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Favorite Photo Locations: Mesa Verde National Park

In this edition, Red River Paper Pro Ron Wolfe covers the iconic Mesa Verde in Colorado

My most recent trip to Mesa Verde was on the first day of November. Going to a National Park offseason has the advantage of fewer visitors. On the flip side, some attractions may be closed. In this case, several cliff dwellings were closed, but there were still sufficient cliff dwellings open to get a good flavor of the way the Anasazi people lived.

Spruce Tree House

Mesa Verde is located in the Southwest corner of Colorado. The park’s entrance is on U.S. Route 160, about 9 miles east of Cortez and about 7 miles west of Mancos, Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, to protect some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the world. The name Mesa Verde means “green table” in English.

Mesa Verde contains some of the most notable and best preserved archaeological sites. It occupies 81.4 sq. miles and features ruins of structures built by the Ancestral Pueblo people, generally called – Anasazi. Mesa Verde is best known for its cliff dwellings, which are structures built within caves and under outcroppings in cliffs. There are over 600 cliff dwellings, and more than 4,000 archaeological sites of the Pueblo people here. Out of the 600 cliff dwellings, 75% contained only 1-5 rooms, and many were single room storage units.

Archaeologists tell us that the Anasazi inhabited Mesa Verde roughly between 600 and 1300 AD. By 750, they built mesa-top villages from adobe. In the late 1190s, they began to build the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is known. The Anasazi were mainly subsistence farmers, growing crops on nearby mesas. Their primary crop was corn, which was the major part of their diet. Men were also hunters. Women were famous for their elegant basket weaving and pottery. Anasazi artifacts are highly prized today.

Two of the cliff dwellings visited on this trip were the Spruce Tree House and the Cliff palace.

Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House is the third-largest village, close to a spring; it had 130 rooms and eight kivas, or ceremonial chambers. It was believed to have been constructed between AD 1211 and 1278, and 60 to 80 people lived there at one time. Because of its protected location, it is well preserved. It is the only cliff dwelling open year-round and has-guided tours daily during winter months. The moderately strenuous half mile paved trail includes a steep 100-foot descent and ascent. Stop frequently on the ascent to take photos.

Spruce Tree House can be photographed as you approach down a trail as well as from near the dwellings, if you are taking photographs, check maps and consider the suns location and possible shadows.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

In 1888 two cowboys tracking stray cattle in a snowstorm stopped at the edge of a steep-walled canyon. Through the snow flakes they made out traces of walls and towers of a large cliff dwelling across the canyon. Climbing down a makeshift ladder, the cowboys explored the network of rooms that they named Cliff Palace. Inside, they found stone tools, pottery, and other artifacts in rooms that had been uninhabited for over 600 years.

Cliff Palace Detail

This multi-storied ruin, the largest and best-known of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, is located in the largest cave in the center of the Great Mesa. It was positioned with a south- and southwest-facing architecture, providing warmth from the sun in the winter. The site had 200 rooms; including storage rooms, open courts, walkways, and 23 kivas. Dating back more than 700 years, the dwelling is constructed of sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar. On the surface of many walls, the people decorated with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white. These were the first things to erode with time. The population was thought to be approximately 100 people. It is believed that the Cliff Palace was a social and administrative site with high ceremonial usage.

Kiva at Mesa Verde

Wear sturdy shoes and be prepared for some strenuous climbing, if you plan to visit cliff dwellings. Exiting from the Cliff Palace is via a climb up steep ladders, if you believe you will need to stop frequently, allow others to climb out before you.

The Cliff Palace can be photographed from an outlook above as well as from near the dwellings as you hike. If you are taking photographs, check maps and time of day so you are positioned to take photos in good light.

Tips for visitors:

  • be respectful of other visitors. Mesa Verde belongs to them too
  • visit at a time of year when there are less tourists, to get those nice photos of villages without people
  • use maps from the visitor center, and try to visit when sunlight is more flattering and the structures are less in the shadows
  • listen to rangers and look for details that reveal how these ancient people lived
  • travel light so you can climb ladders, crawl through tunnels and peek in living spaces when allowed
  • visit some of the smaller, less famous ruins



Original Publication Date: September 24, 2013

Article Last updated: September 24, 2013

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