From Moab, we drove a short 2 1/2 hours to Cortez, CO, where we stayed at La Mesa RV Park. It has paved roads and gravel and dirt pads. There is sparse grass between most of the sites, and the sites are a little small. There are concrete patios at some of the sites, but they are too small and not placed well enough to be very useful. We had to park over part of our patio to have enough room on the other side to get our slides open.
La Mesa is very close to U. S. Route 160 so there is a fair amount of road noise, and there is a gas station right next door with bright lights that are on all night. But we had the air conditioner running all day and night so the road noise wasn't too noticeable. We drew the drapes at night, and we weren't planning to sit out, so the gas station didn't bother us either. In fact, if you had a site in the back of the campground, the road noise would be less; and you wouldn't see the lights at the gas station.
La Mesa RV Park is a Passport America campground and at the half-price rate of $14 a night (plus tax) for full hookups and free Wi-Fi, it really isn't bad for one or two nights. It is very conveniently located at only about 9 miles from Mesa Verde National Park. In fact, you can see Mesa Verde from the front of the campground.
Mesa Verde is the reason we stopped in Cortez. Mesa Verde National Park is the former dwelling place of the Ancestral Puebloan people. The photo below shows Point Lookout as seen from a short distance inside the park entrance. It is this promontory that can be seen from the campground in Cortez.
Inside the park, the road winds part way up the face of Point Lookout, then goes around the side and continues to climb up to the top of the mesa. About 10 miles inside the park on the way to the visitor center, we stopped at an overlook and took the photo below looking back toward Cortez.
The Ancestral Puebloan people lived in the Mesa Verde area for 700 years from about 600 AD to 1300 AD. The park is the location of about 4,000 known archeological sites including about 600 cliff dwellings. About 1,400 years ago, a group of nomads came to the Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table) area and began to lead a more settled life. Known as the Basketmakers, they began to farm and to build more permanent homes. These early homes were built partially underground and are called pithouses. The park has a number of excavated pithouses like the one in the photo below. The excavations are protected by permanent structures.
The early pithouses were fairly shallow. Off the main room, they had a smaller room (at the top of photo above) that was probably used for storage. The main room had a roof and sloped walls supported by four wooden poles covered by more poles and mud. The large indentation in the floor was the fire pit, and there probably was smoke hole in the roof overhead.
As time went on, the Basketmakers became more skilled in their crafts. They learned how to make pottery (the early people only had baskets, hence their name the Basketmakers) and they acquired the bow and arrow. By 750 AD, they began to build structures of poles and mud above ground. From this time onward, they would be known as Puebloans (Spanish for village dwellers).
By 1000 AD, the Puebloans began to build using stone masonry for construction. Buildings were two or three stories tall and contained as many as 50 rooms. Circular pit rooms, much deeper than earlier pithouse dwellings, were built in front of the pueblos. These pit rooms, called kivas, were completely underground and were entered by means of a ladder through a hole in the roof. Kivas were used as ceremonial meeting rooms. The photo below shows the remains of a stone tower at Sun Point Pueblo. The tower is connected to the kiva in front of it by a tunnel.
An example of the Puebloans' expert stonework is Sun Temple. Although the exact purpose of Sun Temple is unknown, modern Pueblo Indians say its features classify it as a ceremonial structure. Because no remnants of roof beams were found, it is theorized the structure was never completed. Based on the amount of fallen stone removed during excavation, it is estimated the walls were originally 11 to 14 feet high. Modern concrete covers the top of the remnants of the walls to protect them from moisture.
Around 1200 AD, the people began to move from pueblos built on top of the mesas to the sheltered overhangs and alcoves in the cliffs on the sides of the mesas. Here, they continued to build even more elaborate stone dwellings. Centuries earlier, the ancestors of the Basketmakers and Puebloans sought shelter in the alcoves on the cliffs. However, at that time they were still nomads and had not developed the skill to build even primitive structures.
Archeologists do not know why the Puebloans moved from the mesa tops to the cliffs. Perhaps the people sought better protection from enemies or from the weather. The Ancestral Puebloans had no written language and therefore no written history, so we will probably never know the reason they moved. But their elaborate cliff dwellings remain for archeologists and anthropologists to study and for us to view in amazement.
Being located on the sides of the mesas, the cliff dwellings are a little harder to get to. Some of the cliff dwellings aren't open to the public and can only be seen from overlooks. A few cliff dwellings can be seen by self-guided tours and three of the most elaborate dwellings can only be seen by means of ranger-guided tours. The ranger-guided tours require advance tickets costing $3 per tour for adults. One of the first things we did when we arrived at the park was to go to the visitor center to inquire about the difficulty of the hikes to the cliff dwellings and to determine which ones we wanted to see.
The ranger at the visitor center advised us the ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace, which is the largest and most popular cliff dwelling, was a fairly strenuous hike. She advised us to first try the self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, which is the best-preserved dwelling in Mesa Verde. Since Spruce Tree House was a self-guided tour, we could go at our own pace and even turn back if it became too difficult, things we couldn't do on the ranger-led tours.
If Margery did OK on the Spruce Tree House tour, the ranger advised us to go to the overlook for the Cliff House (something we could do without tickets), and look to see how far the climb would be before we committed to buying tickets. The Cliff House tour, although more strenuous than Spruce Tree House, is the least strenuous of the ranger-led tours.
So off we went to Spruce Tree House. From the overlook, the walk down to the ruins didn't look too bad.
Spruce Tree House is the third largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde and contains about 130 rooms and 8 kivas or ceremonial chambers.
While taking the photo above, Paul happened across a nest of robins in a nearby tree. The mama returned and then tried to hide when she was surprised to see Paul so close by. She stood very still for a few seconds while the chicks squawked. As soon as Paul moved to try to get a better camera angle on mama, she took off.
Spruce Tree House was named for a large Douglas fir which was growing from the front of the ruins. The tree, which was later cut down, was called a spruce by the men who first discovered the ruins. Spruce Tree House is built into a natural alcove measuring over 200 feet wide by about 89 feet deep at its greatest depth.
We made the climb back out of the canyon with only a little huffing and puffing. In the photo below, Margery is standing with Spruce Tree House on the background after making it back up the hill.
Having successfully made the climb at Spruce Tree House, we followed the ranger's advice and went to the overlook for Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas. From the overlook, we got an excellent overall view. To get an idea of size, there are several people standing around one of the circular kivas in front of one of the taller towers at the right of the photo.
While we were at the overlook, a ranger-led tour was about to get underway; and we eaves-dropped on the beginning of the tour. The ranger asked the crowd where they were from and got responses like Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. The Europeans outnumbered the Americans on this particular tour. We have encountered quite a few overseas visitors during our travels this summer due in part to the weak dollar making travel in the U. S. very economical for them.
As we looked down into Cliff Palace, we could see the descent was very steep; and the climb back up was even steeper. The return climb is up 120 uneven stone steps. Since it has only been five months since Margery's last knee surgery, that many steps are still problematic so we decided to pass on the ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace. Our self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House would suffice as a good, first-hand viewing of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. We continued on with our auto tour of the mesa.
The mesa covers quite a large area and is cut by numerous north-south canyons such Cliff Canyon shown in the photo below.
Large cliff dwellings such as Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace were the exception rather than the rule. Of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings within the park, about 75% of them are 5 rooms or less. An example of a smaller dwelling is House of Many Windows, which is on a 10 foot wide ledge just to the upper right of center in the photo below. The openings are not really windows, but doors. Although it can't be seen from across the canyon, above the House of Many Windows is a toehold trail that leads to an upper alcove that probably had one or two rooms. From there, the trail leads to the top of the cliff. Climbing was a part of everyday life for the Ancestral Puebloans.
Another dwelling that can only be viewed from an overlook is Square Tower House. At a height of 26 feet, Square Tower House is the tallest dwelling in Mesa Verde. The four-story tower was part of an extensive, multi-story complex that originally had about 80 rooms.
The peak period for the Ancestral Puebloans was around 200 years from about 1100 to about 1300 AD. During that time, they may have had as much as 30,000 acres under cultivation on the mesa tops. Shortly after 1300 AD, however, the Mesa Verde area was deserted. The people didn't disappear, but they moved into New Mexico and Arizona and settled among other Native Americans already living there. As we mentioned earlier, the Ancestral Puebloans had no written language, so we'll probably never know the reason they left Mesa Verde. Maybe it was drought, overcrowding, or depletion of the soil and natural resources.
We completed our tour of the cliff dwellings and the mesa top and began the drive back out of the park. On the way out, we took a short side road to Park Point, the highest point in Mesa Verde at 8572 feet above sea level. We stopped for a photo near the fire lookout tower.
Mesa Verde has had three recent fires - one in 1996 that consumed almost 5,000 acres, a very large fire in July, 2000 that burned 23,000 acres, and another in August, 2000 that consumed 5,300 acres. Today, many hillsides in the park have standing deadwood resulting from fire. Mesa Verde is in the Upper Sonoran zone and is semi-arid. Trees include Juniper, Pinyon pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and lots of Gambrel or scrub oak. The photo below shows Gambrel oak killed by fire on a hillside near Park Point.
With our visit to Mesa Verde complete, we headed back to the motor home. The next stop is Durango.