was going out of style, and it did help.

    My husband took a lot of the photos. If you ask him, he took all the good ones. ;)

    Leslie, you're so lucky to have visited so many of the parks in North America. Wow! I've visited many. Mesa Verde is amazing because of the history and archeology. The ladders and climbing cliff faces made me a little nervous, I'll admit, but it was a lot of fun. I would love to go back again.

  4. Jenni, what stunning photographs. I've never been to Mesa Verde, and I envy you the experience. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Patricia! It is beautiful and so interesting.