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“Look all around you,” she says. “Then close your eyes. Think about these mesas and canyons as a bustling community. Think about seeing women cooking, men hunting, kids playing, dogs barking, grandmas holding babies. You can smell the smoke from the cooking fires. You can hear the regular noise of daily life echoing out of these alcoves that are natural amphitheaters.”
T.J. Atsye knows Mesa Verde National Park better than most, and that’s not just because she worked there for the better part of eight years, first for the museum association and then as a seasonal ranger. Atsye’s relationship with this landscape goes much deeper.
As a Laguna Pueblo woman, 67-year-old Atsye is a direct descendant of the Ancestral Puebloans who made the area now protected by the park their home more than 1,000 years ago. Her family’s stories about The Place Up High With Many Windows are now her stories, passed down over the centuries through oral tradition. As a ranger, it was her job to then share those narratives with some of the park’s roughly 573,000 annual visitors. “I bring a Native woman’s perspective,” she says, “and I use that to help transport people from 2021 back to A.D. 1000.”
Atsye is a gifted storyteller, but for those who are seeing the cliff dwellings built by the ancient Pueblo people for the first time, words can be superfluous. The sandstone-masonry villages tucked into massive mesa-side alcoves leave virgin viewers with concurrent feelings of incredulity (How is this even possible?) and discovery—as if they found a long-lost city all by themselves. In truth, they have come upon a treasure: Mesa Verde National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, one of the first such designations for conserving places of outstanding cultural and natural value in the country.
It is, in fact, the cultural aspect of Mesa Verde that makes it unique among Colorado’s national parks. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, where more than four million annual visitors can explore 415 square miles of unparalleled natural beauty with few guardrails, Mesa Verde’s 82 square miles are more circumscribed. Here, parkgoers must stay on designated trails, backcountry access and primitive camping are unavailable, and seeing many of the archaeological sites up close requires purchasing a ticket for a guided tour. There is no fishing, no horseback riding, no mountain biking. “People come here from Moab,” Atsye says, “and expect another recreational paradise. Mesa Verde isn’t that, but it is a living, breathing place. Everywhere you go, an ancient one was there.”
What To Know Before You Go to Mesa Verde National Park
For a couple of months early in the global health crisis, Mesa Verde closed its gates. When the park reopened in May 2020, guided tours remained suspended. On May 2 of this year, however, a truncated roster of outings returned. Still, 2021 has been and will continue to be an atypical year. The ongoing pandemic has led to altered services, and road construction that began in March will continue to restrict access to the Cliff Palace Loop through at least October.
Get It Right
All parks have rules. But at a cultural park, knowing the unwritten do’s and don’ts can both save you from being tactless and make your visit much more enjoyable.
- Options for buying drinks and snacks inside the park are limited—especially this year. Bring a cooler full of provisions that you can leave in your car and enjoy after tours and hikes.
- Visitors are often surprised about the driving distances within Mesa Verde. From U.S. 160, the highway just outside the park, you should allow an hour (no joke) to get to any of the archaeological sites at the far ends of Chapin or Wetherill mesas. Add at least 30 minutes to that if you want to stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center that’s located just off the highway exit, near the Mesa Verde National Park sign. (The center was still operating at limited capacity at press time.)
- The roads inside the park are narrow and winding, but if you are a particularly slow driver—or you’re just taking in the views—pull over to let others pass.
- Take every opportunity you see to use a restroom, even if nature isn’t calling at that exact moment. Not every trailhead nor every tour meeting place has facilities.
- Although you may have heard or read the term “Anasazi” as a way to refer to the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited Mesa Verde, the term—a Navajo word that can translate to “ancient enemy”—is outdated and considered pejorative by modern-day Pueblo people. “Ancestral Puebloans” and “Ancestral Pueblo people” are more culturally sensitive and appropriate terms.
- If you look closely, you might find the remnants of Ancestral Puebloan life in the dirt. Potsherds, stone knives, bone awls, and other artifacts could show up at your feet. Should that happen, feel free to pick them up and take a look, but don’t remove them from the park. Collecting artifacts on federal land is a crime—not to mention a wildly insensitive move.
- Trails in the national park are well-maintained and easy to follow; however, don’t let your size 12s scoot off the path, especially if you see small pink flags, which are there to alert you to the presence of fragile, rare, or even endangered flora, like the Chapin Mesa milkvetch, a butter yellow plant that only grows in the Mesa Verde area.
“When I enter a modern-day kiva, I ask permission out of respect and cultural tradition,” says T.J. Atsye, who is Laguna Pueblo and a one-time ranger at Mesa Verde National Park. “I do the same thing when I enter a cliff dwelling. I ask permission to pass by.” Atsye, who often calls Mesa Verde the place “where the ancestors whisper to you,” explains that Pueblo people believe their ancestors are all around them, like many people feel the presence of their departed family members at a cemetery or maybe in a loved one’s favorite spot. Atsye understands not everyone has the same beliefs, but she suggests taking a quiet moment to address those who have passed on but whose spirits can still be felt in these sacred places. “Be sincere, be genuine, be respectful,” she says. “Let them know you are here to see their beautiful homes. They will listen to you, and you might feel their warmth wrap around you.”
Map Out Your Visit
With only one road in and out, Mesa Verde is easy to navigate—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan your route ahead of time.
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To see ancient mesa-top village foundations, centuries-old farming sites, and the famed cliff dwellings, parkgoers must travel the Main Park Road roughly 15 miles from the entrance before making a decision about which mesa—Chapin or Wetherill—to visit. Most parkgoers select Chapin Mesa, home of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park. “We’ve done a poor job of marketing Wetherill,” says Kristy Sholly, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services. “Wetherill has the second-largest dwelling in the park.” Advertising aside, visitors’ decisions usually come down to time: From the intersection of Main Park Road and Wetherill Mesa Road, it’s a 45-minute haul to reach the sites on Wetherill and a 20-minute drive to those on Chapin, making it difficult to view everything in one day. Our suggestion? Stay two days to see it all.
Both Wetherill and Chapin mesas are named after white explorers who happened upon—and excavated—many of the dwellings in the late 1880s. The 12-mile journey to the far side of Wetherill is winding and starkly beautiful. At the end of the road (open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Labor Day through October), visitors will find several options for self-guided discovery. The one-mile walkway to Step House delivers visitors to the only cliff dwelling reachable without a tour ticket. The Long House Loop is a five-mile paved trail that makes for a leisurely 45-minute bike ride, if you brought your two-wheeler. If not, parkgoers can walk the path, which provides access to the Badger House Community (sites that show the evolution of Pueblo homes from pit houses to small villages), the Nordenskiöld Site #16 (a cliff dwelling named for another early excavator), Kodak House (a split-level dwelling), and the overlook for Long House, the second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Daily tours to Long House run through October 23.
Open year-round and home to two drivable loops with myriad pullouts and overlooks, Chapin is the indisputable winner when it comes to density of Ancestral Puebloan structures. The one-way Mesa Top Loop lets drivers of modern-day vehicles roll through 700 years of Ancestral Puebloan culture and architectural development in about 90 minutes, if they don’t dawdle at each of the nine stops. Be forewarned, though: It’ll be a challenge to pull your group away from Square Tower House Overlook, which affords a view of the tallest standing structure in the park; Sun Point View, a vantage that makes visible several cliff dwellings simultaneously; and Cliff Palace View, a photographer’s-dream-come-true look at the park’s most high-profile attraction. This year, the Cliff Palace Loop is closed through at least October, which means tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony houses are not being offered in 2021. In the past, the area around the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum was a must-visit for several reasons, including the museum (closed for renovations) and a self-guided tour of the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling (closed due to rockfall hazards, although you can still get a good view of it). The best reason to stop at the area around the museum now—besides the restrooms—is to access the popular Spruce Canyon and Petroglyph Point trails.
The History of the Pueblo People at Mesa Verde
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The Four Corners region has been home to humans for 10,000-plus years; however, the Ancestral Pueblo people first settled in Mesa Verde around 1,400 years ago. For more than seven centuries, they thrived as hunters and dryland farmers, crafted baskets and pottery, and built several styles of living quarters, eventually constructing their remarkable cliff dwellings. Then they departed, leaving archaeologists, and the world, to ponder: Why?
Formerly nomadic groups of people begin settling into a more sedentary way of life in the Mesa Verde region. Farming—primarily of corn—supplants hunting and gathering as the main food source, and the bow and arrow replaces the spear. They make superbly crafted, beautifully woven waterproof baskets (frequently made of split willow) as well as pottery that often has simple designs on gray backgrounds. People live in pit houses—semi-below-ground dwellings with vaulted roofs—typically located on the mesa tops, near their crops, but sometimes in cliff alcoves.
The community prospers—and its population swells. On mesa tops, they begin erecting single-story, above-ground houses with upright walls made using poles and mud. The homes are constructed up against one another, creating long rows of dwellings; sometimes pit houses are built in front. The descendants of those who lived at Mesa Verde later become known as the Pueblo people, using the Spanish word for “village.”
The Pueblo people’s construction techniques and architectural prowess mature, allowing them to upgrade from pole-and-adobe homes to multistory structures made of stone masonry. Units of 50 rooms or more are not uncommon. They begin using small stone dams to capture water and manage runoff; these structures create fertile plots to grow not only corn but also squash and beans, a trifecta of crops known in many Native American tribes as “the three sisters.” Their pottery-making also evolves to include highly decorative vessels with black designs on white backgrounds. Entire mesa tops are cleared to make room for agriculture. Large pueblos with stone walls and kivas—subterranean ceremonial and gathering spaces that may have evolved from pit houses—spread on the mesa top. Mesa Verde’s population soars around A.D. 1100, with some estimates suggesting it ultimately reaches several thousand at its peak.
Perhaps for protection or proximity to water sources, some Ancestral Pueblo people begin moving from their mesa-top villages into alcoves in the mesas’ cliffs. Using the same stone tools—often made of hard quartzite—they’d used for generations, the Pueblo people rigorously shape sandstone into rectangular blocks and use a mixture of soil and water as mortar. In the alcoves, they create elaborate multifamily villages, each dwelling having several rooms, some of which are for storing crops. Each family (or clan of families) has its own underground kiva, with its flat roof serving as a courtyard of sorts. The largest cliff dwellings have as many as 150 rooms.
The Ancestral Puebloans emigrate from Mesa Verde. By 1300, the alcoves are mostly deserted. Archaeologists, historians, and some modern-day Pueblo people have theorized that drought, depleted resources, or skirmishes with other ancient peoples may have spurred the abandonment of the cliff dwellings.
Modern-Day Descendants: Dispelling the Disappearance Myth of the Ancestral Puebloans
For far too long, an unproven narrative that the Ancestral Puebloans simply vanished persisted. DNA evidence is scant, but there is plenty of historical and anthropological substantiation that modern-day Pueblo people are the direct descendants of Mesa Verde’s original residents, and they want the world to know this: They are still here.
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The retelling of human history is never perfect, mostly because people aren’t perfect. Yet it’s difficult to overstate how hurtful the conclusions—by some early U.S. archaeologists, by the National Park Service (NPS), by the media—have been for the Pueblo people. The story that Mesa Verde’s original inhabitants lived in the area for more than 700 years and then suddenly disappeared likely stemmed from poor assumptions, ignorance, and the appeal of a good mystery; however, that doesn’t absolve anyone who has perpetuated the myth.
“The dialogue of the ‘vanishing Anasazi’ probably came about in a few ways,” says Dr. Scott Ortman, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the long-term histories of Indigenous peoples. One is that after the end of the Civil War, Anglo settlers in the region incorrectly surmised area dwellings were of Aztec origin, muddying things from the start. Another is the manner in which archaeologists tried to track the movements of ancient peoples, often relying on the presence of material items; many of those possessions were simply left behind at Mesa Verde, buttressing the disappearance story.
The NPS, for its part, found that the vanishing-act narrative was compelling to visitors and promulgated it. The media pounced on it as well. On top of all that, archaeologists in this country have long neglected to speak to Native Americans about their histories, which are often carefully handed down through oral tradition. “As a result, interpretations were ignorant of those histories,” Ortman says, “and it became another form of colonialism to deny their own understanding of their history.”
The issue, of course, is that good tales have staying power. “People assume that these people don’t exist anymore,” says Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo, who has led that pueblo in New Mexico for three years. “That cannot be the narrative. What gets missed is that there is a direct connection to cultures that still exist today.” In fact, it is now widely acknowledged that Pueblo tribes in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas trace their heritage back to the Mesa Verde region. While DNA evidence is meager—many Pueblo people oppose invasive testing on ancestral remains—archaeologists, ethnographers, and anthropologists say genetic sequencing is mostly unnecessary. Many aspects of Ancestral Pueblo culture persist in today’s Pueblo communities, including farming methods, religious practices, craft-making, and architecture. “Plus, nearly all Pueblo languages have their own names for Mesa Verde,” Ortman says. “Pueblo people also have stories about having ancestry in the Mesa Verde region, sometimes even about specific sites their families built.”
Vallo is one of them. His word for Mesa Verde, in his Acoma dialect of Keres, is Kash’ka’trati. “My clan originated in Mesa Verde,” he says. “They built certain structures there. I am tied to that land.” T.J. Atsye is culturally bound to the 8,000-foot mesas, too. Her family is Laguna Pueblo, but her time as a park ranger also proffered a special bond with the “ancient ones,” as she calls them. She understands the allure of a good mystery but wishes people would reconsider their notions of America’s past. “There are pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico that have been continuously inhabited since the 1100s,” Atsye says. “This is where the Mesa Verdeans migrated to. We are them.”
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Backcountry tours, which put parkgoers into the literal footsteps of the Ancestral Pueblo people, offer the most intimate way to experience some of Mesa Verde’s archaeological sites. We spoke with interpretive ranger Jackie Rabb about how visitors can connect with the ancient ones in enlightening ways on these limited-access outings.
5280: You’re a park ranger but also a trained archaeologist—how does that background come into play during tours?
Jackie Rabb: Working as an archaeologist can be lonely. Being a park ranger allows me to share ancient cultures and special places with actual people. I can teach the importance of preservation and educate people on cultural history.
Walking through living history is a great way to do that, no?
Backcountry tours are special. It’s a small group, so we can do things that other tours can’t. We can hike the actual trails the Ancestral Pueblo people hiked to get to the alcoves. We can go down ladders like the ones they used. We can even use the hand- and footholds they carved into the sandstone over the centuries, as many of them are still there.
How do you help visitors understand who the Ancestral Puebloans were?
I try to balance the science-based guesses about who they were and why they did what they did with what I’ve learned from what Pueblo people say today. I like to explain to people that the Ancestral Pueblo people were just like us. Yes, they were here 800 years ago, but if you put them in a city today in modern clothes they’d be no different than we are. They made decisions—about where to live, how to take care of their families, what to eat for dinner—just like we do every day.
Do you have a method for trying to get people to see Mesa Verde as it might have been?
Once we get to one of the cliff dwellings, I often have everyone stop talking and ask them to listen, feel, see, and smell for a minute. I ask them to imagine what life would’ve been like here. Families making dinner. People walking from one alcove to the next to see friends. Someone doing business with a visitor who’d come from far away. Women climbing the same ladders [guests] just came down but carrying water or corn or a baby at the same time.
How else do you make it real for people who visit the park?
I try to make comparisons to things going on today. For example, one theory is the Ancestral Puebloans may have migrated from Mesa Verde after a prolonged drought made it difficult to raise crops. Well, here in southwest Colorado, we are in the middle of a megadrought right now. We know how that feels. That helps people connect to what happened centuries ago.
Park rangers lead backcountry tours to Mug House (daily, 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.; $25), Spring House (September 5 and 12, 8 a.m.; $45), and Square Tower House (daily, 8:30 a.m.; $25). Tours are limited to 10 people, book up quickly, and require above-average physical fitness. Space opens 14 days in advance at 8 a.m. Mountain time. Log in to your recreation.gov account at 7:55 a.m. two weeks before your desired tour date to get tickets.
Best Hike: Petroglyph Point Trail
Petroglyph Point Trail is the park’s most popular trek—for good reason.
While there are other paths worthy of your time—namely Prater Ridge and Spruce Canyon trails—Petroglyph Point Trail underpromises and overdelivers. Yes, you will encounter other hikers on this 2.4-mile loop that begins near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, but the company doesn’t diminish the joy of squeezing through sandstone formations, scrambling over boulders, viewing a 35-foot-wide petroglyph panel, and reveling in dizzying vistas of Spruce and Navajo canyons. Although the park rates the trail as moderately strenuous to strenuous, anyone who regularly hikes in Colorado likely will find the route easy enough to complete in roughly two hours. But there’s no rush. As you amble, take time to ponder the fact that much of this well-worn footpath has been used for more than 1,000 years.
Mesa Verde’s most famous dwelling is currently inaccessible—so we’re giving you the two-cent tour.
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It’s one thing to see Cliff Palace, the park’s largest and arguably most spectacular residence, from the overlooks on Mesa Top Loop. It’s another thing completely to be inside it—to experience the visceral sensations of the alcove, to climb ladders like the ancient ones once climbed, and to see the views they saw from their front porches. As pandemic restrictions eased, the park had planned for timed-entry, ranger-assisted tours at Cliff Palace to allow parkgoers to visit the roughly 150-room village.
Unfortunately, road construction on Cliff Palace Loop has stretched on far longer than officials had anticipated and will likely restrict access to Cliff Palace well into late fall, when tours are no longer possible due to weather. You can still get great views of Cliff Palace from several overlooks on Mesa Top Loop, but there’s no substitute for seeing the structures (like grain storage areas) and natural features (such as seep springs, which provided water to the cliff-dwellers in an area devoid of rivers) up close.
Still, we decided to perform interpretive ranger duties for you. Once you have a sense of the architecture, engineering, and ingenuity the Ancestral Puebloans employed in the construction of their homes, it’s easy to envision Mesa Verde as the center of one of the Southwest’s most vibrant cultures. —Geoff Van Dyke
Even centuries later, smoke stains from cook fires are still evident on the ceilings of some of the alcoves. Archaeologists have discovered that in addition to corn, beans, and squash, the ancient Pueblo people domesticated and likely ate turkeys.
What most parkgoers see as windows are really doors. Archaeologists have noted that in several instances, large stone slabs were used to seal the doors, and that in other spots, the Ancestral Puebloans hung yucca fiber mats over the openings for privacy or to keep cold air out.
It’s sometimes difficult to understand the full scope of these dwellings because time and the elements have eroded much of what was once there. In many cases, the second stories of these complexes have disintegrated; however, archaeologists know upper levels existed because of the timber beam supports that are (remarkably) still visible today.
Ancestral Puebloan families often shared several rooms and had their own kiva. Cliff Palace may have housed as many as 150 people.
These dark stains form when iron or manganese, a mineral found either within the rock or in windblown dust, is fixed to the cliff face by bacteria. The bacterial action often occurs on the portions of rock that are wet from runoff water, which causes the streaking effect.
To scale the area’s cliffs and move around within their alcove villages, the Ancestral Puebloans used ladders much like the ones park officials have fashioned for visitors to use today. Not only did excavators find remnants of these wooden staircases, but archaeologists have also documented notches in the sandstone where the implements likely rested over the centuries.
A kiva is a circular room, often partially below ground, that had a flat roof. It was typically outfitted with a hearth, ventilator shaft, benches, and a sipapu—a symbolic representation of the portal through which the ancestors emerged into this world. Kivas were likely used for domestic and ceremonial purposes and as gathering places. Often, the interior walls were covered with plaster and emblazoned with pictographs.
Although tours to Cliff Palace aren’t currently available, timed-entry, ranger-assisted tours to Long House are ($8, daily through October 23 at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; max 35 people). The 2.25-mile round-trip hike to the park’s second-largest dwelling requires average physical fitness as well as the ability to climb ladders. Space opens 14 days in advance at 8 a.m. Mountain time. You’ll need to be online and already logged in to your recreation.gov account at 7:55 a.m. two weeks before your desired tour date to have a shot at getting tickets.
Ancestral Puebloan Pottery
The ancient Pueblo people left behind many artifacts of daily living, but none so striking, perhaps, as their black-on-white pottery.
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Like any great ancient civilization, the Ancestral Puebloans created a stable food supply, exhibited advancements in technology over time, adhered to a system of religion, had a social framework, built large structures, created population centers, and enjoyed a highly developed culture. They made farming equipment, fashioned tools out of stone, sewed clothing with bone awls, and wove blankets from turkey feathers. They also made functional art.
“The Ancestral Pueblo people made different types of pottery,” says Kay Barnett, an archaeologist with the park. “Their corrugated vessels—kinda like their everyday pots and pans for cooking—were made out of tiny clay coils, were often dark gray without embellishment, and had a dimpled appearance.” The Ancestral Puebloans, however, also made smoother, more artistic black-on-white pottery that appears to have been used for serving or to carry and store water. The intricate designs—beautiful in their execution using yucca fiber paintbrushes—typically included rectangular geometrical shapes, various triangles, dots, crosses, swirls, curved parallel lines, and terraced figures.
Although potsherds still litter the lands that comprise the park, another remnant of prehistoric pot-making was found when a major water line was replaced along the western side of Chapin Mesa in 1992. “They found kilns,” Barnett says. “Nine of them. Some as long as 12 or 13 feet and as wide as five feet. Even today, we don’t think we’ve found all of the kilns that are probably in the park.”
Many of the artifacts discovered over the decades by early excavators and park authorities—pottery included—are typically on display in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Unfortunately, a faulty HVAC system has kept the museum closed for all of 2021. Mesa Verde officials are embracing the opportunity to fully redesign and update the space, taking care to include modern-day Pueblo perspectives in the new exhibits. “We are hopeful the museum will reopen with temporary exhibits in 2022,” says Kristy Sholly, chief of interpretation and visitor services, “and we will work to update the displays in the subsequent years.”
Pictured Above: To achieve a whitish background, Ancestral Puebloan potters used a light gray clay to build their wares and then perfected the use of slip, a thin layer of very fine clay applied before firing, to create the lightest color possible. The black paint used for decorative designs was made from either minerals (like the iron in crushed hematite rock) or organic materials (such as plants like beeweed or tansy mustard).
With the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum closed for the foreseeable future, history junkies should consider viewing Pueblo artifacts elsewhere, either before or after their visits to the park. Mesa Verde’s visual information specialist, Spencer Burke, suggests taking in the exhibits at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum in Dolores, just a 20-minute drive from the park entrance. He also recommends the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah, 88 miles away. “They have some of the most incredible Pueblo artifacts I’ve seen anywhere,” he says. For Denverites looking for a closer-to-home option, History Colorado Center has Mesa Verde artifacts on display in its Living West and Zoom In exhibits.
Preservation and Conservation Efforts
Excavation is (mostly) off-limits at Mesa Verde, but that doesn’t mean archaeology and conservation are, too.
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It’s reasonable to think that scientists would continue to unearth treasures at major archaeological sites until they were exhausted. That’s not the case at Mesa Verde. “The tribes we have relationships with prefer we don’t excavate for curiosity’s sake,” park archaeologist Kay Barnett says. “Instead, we like to do noninvasive archaeology and employ modern preservation and conservation techniques.”
The archaeologist explains that while a lot of important research can be done without being destructive—particularly through the study of rock art and tree-ring dating—the park does take action to excavate sites disturbed during construction projects (like this year’s roadway improvements) as well as to preserve the most high-profile cliff dwellings. Stabilization crews assess the alcoves at the beginning of each season and use a variety of methods to address stone deterioration, mortar loss, and damage caused by wildlife. In some cases, as with Spruce Tree House, which has been closed since 2015 due to instability, extreme measures may be required. “The alcove itself has a crack that goes through the rock to an arch,” Barnett says. “If the arch fell, Spruce Tree House would be flattened. We are going to try to rebolt the arch, likely in summer 2022.”
Barnett acknowledges it would be devastating if Spruce Tree House were to be lost but adds that’s part of the story of Mesa Verde. It’s also what many modern-day Pueblo people want: They believe the dwellings should return to the earth in their own times. Still, there are ways to conserve Spruce Tree House, and other antiquities like it, for posterity, even if gravity ultimately has its way. For roughly 15 years, Mesa Verde has worked with CyArk, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, that uses laser scanning technology to digitally document the world’s cultural heritage. The 3D models CyArk fashions—it did a full rendering of Balcony House in 2017—allow viewers to experience sites they cannot visit or which could disappear overnight. “What CyArk creates,” Barnett says, “are accurate, lasting records of something very special.”
Stargazing at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde’s recent designation as an International Dark Sky Park only reinforces what the Ancestral Puebloans knew 1,000 years ago: Observation of celestial bodies is a sacred affair.
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As of 2016, the vast majority of Americans could not see the Milky Way from their homes, and fewer than one percent had reliable views of a dark sky. “We’re lucky here at Mesa Verde,” says visual information specialist Spencer Burke. “We can see the Milky Way every night, just like the Ancestral Puebloans did when they lived here. Just thinking that we see the same sky they saw gives me goose bumps.”
Of course, Burke and his cohorts had to do some work to return the skies to their A.D. 1100 state. To be approved as the 100th International Dark Sky Park by Arizona’s International Dark-Sky Association, Mesa Verde had to use lower color temperature bulbs, redirect lights downward, and install motion-sensor lamps. “I was initially overwhelmed with what we had to do,” Burke says. “There are hundreds of lights in the park. But the difference was immediately noticeable. It was already pretty dark here, but now it’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Visitors will also be wowed by the show—the pullouts along Main Park Road and the parking lots near the Far View Lodge are ideal for nighttime viewing—but knowing how the ancient Pueblo people saw the heavens may be equally mesmerizing. Several archaeoastronomical studies have suggested that there could be dozens of astronomical alignments in the park. In other words, the Ancestral Puebloans may have built structures for detailed observation of the sky.
Although the modern-day study of such alignments can be controversial—critics and archaeoastronomers alike suggest current findings may be skewed by the ethnographic preferences of our own society for certain celestial bodies, and not necessarily those of ancient peoples—a 2015 analysis determined that Sun Temple, a structure located along the Mesa Top Loop, was likely used for astronomical examination of celestial bodies known to be sacred to the Pueblo people. “It’s very possible that the Ancestral Puebloans, who were farmers,” Burke says, “were keeping track of the seasons. Their architecture could have helped track the celestial calendar so they knew when to plant and harvest.”
Burke says more research is needed to further our understanding of how the Ancestral Puebloans monitored the skies, but for now, he’s satisfied that parkgoers can see what the ancient ones saw. “I like to imagine,” he says, “the Pueblo people liked to look up at the stars in amazement just like we do.”
The park’s campground is a sky-watcher’s paradise.
Set down in a canyon between two 400-foot swells of rock, Morefield Campground is the only place to set up a tent—or hook up an RV—inside the park. As campgrounds go, Morefield is clean and easy to navigate and has a full-service village with a gas station, showers, a cafe, and
a camp store that’s well-stocked with adult beverages. The sites are outfitted with tables, tent pads, fire pits, and dark skies. For the best stargazing—and quietest camping—select a site in the Taos, Zuni, or Jemez loops.
On September 10 and 11, Mesa Verde will host Dark Sky–related events at the Morefield Campground Amphitheater to honor the fact that in April the park was designated as the world’s 100th International Dark Sky Park. Visit nps.gov/meve to learn more.
Where to Eat and Stay at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park is located roughly 10 miles from Cortez and approximately eight miles from Mancos. Although those are the two most populous towns in rural Montezuma County, finding places to fuel up and bed down isn’t always easy. We offer our suggestions. —GVD
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You Should Rest At… Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast, where you’ll relish farm-to-table breakfasts, cozy lodge rooms (or the Cowboy Cabin), and a short drive to Mesa Verde National Park.
Then You Should Dine At… Absolute Bakery & Cafe, a hippie-ish (in the best possible way) spot in downtown Mancos, which will satisfy your cravings for sweets, coffee, and from-scratch sandwiches and pizza. The Cubano is a can’t-miss, as are the Mexican wedding cookies.
You Should Rest At… Far View Lodge, the only accommodations within the park. Prepare for bare-bones rooms, paper-thin walls, and the possibility of mice looking to raid your provisions. But know that despite those downsides, you are very close to the park’s main attractions, so it might be worth the less-than-luxurious setup.
Then You Should Dine At… Far View Terrace Cafe, essentially a cafeteria with mass-produced food and drinks like pizza, cheesesteaks, coffee, and soft drinks. (Far View also stocks some locally brewed beers in cans.)
You Should Rest At… Retro Inn, a funky-cool renovated motor lodge located in Cortez. The inn—which can serve as a convenient home base for all of your Four Corners adventures—is inexpensive, kitschy, and has a bright, whimsical paint scheme.
Then You Should Dine At… Loungin’ Lizard, a cantina known for comfort food like fried chicken and meatloaf. Don’t forget to grab a pint at nearby WildEdge Brewing Collective, a well-regarded brewery with a wide array of beer styles and a small food menu.
You Should Rest At… Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, a picturesque spread located in McElmo Canyon. Stay in one of five cabins, enjoy complimentary fresh eggs for breakfast, use the meditation room, and if Garry Adams, one of the proprietors, offers you a property tour, don’t turn him down.
Then You Should Dine At… Sutcliffe Vineyards, a small, independent vineyard a few minutes by car from Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. You may be lucky enough to have John Sutcliffe himself serve you a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a charcuterie board.
When You Visit
All the details for your trip to Mesa Verde.
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Operating hours: The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Main Park Road is always open; however, roads that lead to archaeological sites close at sunset.
Entrance fees: From May 1 to October 31, a $30 payment per vehicle is good for seven days. From November 1 through April 30, it’s $20 per vehicle for seven days. An annual pass to Mesa Verde costs $55 (or an America The Beautiful federal recreation sites annual pass is $80). recreation.gov
Current conditions: The ongoing pandemic and roadwork during summer and fall 2021 continue to restrict access to certain services and sites. Visit nps.gov/meve, then click on Alerts to get the most up-to-date information.
Listen and learn: Mesa Verde has an informative audio tour as well as a podcast series called Mesa Verde Voices. Visit nps.gov/meve, then click on Learn About the Park, then Photos & Multimedia, then Multimedia Presentations for the links.