I don’t ever remember not loving history. My interests in specific periods and parts of the world may have changed over the years, but I’ve always been fascinated by the past, by the stories of triumphs and failures, by the changes that can be seen when looking at clothing and architecture over the years, by the lessons to be learned by studying the lives of people from all cultures and eras.
And ever since high school, when I learned that a place existed in the United States where I could see the architectural feats of people who lived 800 years ago, I have wanted to see the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde for myself.
For the last 20 years, before I even knew that I would want to camp my way across the country to do so, I have frequently mentioned my dream to my poor boyfriend, then husband, who always responded with an indication of “someday.”
I decided that this summer, “someday” was happening now.
When I planned this family vacation, there were two locations that were “musts.” Mesa Verde National Park was one of them.
Our Mesa Verde adventure started the first night we arrived at the KOA in Cortez. A friend who was also planning a family trip to Mesa Verde asked me about picking up tour tickets ahead of time, since you can’t buy tour tickets online and the only way to actually see the most spectacular cliff dwellings up close is through a ranger-led tour. As a result, I knew that if we wanted a chance at getting the tours and the times that we wanted, we needed to go early. With the visitor center at the entrance to the park open until seven, we were able to pick up tickets for two tours and Junior Ranger books for both kids so they could get started as soon as they were ready.
Then I had to wait twelve more hours before I could explore.
When I woke up the next morning, I excitedly filled water bottles, the extra jugs, packed lunches, and waited for the rest of the family to be ready to leave the campsite. We headed straight to the park, gave the ranger at the gate our park pass, and started our slow climb into the mountains, weaving back and forth on the switchbacks. We drove past views of snow-capped mountains, valleys, and rocky cliffs. Jeff tried his hardest to keep his eyes on the road while the rest of us oohed and awed at the magical views on each side of the truck.
As we got closer to the Cliff Palace Loop where we would take both of our tours, we passed marker after marker reporting the date of various forest fires, giving us a chance to show our kids the effects of forest fires and the slow, natural regrowth that comes after the ash clears away. For weeks we had been telling them that fires in the parks were a no-go and we could finally show them why. The remnants of devastation was a sobering reminder that the beauty of the high desert is subject to a delicate balance that can be disrupted by human mistakes.
We pulled into the parking lot where we would meet our ranger and the large group taking the Balcony House tour. Both of the tours we were taking had been determined by the National Park Service to be strenuous and we listened as the ranger discussed the 32-foot ladder we would be climbing and the narrow tunnels we would have to crawl through to get from one point to the next (one of them 12-feet long and the most narrow point being 18-inches). We gathered our water bottles, my backpack, and camera, and then followed the ranger and our group down a set of stairs that took us to the 32-foot ladder to the first room.
I spent much of our time at the Balcony House marveling at the up-close view of 800-year-old craftmanship. The wood beams were perfectly preserved by the dry climate, still functioning in keeping some structures together. The indigenous people who occupied the area had created an engineering masterpiece, but we had to get up close so that we could actually see it. Bricks were made to fit all the way to the natural ceiling, the dwellings went back further than the naked eye can see, and they figured out how to manage heating and cooling as well as how to access enough potable water for all tribal members to have access for drinking, household use, and farming.
We made it through the tour without many problems. I honestly thought that the 32-foot ladder would be the worst part of the whole excursion, but it turns out that the high ladders weren’t that bad, at least for us. We kept our eyes straight ahead and focused on the task in front of us: getting to the top. Otherwise, we just had to wait for those at the front of the line. The worst part of the Balcony House was the tunnels from one courtyard to the next, but even that was doable, as long as I took off my backpack and pushed it along in front of me. It was a worthwhile tour, and while I wouldn’t call it strenuous for us, I can see how it would be difficult for those with any kind of medical condition.
We headed straight back around the loop to the Cliff Palace parking lot so that we could eat lunch and get ready for the 12:30 tour. While we were tiring of the same sandwich fare we had been eating for a week, we ate enough to give us much needed energy to continue our next hike, filling up water bottles with fresh, cold water and re-wetting our cooling neck bands for the next round of activity.
I entered the Cliff Palace tour believing that I had seen some of the best Mesa Verde had to offer. After all, we had climbed a 32-foot ladder, seen the engineering genius of ancient American peoples, and climbed out of spectacular canyon views. But our tour guide promised us that this was his favorite tour, so I climbed down the CCC constructed path expectant but unsure. We climbed our first short ladder and I questioned the strenuous rating of the climb. I slowly followed the tour group along rocky paths and cliff faces.
Then I saw it.
Cliff Palace is stunning. I wasn’t the only one who let out a tiny gasp as we came around the corner and got our first glimpse of the cliff dwelling with 150 different rooms. It is an example of pure human ingenuity. Our ranger tour guide, ever respectful of the history of the ancestors of the local indigenous tribes, pointed out just how much the ancient people who built the dwellings used their natural surroundings to their fullest. In a rough high desert mountain climate, the people who built the dwellings had figured out how to heat and cool their houses, built entrances and exits to homes built into cliffs with danger at every edge, and found water where there appears to be none. The tour was a lesson in both history and fully using the resources that we have, something that the entire Mesa Verde park has worked very hard to do.
While to trip to Cliff Palace had been fairly easy, the climb out was nearly straight up, first on a short ladder and then on a narrow, steep set of stone stairs that slowly took us back to the parking lot on top. While we had only walked 0.25 miles, it felt like I had run a mile by the time we got to the top, the climb and the altitude working against me.
As we headed out of the Cliff Palace/Balcony House loop, we saw a sign for Indian fry bread on the side of the road. We pulled off and bought four servings of delicious bread from the Ute reservation, and then finally drove out of the Cliff Palace Loop and towards the Mesa Top Loop.
According to the Mesa Verde summer guide, the Mesa Top Loop “is a 6-mile drive that is a tour through time. Along the road, you’ll find short, easily accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites, including surface sites and overlooks of cliff dwellings—the ancient homes and villages of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived [there] for more than 700 years.” The history geek in me wanted to stop at every single stop, but by the time we got to the end of the loop, our gas tank was running near low, we had Junior Ranger badges to earn, and we still had to drive twenty miles back to the visitor center.
But despite the dangerously low gas, we were on that side of the park and we weren’t coming back. We made a quick turn off to see the Sun Temple, which we could only walk around and couldn’t tour, and then looked straight across the canyon to see a tour group making the climb out of Cliff Palace. We couldn’t believe that we had made that climb only a couple hours before, noting that it looked a lot worse from afar than it was up close.
On our way to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum (where the kids could finish their Junior Ranger books) we made a wrong turn (my fault) and had to drive even further on a gas tank that was now below 50-miles-to-empty. We stamped our passport books at the museum, the kids found the missing answers that they needed, and they earned their third Junior Ranger badge of the trip, getting sworn in at an actual Junior Ranger station in the courtyard, our Cliff Palace ranger tour guide doing the honors.
We were close to the park exit and our fuel was dangerously low, but when Jeff saw the sign for the Park Point Overlook, he pulled off. Park Point is the highest point in the park (at 8572 feet) and I could finally take pictures of everything: the mountains, cliffs, and valleys in-between. I was in my happy place.
As we got closer to the park exit, we drove through the park campground, just to see what we were missing. We discovered stunning views and a handful of full hook-up sites available for use. Jeff looked at me from across the front seat. “You know, we could be staying here instead of the KOA.” I was realizing the same thing. But when he looked up the cost after we got “home,” we were only spending $20 more a night to have a pool, showers, and a dog park for our dogs, which made me feel a little better about our choice for parking the camper.
We coasted into a gas station in Cortez before heading back to campground. When we finally returned, the entire family took the dogs to the dog park to let dogs run around for awhile and then Jeff and the kids got fifteen minutes in pool before closing time. We ended our nearly perfect day with a dinner of ribs that had been cooking all day in the Crock-pot, a campfire, showers, and finally bed.
In the end, Mesa Verde was everything I had dreamed about and more. Pictures don’t do the dwellings or the landscape justice. To know that the ancient peoples figured out how to engineer their lives in a way that respected and utilized the earth is both inspiring and frustrating, making me wonder how, in the 21st century with all of our modern advances, we could better take care of the home that God has given us. It was a national park stop that taught us a great deal about the history of our country long before European settlement and reminded us to take care of our planet.
I couldn’t have asked for more.