September 24-28, 2014
Summary of Our Visit
Mesa Verde has to rank among the top parks I have visited so far. There’s something mystical about walking in the footsteps of an ancient culture. You can almost feel their presence, hear them speak, see them going about their everyday lives.
Mesa Verde traces nearly 700 years of Ancient Puebloan, more commonly known as Anasazi, architecture and culture. Exhibits in the museum and visitor center traced their culture throughout all 700 years that Mesa Verde was occupied. Open historical sites traced the evolution of Anasazi architecture, from their initial occupation of the mesa tops to their construction of the cliff dwellings.
We arrived on Wednesday, September 24 and spent 3 full days exploring Mesa Verde. Daytime highs ranged from the mid-60s to mid-70s, although the bright sunshine made it feel much, much hotter. Keep plenty of water handy, you’re going to need it.
My first questions on seeing Mesa Verde were –
How did they find this place? Why did they settle here? Why did they move off the mesa top and build their homes in cliff alcoves?
While they may be considered a primitive culture by today’s standards, they were quite advanced. They farmed the mesa tops, built check dams and reservoirs, wove baskets, and made exquisite pottery.
There are two mesas you can visit: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. By the time we arrived, Wetherill Mesa was closed for the season. Chapin Mesa was still open and the park offered guided tours of two of the three accessible cliff dwellings – Cliff Palace and Balcony House. We took both tours ($4.00 per person, per tour, no senior discounts). See separate tour posting for info on the individual dwelling sites.
After checking into the campground – more on that later – we drove the 25 mostly uphill miles to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. From there we hiked down to Spruce Tree House, the only cliff dwelling you can visit on your own, although a park ranger is always present to answer questions and keep people from going where they shouldn’t.
The next day, Thursday, we took guided tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Maybe we should have done Balcony House first because Cliff Palace’s WOW factor was much higher than Balcony House’s. However, Balcony House was much more challenging and fun getting into and out of.
The park sells booklets describing the cliff dwellings, driving loops, and self-guided hiking loops for 50 cents to $1.00. We bought the booklet for each site we visited. Because the booklets give additional insight into each site they were well worth the money.
On Friday, we took the self-guided hike along the Far View Trail. This trail takes you though a mesa-top farming community that existed from about 900AD until about 1300AD.
We also took the Mesa Top Loop Drive that winds around the top of the mesa. We saw remains of some of the earliest dwellings on Mesa Verde, pithouses, as well as spectacular views of up to a dozen cliff dwellings. We hadn’t realized just how close the various cliff dwellings were to each other. Until then we had only seen each cliff dwelling in isolation.
We managed to spend several hours in the visitor center and museum, both of which had excellent exhibits about the life and culture of the Ancestral Puebloans.
We ate lunch at a small cafe near the museum. We both ordered Navaho Tacos and shared a side of French fries. The prices were about what we expected but the portions were much bigger than we had expected. The fries were heaped on a dinner-sized paper plate and the Navaho Taco was about 10 inches wide and 3 inches deep – talk about being super-super-sized! The food was very good and we did our best to consume it but we wound up taking half a taco and half the fries home with us and we were stuffed!
Visitor Center and Museum
The visitor center is located at the only entrance to the park. The museum is located near the top of Chapin Mesa. Both have excellent exhibits.
There’s an awesome sculpture at the entrance to the visitor center showing an Ancestral Puebloan climbing a cliff using hand and toe holds with a basket on his back.
The exhibits at the visitor center are well done and informative about the life and times of the Ancestral Puebloans.
The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum also has excellent exhibits, including dioramas showing what life was like in various time periods.
The museum also has an extensive collection of artifacts including 1100 year old corn, baskets, pottery, sandals, tools, and the like.
Campground and Facilities
The campground, while huge (400 sites), was not impressive. The sites are gravel and overgrown with grass with a few scrub oaks – not enough to give you any shade – behind them. Out of the approximately 50 sites in our loop, only 2 could qualify as being “shaded” and they were taken, so we wound up in full sun. This meant we had to take extra precautions to keep our kitty, the Camper House Queen, cool and comfy while we were gone during the day. On the plus side, they do have free WiFi that worked quite well. There’s also a very reasonably priced laundromat in the “Morefield Village” that we used. We washed and dried two loads of laundry for $5.25.
The dry campsite fee was $29.00 a night plus tax. We did get 50% off using our senior pass. They have 15 sites with full hookups that are usually booked months in advance and those cost a good bit more with no senior discount available. They are otherwise the same as the other sites (read no shade). Check the lodging webpage before booking as they have specials during the slow season. The campground is only 4-5 miles inside the park entrance so it doesn’t save you much drive time to stay in the park. There is also a lodge probably 15 miles up into the park with what looked like gorgeous views off both sides of the mesa but we did not stop and check it out. Word to the wise: if you camp at the park, set up according to the sun. The afternoon sun is the hottest and will come in under your awning so we set up with our back to the south/south east so that our motor home shaded our outdoor space in the afternoons. While we were there it was chilly at night so the morning sun was nice to have.
One of the kivas was restored to what they believe is the original condition and you can climb down the ladder to check it out.
Booked the 9:30 Cliff Palace tour and the 11:00 Balcony House tour. The cliff palace was awesome to say the least. It is an entire town tucked into a rock ledge/cave. There are houses stacked on houses with storage bins tucked into a rocky recess way up and back above the town. It is easy to see where roofs of the lower buildings were used to gain entry to the upper levels. One tower is four stories high and reaches from the rock ledge to the ceiling of the cave. To leave, we climbed three 10′ ladders up through a crack in the rocks. Beside us we could see some of the small hand and foot holes that the Anasazi used 700 years ago. The balcony house was much smaller but more creative in the entry method. We climbed a 30′ double wide ladder then ducked through a small opening before reaching the first plaza. Once we viewed that, we used enlarged foot and hand holds to climb a rock and pass behind the first few rooms to enter the main plaza where there were two kivas, more rooms and the kitchen. To leave we had to crawl through a tunnel, climb a ten foot ladder, follow little footcuts back and forth across a rock, then up another ladder. We had lunch at the restaurant near the museum and were pleasantly surprised that the portions were large and the food good. We had Navaho Taco which is fry bread with chili, cheese, onion, salsa and sour cream. It was at least and inch and half high and covered the entire plate for 8.95. The french fries were an ample portion also. We finished our day by going through the entire museum before returning back to camp for some quiet time. Holly noticed that probably half of the RVs in the campground are rentals.
We dined at the café at the top again before heading back to camp.