Friday, December 3, 2010

Road Trip 2008: Mesa Verde

In Canyon de Chelly a park ranger recommended that we should visit Mesa Verde NP. She told us that of all parks in the four corners area, Mesa Verde NP has the most spectacular and best-preserved (and at the same time easily accessible) cliff dwellings. She was definitely right and I am very glad that we listened to her and decided to spend several days in the park.

Mesa Verde NP (green table in Spanish) protects over 4'000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. It was inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people for over 700 years, from A.D. 550 to A.D. 1300. For the first six centuries, the Puebloans primarily lived on the mesa tops and only during the final 75 to 100 years they constructed and lived in the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is now famous.

During the summer season, the park offers ranger-guided tours to three cliff dwellings: Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House. Several other dwellings (of which the most interesting are Spruce Tree House and Step House) can be visited on self-guided tours. There are also many hiking trails within the park.

Even though we spent two full days (and three nights) in the park, we only had enough time to go on one short hike (on Petroglyph Point Trail) and visit 6 cliff dwellings (the five mentioned above plus Square Tower House).

To visit Cliff Palace (as well as Balcony House and Long House) you will first need to go IN PERSON to the Far View Visitor Center to purchase a tour ticket. Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling and also the one that is most popular with the visitors:

The only hike that we did in the park was 2.4 miles long (round trip) hike to Petroglyph Point:

Spruce Tree House is the park's best-preserved cliff dwelling. It can be visited on a self-guided tour. The 0.5 mile long tour takes around 1h unless you meet a chatty ranger - then it can be much longer :) On our way back we were lucky to see a rainbow forming above Spruce Tree House:

Long House can be visited on 0.75 mile, 90-minute long, ranger-guided tour that involves climbing two 15ft (5m) ladders. The tour begins with a tram ride at the Wetherill Mesa information point, 12 miles (19km) away from the Visitor Center:

Step House is also located on the Wetherill Mesa. It can be reached by hiking 0.75 miles:

Inside the kiva:

Burnt trees on the Wetherill Mesa:

View from the Chapin Mesa in direction of La Plata Mountains:

The one-hour guided tour to Balcony House is the most "adventurous" of all the tours offered in the park, and therefore, it is less popular than others. It involves climbing several ladders and crawling through a tunnel. We thought that it was funny that the Visitor Center had a model of the tunnel, so that people could decide if they wanted to crawl through it, or not. (Its second, maybe more important purpose, was to discourage fatter people from going on the tour.)

Agnieszka entering the tunnel. You can imagine how somebody bigger or less fit would have problem crawling through it:

Square Tower House:

A few tips:
  1. Driving through the park is slow! The roads leading through it are narrow, have sharp curves and steep grades.
  2. The campground in the park is huge (it has 400 sites). So I am pretty sure that you can just show up there and get a site without any problem.
  3. The elevations in the park range from 6,900 feet to 8,572 feet, so it can get pretty cold there, especially during the night.
  4. The Wetherill Mesa road is closed during the winter, so it is better to visit the park during the summer.