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Exploring Mesa Verde and the Colorado Plateau

This past Labor Day weekend, Angie and I finally made it to our fourth and final Colorado National Park: Mesa Verde. The action-packed weekend included three nights of camping on public land, a soak in a hot spring at Pagosa, a full day at Mesa Verde, a return drive along the San Juan Skyway and the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray and a romantic dinner in Glenwood Springs. This blog is meant to showcase the highlights of our weekend, particularly what we found most interesting about our 14th National Park visited together.

The milky way over our jeep and the glare from the fire at dispersed camping land near Salida, Colorado

An Archeological Treasure

Located in southwestern Colorado near the towns of Mancos and Cortez, Mesa Verde National Park was created to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloan people who once thrived in the region. This UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves over 4,500 known archeological sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings built into the natural alcoves of the mesa walls.

At each stop along the way, we would scan the cliffs with our binoculars to try and find more dwellings tucked away on the steep rock faces. I couldn’t believe the number of ruins we were able to spot across the canyon. It seemed we found more every place we looked.

Square Tower House Overlook (CE 1200 - 1300). This dwelling includes the tallest standing building in Mesa Verde. At 27 feet tall, Square Tower House consists of 90% original material

From approximately CE 550 to 1300, Ancestral Puebloan people farmed and hunted along the mesa, growing corn, beans, and squash, hunting wild animals, raising turkeys, and crafting fine baskets and pottery. The preservation of sites like Cliff Palace and Balcony House is of utmost importance, shedding light on the culture, architecture, and daily life of the ancestral Puebloans. Today, Mesa Verde serves as a living museum, inspiring visitors to connect with and respect the history of indigenous peoples in North America.

The largest cliff dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas, supporting a population of around 100 people

Cliff Palace Tour

Our day in Mesa Verde started with a Ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace. These tours sell out quickly, so it was important for us to reserve a tour several weeks ahead of time on, the day they went on sale. The tour was $25 and well worth the price.

The tour starts on the mesa rim and takes you down several narrow passageways and ladders to access the dwelling

We listened to our guide Jordan speak about the history of his people with a background soundtrack provided by the squeaking White-throated Swifts nesting above us

Before entering, our guide Jordan – who was of Puebloan descent – informed us that it is customary to ask the spirits permission before entering the dwellings. We did just that and moved along the rocks into the palace.

Jordan explained that construction on Cliff Palace started around CE 1190 and was mostly finished by CE 1280. Only about 25 families probably lived at Cliff Palace at any one point in time – around 100-120 people at most. It was likely that this alcove was the source of a natural seep spring where water was abundant.

The structures were a mixture of home dwellings and kivas – round depressions in the ground used for spiritual ceremonies. Jordan told us that kivas would have had roofs that were flush with the ground with an escape opening for smoke from the underground fire. He also pointed out a small hole in the ground called a sipapu which resembles the portal through which their ancient ancestors first emerged to enter the present world. Kivas are still widely used by modern-day Puebloan people.

Kivas were likely used for combined religious, social, and utilitarian purposes. Entry was by ladder through a hole in the center of the roof. Six pilasters provided roof support and the rectangular ventilator, fire pit, and sipapu were all found on the ground

Jordan finished his tour by recounting the Puebloan creation story, a legend that epitomizes the importance of taking care of the land, its denizens, and oneself.

Cliff Palace Loop

After our tour, Angie and I drove the remaining “Cliff Palace Loop,” stopping at Balcony House and hiking out to the Soda Canyon Overlook (1.2 miles round trip) to get better views of Balcony House across the canyon.

Balcony House was a mid-sized village of 38 rooms and two kivas, housing up to 30 people. The alcove faces northeast, which means they would have received little warmth during the winter. Its location near two seep springs probably outweighed the need to maximize summer sunlight. We were unable to secure a Balcony House tour, which is apparently a little more adventurous than the Cliff Palace Tour, with several high ladder climbs and a narrow crawl through a tunnel

Snack break along the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail

The Mesa Verde Museum

During the heat of the day, we toured the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and appreciated the many artifacts on display, delving deeper into the Park’s history and archeology. Of particular interest were the artifacts that had been collected by people and then sent back to the National Park with letters confessing their remorse for removing such historical pieces. I thought about the many treasures that were likely removed from Cliff Palace when people were regularly camping there before the creation of the National Park in 1906.

Galleries of cultural objects including Ancestral Puebloan ceramics, jewelry, sandals, and weapons used for hunting are displayed in the Chapin Mesa Archeaological Museum, one of the oldest museums in the National Park Service. Built between 1922 and 1925 in the Modified Pueblo Revival architectural style, it replaced a cabin built in 1917

Earliest Origins on Mesa Top Loop

In the afternoon, we drove the Mesa Top Loop and learned about the evolution of Puebloan homesteads. Roadside pull-offs featured the depressions of ancient dwellings known as pit houses. Pit houses were often clustered as small villages on mesa tops. By CE 750, the Puebloan people were building houses above ground, with upright walls of poles and mud. And by CE 1000, architectural skills had advanced from pole and adobe construction to stone masonry. The Mesa Top Loop features ancient sites depicting the variety of architectural styles throughout time.

The depression from a pit house built from around CE 550 to CE 750

The Natural Wonders of Mesa Verde

In addition to its historical significance, Mesa Verde National Park boasts a diverse range of ecosystems and wildlife. The park’s elevations vary from 6,000 to over 8,500 feet, creating a mosaic of habitats that support a rich array of flora and fauna. Pinyon-juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine forests, and high-elevation meadows are just a few of the ecosystems found here. Mammals like mule deer, coyote, black bear, mountain lion, ringtail cat, and Abert's squirrel frequent the Park along with over 200 species of birds, 16 species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, six species of fishes, and over 1000 species of invertebrates. The park’s unique environment provides important conservation opportunities and underscores the need to protect these ecosystems. For example, several core breeding areas for the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) can be found throughout the Park.

A rambunctious flock of American Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) crossed our path as we walked back from the Soda Canyon Overlook

Angie and I were able to do some birding while we hiked along the Park’s trails. Some of the best places to spot birds include the Motezuma Valley Overlook, where we saw raptors like Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring above the canyon. The pinyon-juniper woodlands provided us opportunities to see flocks of American Bushtits, Juniper Titmouse, a Black-throated Gray Warbler, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, and Spotted Towhee. There were also many Pinyon Jays, Common Ravens, and Wild Turkeys throughout the Park.

Michael Durham/Flickr Creative Commons

The Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) can be found throughout the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands of the Park

We also saw quite a few birds at our camps on Forest Service Road 316 and Mission Ridge Road including an Olive-sided Flycatcher who was actively hunting dragonflies, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Clark’s Nutcracker, Steller’s Jay, Western Tanager, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Hermit Thrush.

We watched this Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) score a gigantic dragonfly near our camp at Forest Service Road 316. We knew it was there before we saw it because we could hear its "Quick! Three Beers!" vocalization

Our camp off of Forest Service Road 316 near Mancos. The birding was really good near this site. In the evening, we heard a Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli) singing

A Townsend's Warbler (Setophaga townsendi) graced us briefly with a sighting as it moved through in a flock of predominantly Yellow-rumped Warblers near our camp at Mission Ridge Road

Angie preparing happy hour snacks at our camp on Mission Ridge Road

Birds we missed but would have loved to see here are:

Scaled Quail

Gambel's Quail

Gunnison Sage Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Band-tailed Pigeon

Black Swift

Rufous Hummingbird

Greater Roadrunner

Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Long-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Flammulated Owl

Mexican Spotted Owl

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Cassin’s Kingbird

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Bell's Vireo

Gray Vireo

Chihuahuan Raven

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Lucy’s Warbler

Grace’s Warbler

Scott’s Oriole

Great-tailed Grackle

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Purple Martin

Canyon Wren

Bewick’s Wren

Curve-billed Thrasher

We would have also loved to drive Wetherill Mesa Road, which was closed to due construction. It would have also have been nice to explore the Spruce Tree House and hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, which is supposed to be good for birding. Like in so many other Parks, there is always more to see and do than what we had time for. And like I always say, it just gives us another reason to come back!

On our way out, we stopped at Park Point Overlook to admire the beauty of the San Juans in the East and the Utah desert in the west

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