MESA VERDE

Rain hangs in grey shreds tinged with rust from steel wool clouds in a western sky split ear-to-ear with vista….dark flat topped mesas in the distance, final sun-brightened puffy clouds out past the rain-holders nearby, and a network of buff winding sandstone ravines in the foreground topped with a low forest Utah juniper and piñon pine snaking Southward into the heart of Mesa Verde. That's the late afternoon view from our small balcony at the Far View Lodge at around 7800 feet elevation atop theof the 55,000 acre Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado.

In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt established the 55,000 acre Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man"—the first national park of its kind. Those works of man being the ruins and remains of ancestral puebloan peoples—sometimes referred to by archaeologists as Anasazi—that inhabited the site from roughly 500 AD to the late 1200’s. Technically a questa, rather than a Mesa, the park features steep vertical cliffs on the east, north and west sides, and slopes at around 7 degrees to the high Colorado plateau in the south (a mesa has cliffs on all four sides).

Deep parallel canyons weave north to south, with a scrub-covered steep slope first descending from the flat-topped mesas, turning to sheer vertical golden sandstone cliffs. It was in clefts and under rock brows in these cliffs that the ancients built their most complex dwellings.

Early next morning, The still-hidden sun colors the scrambled clouds pink and salmon, then fiery orange. Features in the vague rippling vista become slowly perceptible. The northeast facing walls of the undulating canyons—Soda and Cliff and Wickiup and Coyote—pop into buff gold as the sun touches them, and the uniform grey of the sweeping mesa-top pygmy forests changes slowly to deep green. The far East Rim lights up rust and tan, and slowly the whole landscape goes from monochrome to technicolor, and its powerful beauty emerges. This is immense land, vast land, almost empty land. The feeling of nature and its force is very strong here. It is reminiscent in scope and emptiness of the wide plains of the Serengeti in Africa, the Rajasthani desert of northern India, or the expansive pampas of Patagonia.

The 700 Year Tour commences a couple of hours later at 8 am, and wanders the southern part of the mesas for four hours. Our guide, Alfie, a pixie-ish retired teacher shows us excavated pit houses that date to 5-600 AD, then deeper and more elaborate kivas that evolved a couple of hundred years later. Further around Mesa Top Loop, The Sun Temple, a 5-6 foot masonry walled complex of some dozen rooms illustrates the evolution of construction by around AD 1000 from the earlier pits and kivas.

She points out the main flora of the mesa tops: piñon pine and Utah juniper, banana yucca, mesa sage, bitterbrush and rabbit bush. She describes some of their nutritional and medicinal uses by the ancients—tea from sage and juniper bark, edible juniper berries, pine nuts, and fruit, flowers and roots of the broad-leafed yucca, and paddles and fruit of the occasional prickly pear cactus. Blue larkspur and lupine, yellow golden eye and snakeweed, and creamy milkvetch are dotted around and edge the roads, along with a variety of other wildflowers.

Across Cliff Canyon from the Sun Temple, we gain the first glimpses of the cliff houses—the simple one story Window House, and the more complex ruin of Oak Tree House. Shortly one of the gems of the park comes into view—Cliff Palace, the most elaborate complex in the park, nestled under an enormous sandstone brow just below the mesa edge. Here a ranger guide named Lara, who is a trained archaeologist, takes over. The tour descends a couple of hundred steps of uneven, often steep stone steps through rock channels sometimes barely 3 feet wide to the level of the ruins. The Cliff Palace visit is a tour of the village of 150 rooms, round and square towers and 23 kivas, and an anthropological history lesson covering how the puebloans in this period lived, farmed—they grew corn, squash and beans up on the mesa, ate—they hunted rabbits, deer and sheep, and constructed their village-in-the cliff. Built in the late 1100’s into the early 1200’s in a time of bounty, archaeologists speculate that the people hunted out the big game and possibly deforested the mesa in the coming decades. In 1276 (from tree-ring dating) a 23-year drought began. The Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the site by around 1300, with no one really certain why.

The vista of the far canyon wall through the shrubbery and forest shows that the ancient Anasazi who dwelled here not only had excellent shelter, but view property as well! Naturally one must climb out of the site as well as in, and the last several dozen steps are up pole ladders much like the ones the ancients would have used.

In the late afternoon we drive to Park Point, the highest spot in Mesa Verde at 8,567 feet. There an active fire lookout commands views more than 100 miles in all directions. From this vista we can take in the rugged San Juans to the north, Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west—with sun streaming through the far sheeting rain—and the steep North Rim that drops 2000 feet to the high Colorado plateau. Sixty miles distant, past the East Rim, the iconic Shiprock in the Navajo Nation is just visible. Early explorers so named it because they thought it looked like the top rigging of a clipper ship, but it actually looks more like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. The Navajo call it Tsé Bitʼai, which in their tongue means “rock with wings”.

Far View Lodge is the only place to overnight in the park, save for camping. Seeming a few decades old, it is run as usual in national parks by a concessionaire on a long-term lease— which, without competition or pressure, breeds mediocrity. It is long in the tooth, and in need of an upgrade, but the rooms are adequate, the restaurant food fairly decent, and the views spectacular. And views, scenery, history and exploration are why one comes here….not for luxury. Lunch at the Spruce House Cafe proved interesting and tasty—a concoction known as a Navajo taco—a round of puffy Navajo fry-bread topped with pulled pork, black beans, lettuce, salsa and Cotija cheese….easily enough for two. Oh and the Lodge bar makes a very good margarita. So unless camping is your thing, if you visit Mesa Verde, accept the accommodations for what they are: support for exploring the natural wonders and human history of the area. 

Our last morning dawns sunny, but the sky is cloudy by 8, with rain sheeting miles off to the south in New Mexico. We wind back down-mesa to Mesa Ruins Loop, pass the main area for Balcony House, and park at the trailhead to the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. The reddish sand trail winds most of a mile through that beautiful juniper-piñon plant community out to the edge of Soda Canyon, and an overlook provides a view back on to Balcony House, perhaps the second most visited ruin, with 40 rooms, two kivas and three plazas. It is, however, much less impressive than Cliff Palace. The adjacent overlook provides a fantastic panorama view up and down Soda Canyon, and to the twisting canyon floor far below, where, in the winter runoff season torrents of water must rage. We hike out the trail just as the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating the glorious colors and vistas of this very special national park.