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Mesa Verde: Ancestral Puebloans - Anasazi in the southwest

There is something inherently fascinating about old things, and the older the more reverential. In the USA, a country where "historic" references anything more than 100 years old, the remnants of the Anasazi, also known as Ancestral Puebloans -- which date back to 1000 AD-- draw thousands in a pilgrimage to this ancient civilization that is in our own backyard. Long before Europeans set foot on the shores the people of USA's southwest wove beautiful baskets, harvested the three sisters - corn, beans, and squash – built ceremonial centers (kivas) and multi-level housing. This civilization thrived for over 750 years from 550 to 1300 AD. Then, the dwellings emptied, leaving only the tantalizing remains of their villages.

Who were the Ancient Puebloans?

In acknowledgment of their legacy, they are called both the Anasazi and the ancestral puebloans and the remnants of their civilization centered in the Four Corner region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado still astounds. They are acknowledged to be the ancestors of the pueblos of New Mexico, but also nonPueblo people of the Ute, Hopi, and Navajo.

By AD 1300 the Anasazi - Ancient Puebloans had left the entire region. While it had often been asked "What happened to the Anasazi" with the suggestion that they mysteriously disappeared, their descendants assert that they didn't disappear at all, they simply moved from their original homeland. Possibly the result of extended drought or the scarcity of important natural resources.

What is known is that the Rio Grande pueblos and the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni grew in numbers after AD 1300 as well as the area around the Homolovi area near Winslow, Arizona.

Visiting Mesa Verde

One of the best places to experience this ancient heritage is at Mesa Verde (Green Table) in Cortez, Colorado.

The classic period of the Ancestral Puebloans is believe to have occurred between 1100 and 1300 when the population of the Mesa Verde area was believed to have reached several thousand people living in its compact villages.

You could start your visit at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum with their excellent introductory video, and charmingly created dioramas that depict their lives and how they evolved over time. There’s an interesting back story to these exhibits. They were created by during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and thus have their own historical value as well.

Start with Spruce Tree House

But since Mesa Verde National Park contains an estimated 600 cliff dwellings at 5,000 sites, why not start with one of the in-your-face cliff dwelling experiences. Spruce Tree House right next door to the museum contains one of the park's best preserved cliff dwellings. See the Ancestral Puebloans living quarters, and then place it in historical context.

Spruce Tree House was constructed between 1211 and 1278 and contains 130 rooms and 8 kivas – the underground circular centers believed to be used for ceremonial purposes.

The housing was all constructed on the south facing sides of the cliff to provide the warmth of the sun in winter and shelter from that blazing sun in summer. South facing fields would also provide a longer growing season as well.

It's a half mile round trip down to the bottom, but there is a bit of a steep climb on the way up. The path is very well paved, and there are benches and stopping points along the way for respite

Life before the Cliff Dwellings

Now, head back in time exploring the way the people of Mesa Verde lived before the construction of the cliff dwellings. These are the villages that sit atop the mesa and can be explored in Far View, an ancient farming community. It was relatively densely populated, the half-mile area housed hundreds of men, women, and children. This was a farming community and visitors need to imagine the crops spread out across the landscape where there is currently scrub oak and low growth bushes.

Drive the Loop Road

To get a sense of the number of cliff communities and the size of the civilization drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road. It runs about 6 miles but the length of time it takes to travel depends on how much you stop and see. There are short easily walked trails to overlooks and the experience provides an important sense of the scale of the community. The area contains the small and large villages as well as providing a sense of the historical changes and evolution of the housing.

Definitely stop at Square Tower House for an excellent view of another cliff dwelling community.

Take a tour of Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House

If you have the time, and ability to climb ladders, Cliff Palace provides an up close view of a major development of cliff dwellings. This can only be explored on a ranger led tour, and tickets must be purchased in advance for a specific tour. Purchase the tickets either in the park or at the visitor center in Cortez.

Although the walking distance is short - about 1/4 mile -- exiting the Cliff Palace requires climbing 5 ladders 8 to 10 feet in height. Tucked into the walls, they are more enclosed than open-air. If you don't feel comfortable taking the tour, you can still get a sense of the magnificence of Cliff Palace from the overlook. Although larger than Spruce, it is the similar concept. Tours of Balcony House can also be arranged. Balcony House is unique in its construction of an actual balcony that runs the length of the community.

Finally, Long House is located on the Wetherill Mesa about a 12 mile drive from the Far View visitors center parking lot. It is another of the impressive cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.

Although not part of the mesa at the time of the pueblo ancestors, today there are small herds of feral horses. They are the descendants of horses kept by the present-day Ute people who continue to live in the area. The original puebloans had no horses.

Lodging in the Park - Far View Lodge

For a treat, stay overnight in Far View Lodge. The rooms are being modernized and offer the comfort of fine linens, fluffy towels, and small patios. Be advised there is no television or internet in any of the rooms. But the sense of peace and quiet was enhanced by the inability to blare television shows. Instead, sit on the patio, walk through the grounds, or perhaps enjoy a bottle of wine. If you don’t bring your own (which you can certainly do) they will arrange to have a bottle delivered to your room, with a corkscrew if needed.

The Metate Restaurant offers fine dining and views of the mesa. The restaurant excels at appetizers and desserts with fine entrees as well. It is justly considered one of the areas best restaurants. I was truly tempted to just snack on the shrimp with red chile and prickly pear jam which showcased the shrimp with sweet heat. Another excellent choice is the Mesa Quesso - crisp bread surrounds a creamy cheesy sauce. Combine them with a glass or two of wine and experience gastronomic pleasure.

For dessert, yum on the tower of the fried wonton skins with sugared pine nuts, marscapone and apple slices – the creamy flavors and the crisp wonton the gentle sweetness of the apple. Perfect. The creme brulee was another winner.

If You Go

Regardless of whether you choose to stay in the park overnight or just for the day, on the way out plan extra time to pull off and enjoy the astounding views of the valleys - La Platta and San Juan mountains, and pause and reflect on Ute Mountain and the sacred Sleeping Warrior Mountain.

Mesa Verde is open all year and in winter, with a dusting of snow, it creates another different landscape. The road to Cliff Palace is open for cross country skiing if there's enough snow and the loop road is open for the overlooks. Spruce Tree House is also open although only with ranger led tours, and the museum is open.

Only the Spruce Tree Terrace Café is open all year. The Lodge and Metate Room are open from April to October. Check the Far View Lodge Website for exact dates. There is also an RV park and campground.

For other lodging, dining, and activities in the area visit MesaVerdeCountry.com

Mesa Verde is rightfully considered one of the finest examples of villages created by the Ancient Puebloans. It is truly a don’t miss experience.



© 2011