Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling in the park.
Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the first national park set aside “to preserve the works of man”. The park protects almost 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, all inside of 52,000 acres of spectacular landscapes. So who would have thought a visit to this special place would cause us such trepidation?
Here I am with Debbie taking in the view from the waiting area for Balcony House.
While researching the park and which tours we might want to take, I discovered that seeing the cliff dwellings up close would involve some ladder climbing (something I am terrified of), and possibly crawling through a tunnel (which doesn’t bother me a bit but Jim and Debbie are claustrophobic).
We came to a consensus that if I was willing to do the ladders they would do the tunnel. I think they got the better deal since the tallest ladder was 32’ high, while the tunnel was only 12’ long. We purchased our tickets for 2 tours, and decided to do the most adventurous tour of Balcony House first. The hour long ranger guided tours cost a reasonable $3.00 per person, plus the $15 park entrance fee (free with the NP senior or annual pass).
By the way, Mesa Verde is a huge park and it was 15 miles from the entrance to the visitor center, plus another 10 miles to the Balcony House tour. Our guide was a very stiff, military-type seasonal ranger named Kevin. He spent the first 10 minutes describing every step of the trail along with warnings about fear of heights, claustrophobia, heart and breathing problems, etc, but nobody in our group of 20 bailed out.
After unlocking a gate and letting us go down to the base of the 32’ ladder, we stood around while he talked about what we would see and some of the theories about how the Ancestral Puebloans arrived there and built their homes in the cliffs. At least I think that’s what he was talking about, since I could only focus on the ladder in front of us. At that point I was too embarrassed to ask to go back, so I was committed.
Luckily it was a doublewide, so Jim went up beside me and talked me through. Debbie was right behind and offered words of encouragement, too. I must say if we had been alone and there weren’t all those people coming up behind us I would have frozen about midway. My hands were shaking and my heart was beating so fast by the time I got to the top, it took about 10 minutes before I felt normal again. But hey, I did it! Now I could focus on the tour and the several other shorter ladders were a piece of cake.
Although we had toured the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico a couple months ago, this was still fascinating, and we just marveled at how difficult life must have been in 900-1200 AD.
One of the kivas, or ceremonial rooms. This would have had a roof over it.
Balcony House had about 40 rooms, and we can’t remember how many people may have lived there. They grew corn, beans and squash up above on the mesa and got water from a spring behind the dwellings. It is thought that the spring going dry possibly caused the Puebloans to leave the area by the 1300’s.
In spite of his seriousness, Ranger Kevin was a good tour guide, and we really enjoyed his obvious enthusiasm for the subject. In order to leave the dwellings, we still had to crawl through the tunnel, climb more ladders, and hold onto a chain while climbing up footholds in a rock face. Pretty exciting stuff for a national park tour!
This is obviously not a tour for large people, and they even have a replica of the tunnel at the visitor center. If you can’t fit in the replica, you can’t take the tour. Jim and Debbie made it through the tunnel unscathed, although they didn’t care for it much. I thought it was fun. I see no danger in crawling on the ground in a cave. At least there’s no chance of falling 32 feet!
That was just the beginning of our day at Mesa Verde. More to come in another post.