Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado - 29 May to 1 June 2014

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July 2nd 2014
Published: July 4th 2014
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We left Monument Valley, Utah early in the morning and detoured up country a little way to see the Mexican Hat - no not a restaurant but an inverted sandstone sombrero standing tall alongside the highway - the sun was in the wrong position but it was still easy to see why it was called the Mexican Hat….

We followed part of the ‘Trail of the Ancients’ the only national scenic byway dedicated to archaeology heading for the Four Corners Monument. This monument is the only place in the USA where four states intersect at one point. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado - so we have now ‘set foot’ in a couple more States - see photo. The location is very remote but the landscape around is really good - so well worth the visit. The original marker erected in 1912 was a simple cement pad but this has been replaced in granite and brass. There is a visitor centre and a small village of Navajo artist vendors selling handmade jewellery and crafts with several stalls selling traditional homemade Navajo foods like Navajo Fried Bread.

We travelled through miles of rolling sage plains with the Ute Mountain Range forming a massive background before we stopped in the town of Cortez to do some shopping. The town is situated about nine miles from the Mesa Verde National Park so was a good place to pick up some supplies. It was quite a large town from what we had become used to and sits at the crossroads of cultures on the edge of the Navajo and Ute Mountain tribal lands.

A little while later and we were entering Mesa Verde National Park chatting to the rangers at the Visitor & Research Centre on what to do in the area. This new combined centre at the entrance to the park was spectacular. It housed a large modern museum and you could purchase tickets to visit five of the cliff dwellings up on the mountain. We continued along the road which rises steeply upwards and a couple of miles later we arrived at our campground.

The staff at Morefield Campsite were really friendly and helpful and just told us to go and find a site we liked and come back and tell them where it was. Well there was so much space between your neighbour - we wondered around for a while and found a lovely shady site overlooking the hills. This really was the best campsite we had stayed at with regard to space you could hardly see anyone else all around the campground. There was no hookup facilities as these were all booked out but flushing toilets and water were close by. At the main reception area there was a grocery store, ranger station as well as a large laundry and free showers. The internet was also available here and was really quick - the best yet we even managed to Skype the family in Dubai with a really good reception.

The staff gave us an informative booklet on several hikes around the campground but warned us to watch out for Black Bears as a mother and two cubs had been sited the day before - actually in the campground and a large rattlesnake on one of the walks - think we will avoid that one … … …

Everywhere you go ‘in bear territory’ you are informed of what to do if you encounter a bear. You should; be Alert, Make Noise, Carry Bear Spray, Avoid Hiking Alone and Do Not Run. You should also follow the guidelines below if you do come up too close to a bear.

If you have a surprise encounter with a bear - slowly back away.

If the bear charges - stand your ground and use bear spray.

If the bear attacks - play dead

If the bear stalks you, then attacks - fight back

If a bear attacks you in your tent - fight back.

In the afternoon we set off for a walk and decided on the Knife Edge which after a short elevation wandered around the mountainside with lovely views out over the surrounding valley. The Montezuma Valley spread out below us with it’s kaleidoscope of distant mountains covered in snow and green forest and very flat farmlands as far as the eye could see. Quite bizarre really as we were walking in the hot desert yesterday and today we were gazing out over snowy mountains walking along a lovely mountain tree lined trail … …

We hiked to the Knife Edge view and the trail stopped suddenly where there had been a recent landslide so we could not get any further so headed back down. As we were walking along the edge Paul told me to stop - a young Black Bear cub had come down the mountain on to the trail and disappeared over the edge. I did not even see it and thought he was joking but we could see the footprints on the ground … … … but the edge was too steep for us to peer over. At least we did not have to put into practice the guidelines I mentioned above ... ... ...

Back at our campsite we had supper and watched a couple of Mule Deer wandering around a barbecue on a vacant campsite - we were also lucky to see a couple of Mountain Bluebirds which were quite stunning and reminded us of the lovely Blue Tanagers we had seen in Costa Rica. We also saw lots of Chipmunks some were quite friendly but one should avoid contact with any animals, which we did. Of the 22 species of chipmunks in North America, 21 can be found in the western United States so its not surprising that we came across so many. It is often difficult to tell one chipmunk species from another, but it's usually fairly easy to distinguish chipmunks from their cousins the squirrels, because chipmunks have black-and-white facial stripes and squirrels do not. We are also used to seeing squirrels as we have so many in the UK - sadly these are nearly all the Greys as there are only a few places where the colourful Red squirrels still abode! On the trail we chatted to Martin and Julia from Deal in Kent (still waiting for an email …) and we ran into them a couple of times during our stay at Mesa Verde. They had purchased a van which they were travelling in and were then going to ship it back to the UK.

The next day we travelled to the top of the Mesa for our visit to Mesa Verde - the road was quite steep on the way up and there were some drop offs but we finally arrived- thank goodness! A loop road links the sites and overlooks of the cliff dwellings which were inhabited by the Ancient Puebloans the forefathers of the people who now live along the Rio Grande River and the high mesas of New Mexico and Arizona. These people grew their staple crops of corn, squash and beans and hunted game on these very Mesa Tops. They practised dry farming - digging down as far as a moisture level and then planting a seed and leaving a hollow pit at top for rain to collect. They created a thriving community that eventually raised towers and built hundred-room cities in the cliffs of Mesa Verde. I have mentioned a little about these people in previous blogs so will not go into detail here. There are several thousands sites around Mesa Verde and that is why it is called North America’s richest archeological preserve and justifiable so.

Mesa Verde gave us the opportunity to see more of the way of life and homes of these ancient people. At the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum we watched a informative movie before setting off to explore the region. We had earlier purchased tickets to visit two of the cliff dwellings and joined a ranger at the lookout above for our visit down under the rim.

Our first visit was to what is know as the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. The climb down was quite steep over slick rock but there were lots of places to hold on and it was so worth it. Once down, the ranger gave us a talk on the history of the dwelling before moving into the ‘city’ itself. We had plenty of time to ask questions and take photographs during the visit. Then the climb back out came - up three ladders (about 6 to 8 ft) almost vertical but again plenty of hand holding places. Finally the slot through the cliff face that you have to go through is quite narrow and a few more steps later you are back up on top of the cliff!

Recent studies reveal that Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75%!c(MISSING)ontain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units so this was a very large complex compared to most others. Crafted of sandstone, wooden beams and mortar, Mesa Verde Cliff Palace has been remarkably well preserved from the elements for the past 700 years and hopefully for the next. The majority of alcoves within Mesa Verde are small crevices or ledges able to accommodate only a few small rooms and very few are large enough to house a dwelling the size of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace. It is thought that it may have been a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.

Research on the inhabitants who lived here estimates that an average man was about 5'4" tall, while an average woman was 5'. If you compare them with European people of the same time period, they would have been about the same size. Compared with today however the average life span was relatively short, due, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. Most people lived an average of 32-34 years, however some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50% of the children died though before they reached the age of five.

We next visited Spruce Tree House which we could do on our own but rangers were on hand for questions and information. The third largest cliff dwelling contained about 130 rooms and 8 kivas (kee-vahs) and thought to have been home for about 60 to 80 people. The word Kiva comes from the Hopi language and is used in Mesa Verde to refer to round chambers usually underground built in or near every village or homestead. Most have similar features and were liked used for combined religious and social purposes. Entry was down a ladder through a hole in the centre of the roof and we were able to climb into the Kiva during our visit which was quite small and even though it was underground it was surprisingly quite light. All the kivas we have seen were just a large circular room as the roofs had all disappeared being original made of timbers, juniper bark and mud and often formed part of a plaza or public space above. In modern Pueblo communities the kiva is still an important ceremonial structure.

Spruce Tree House was first discovered in 1888, when two local ranchers chanced upon it while searching for stray cattle. A large tree, which they identified as a Douglas Spruce (later called Douglas Fir), was found growing from the front of the dwelling to the mesa top. It is said that the men first entered the dwelling by climbing down this tree, which was later cut down by another early explorer. Many of the surface of the walls had been decorated with earthen plasterwork in pink, brown, red, yellow, or white -- the first surface to erode with time so not much was on show, although you could make out some shapes, colours and even animals particularly on north facing rooms.

Further down the mesa we visited the Far View Sites Complex linked by a trail system. Far View was one of the most densely populated parts of the mesa and nearly fifty villages have been identified within a half square mile area, and were home to hundreds of people. Ancestral Puebloans were living at Far View at least 200 years before they began building the more famous Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Excavation also reveals that many chose to remain in their mesa top community well after many of their neighbours had moved into the cliff alcoves below but more research is still needed to know why this change was made - could have been for security reasons as the cliff dwellings were much more hidden than living out of the top of the mesa itself.

The next day we decided to do another hike directly from the campsite which climbed uphill for most of the way along many switchbacks to a mountain lookout. It was a long hot climb that seemed to go on forever but every now and then we were rewarded with wonderful views of the valley - such a scenic area and so worth the uphill climb. We had so enjoyed our stay in Mesa Verde ‘a lovely green mesa’ - one of the least known parks so it was quiet and peaceful but at the same time had so much to offer us travellers … … … Tomorrow we will leave the park and head to Arches National Park - see you there.

Additional photos below
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5th July 2014

I've wanted to visit this park for a long time and now I know I HAVE to when I return to the US! :) Thanks for the lovely photos and great descriptions.
5th July 2014

Lovely Mesa Verde
Thanks for your comments and be sure to visit Mesa Verde on you next trip it really was a memorable.
7th July 2014
Mexican Hat

Mother Nature
9th July 2014
Mexican Hat

It looks so real ... ...

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