Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ancient Condos

Our drive from Montrose to Cortez along parts of the “San Juan Skyway” (State Highway 145) kept us entertained with lots of pleasant scenery. By the time we reached Cortez, Colorado, at 6200 feet, we had only suffered a net loss of about 100 feet in elevation from our site near Montrose. But, we were deeper into a transition zone between arid scrublands located further south and the San Juan Mountains from where we had just traveled.
Our target was Mesa Verde National Park. Habitat-wise it offered four well-defined plant zones. Moving from lower to higher elevations, they include: shrub-steppe dominated by big sagebrush; pinyon-juniper woodland with Utah juniper and Colorado pinyon pine; a mountain shrub community with Gambel oak, Utah serviceberry and mountain mahogany; and a Gambel oak-Douglas-fir woodland with relic quaking aspen and Ponderosa pine. It was clearly evident that fires within the last decade had heavily impacted the Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine in this last zone. Interestingly, post-fire surveys unearthed some remarkable finds.

view from Wetherill Mesa
While we are typically motivated to visit areas with birding as our primary objective, our visit to Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) had taken on a more “touristy” role. The park occupied over 52,000 acres of the Colorado Plateau with over 8,500 acres of wilderness. But as interesting as the natural ecosystems were, the main attraction had to do with the works of man. Specifically the cliff dwelling ruins constructed by Ancestral Puebloan. The park has over 5,000 known archeological sites, including some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. We put birdwatching on the back burner for a while.
With only one day to explore we wanted to maximize our time in Mesa Verde.
Fortunately Carol had done a lot of online research and had amassed a solid block of information about the best times and places to register for park ranger lead cliff dwelling tours. If we planned carefully, we would be able to hit all our target tours plus have time leftover to do a few self-guided tours.

tram to Long House
From the get-go we learned that timing was critical. Our site at LaMesa RV in Cortez was an hour’s drive to the park entrance. From there, an additional 15 mile drive into the park on a paved but steep, narrow, and winding road would take us to the Far View Visitor Center where we had to obtain tour tickets. Tours that we were interested in were: Long House, Cliff Palace, and possibly Balcony House. Long House, we learned, was on the Wetherill Mesa. It was already the last day of Labor Day Weekend, and, the last day before this section of the park closed for the winter. Whew! The distance to Long House was 12 miles. In order to tour the other two sites it required backtracking to the Far View Visitor Center then driving another 5 miles to the 6-mile Cliff Palace/Balcony House sites loop. This was one spread out park!

Long House
Long House
Daytime temperatures were another consideration beside potential physical challenges. While we’ve learned that parks tend to over hype physical difficulties, it was apparent that perhaps Balcony House might just be a little over the top, even for a couple of geezers like us who are in pretty decent shape. Comments about heights and steep drop-offs had already put us off. The added phrases “crawling through a 12-ft long tunnel”, “climbing two 10-ft ladders on 60 feet of open face rock” and another “32-ft ladder” didn’t help. Later, after two tours and several self-guided stops, we realized Balcony House wouldn’t have offered us much in the way of new or different so we didn't feel too badly.

touring Long House
Long House kiva (without roof)
So. It seemed to make the most sense to tackle the Long House tour first. When we arrived at the Far View Visitor Center we managed to snag the two remaining tickets for the first tour. We also purchased tickets for the next to the last afternoon tour of Cliff Palace. That would buy us enough time to break for lunch plus allow enough travel time and opportunities for self-guided tours. We headed off to wait for the mesa access gate to open and then followed a line of vehicles to Wetherill Mesa.
To reach Long House we first parked near the tram loading station. There were other free self-guided walking trails and sites, as well as other trail heads found directly across from the vehicle parking lot.
Riding the tram was the only access to the 90-minute ranger guided tour. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and took us through a recently burned pinyon-juniper forest. In addition to the tram ride, the Long House tour required negotiating 50 concrete steps and climbing two 15 foot ladders. There was also a round trip 3/4 mile hike to and from the Long House tram drop off site. Nothing too difficult.
Funded by the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society, Long House was excavated between 1959 and 1961. Long House is considered the second largest cliff dwelling in the park. Of all the dwellings we felt that this was by far the most beautiful. Since we did the tour earlier in the day, heat wasn’t an issue...but we could see where later in the day, as the sun shone higher, heat would become a factor for some folks.
Long House was built by the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan people) between 600 to 1300 AD. Initially the Anasazi built mesa-top villages made of adobe but around the 1190’s they began to build cliff dwellings. The mainly subsistence farming Anasazi were famous for their elegant basket weaving and pottery.
By about 1300 AD the Anasazi left Mesa Verde and migrated to southern Arizona and New Mexico. The ranger offered some recent explanations for why: construction and water-related activities lead to speculate that climate change (drought) and increased population (limited housing space) contributed to stress and a mass exodus. Interestingly, no evidence has been found to suggest that anyone lived in the cliff dwellings or pueblos after the Anasazi departed.
The ranger stated that the Long House was comprised of approximately 150 rooms which were not all clustered like standard cliff dwellings. Seepage from cliff walls provided water for daily routines. Looking at the original and preserved hand and foot holds (“stairs”) built into the cliffs, traveling up and down was at best arduous and dangerous. We learned about the remnant kivas, subterranean rooms used for religious rituals of the kachina belief system. Modern Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo peoples still use kivas for spiritual ceremonies. 

trail to Step House
Step House kiva
After we climbed out of Long House we hiked back to the tram pickup point for our ride back to the parking lot. There we grabbed our lunches and picnicked in the shade of the tram waiting area. Before departing Wetherill Mesa we took the self-guided 3/4 mile round trip hike to Step House to view cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. The on-site ranger happened to be the same fact-filled guide we had for our Long House tour. Then we were off to Chapin Mesa for our Cliff Palace tour, possibly the best known cliff dwelling in the park. The sun was now well up in the sky and we knew that the tour would likely be pretty warm.

overlook at Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace
At Cliff Palace there was a bird's eye overlook were tour participants gathered. Once the tour began we were lead down a very narrow and and steep winding staircase. What immediately struck us was that Cliff House differed from Long House in that it was multi-storied with more of a south, southwest orientation (more sun). There were more rooms (200), open courts, walkways and several more kivas than at Long House. As with the dwellings at Long House, these rooms were also constructed out of stone, sandstone, wooden beams (many had since rotted away) and mortar. One of the hazards of a kiva with a roof constructed of wooden beams was the danger of fire. Access to dwellings here was a bit more restricted but the ranger was quite animated and prolific with her comments. As a descendant of the Anasazi, she had an emotional stake in the information she shared.

had to descend and then climb up to access Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace at eye level
ladders used to climb out of Cliff Palace
Judging by the “very strenuous” tour description of Balcony House and that the full heat of the day we were glad that we had we opted instead to take a couple of self-guided auto tours and explore other archaeological sites of the mesa-top.  There was the Far View Sites self-guided tour through a mesa-top farming community, a Mesa Top Tour with several mesa top sites and dwellings overlooks, the Spruce Tree House, probably the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, and a walk through of the Chapin Mesa Museum exhibits and bookstore.

Square Tower House dwellings
Far View Visitor Center
There were many more things to see and do at Mesa Verde but by now it was late afternoon and we still had to backtrack out of the park and make the hour-long drive back to our RV in Cortez. Had we another day, we might have returned. But given we had just the one day, we had managed to squeeze in a whole lot of history. We came away with a far deeper appreciation and respect for the primitive life style of the Ancestral Puebloan. It sure put into perspective just how easy we have it when we go shopping at a local grocery store, turn on a water faucet, or light a propane stove for cooking. And, when we do migrate to other parts of the country, our travel is a lot more comfortable.
Incidentally, if you have visited Mesa Verde in the past or are planning to do so in the future, the Far View Visitor Center will assume a new responsibility once the new $14,000,000 Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center is completed in November 2012 (“official” opening in May, 2013). The new visitor center will be located at the park entrance just off Highway 160. It will implement sustainable design features, high efficiency with an emphasis on alternative energy systems. It will house a Mesa Verde Museum Association bookstore, visitor information desk, tour ticket sales, exhibits and trip planning materials. It will also be the repository for Mesa Verde's three million artifacts, and archives.
Due to it being Labor Day Weekend we were unable to make a reservation to park within the park boundaries (which is why we wound up parking in Cortez). However, if you don't need to RV it, you might consider making a reservation at the Far View Lodge well within the park boundary.

rescuing a hummingbird that had banged into an exhibit window

No comments:

Post a Comment