June 18, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
As neighborhoods go, Mesa Verde is unique.
Rising up from the surrounding plateau to elevations of 6,000 to 8,000 feet, this “green table,” fissured with streams and canyons, embraced and supported many thousands of residents during more than 700 years, starting about 600 A.D. These probable ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians farmed the mesa top, hunted game, produced baskets and pottery, traded with communities near and far, and in the last century of their stay built at least 600 cliff dwellings in recesses sheltered by the canyon walls.
For some reason, perhaps related to climate, food supply or external threat, these ancient people abandoned their neighborhood in the late 1200’s, leaving their homes to the elements.
Discovered by cowboys in the late 1800’s, the stone dwellings at Mesa Verde have been studied by archaeologists ever since. As a result we know much about the ancient ones’ lifestyles, tools, clothing, food and art. But we will never know their full story.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park is the steward of what remains of the old neighborhood. Several of the cliff dwellings are accessible by foot, and many more can be viewed from above. Three can be visited only with a Park Ranger guide and require tickets to be purchased ahead of time; these are Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House.
When we were there during the summer many years ago (the Park is open year round), we were fortunate to get tickets and tour both Balcony House and the Cliff Palace during our one-day visit. Extensive hiking is not required to see any of the ruins, but because of the elevation of the Park, and climbing involved – up and down trails, walkways and ladders – some tours can be physically taxing.Our Native American Park Ranger guide at Balcony House told us it is the most strenuous of the tours. Starting out, it requires descent of lots of stair steps, then a climb up a 32-foot ladder into the ruin. To leave, you must crawl through a narrow tunnel, before climbing another 32-foot ladder. At the time we did it, our kids were three, five, seven and nine, and for them it was child’s play!
Although no one lives in the Mesa Verde neighborhood anymore, the silent ruins channel the long-ago presence of the ancient people who lived there for more than 700 years, making a life for themselves and their families, creating a thriving community that evolved for generations. The cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites protected by Mesa Verde National Park are preserved reminders of an ancient culture whose accomplishments are part of the rich history of human life on this planet.