November 25, 2016: Mesa Verde
After a day in the San Juan Mountains, my dad and I woke up early and hit the road right around 7:45 am. The road west of Durango climbed up a small mountain pass that paled in comparison to anything we saw yesterday. After reaching the pass, the landscape opened up into a wide plain. This was where the Rockies ended and the Colorado Plateau began.
Dropping into the plain, we continued through the town of Mancos to Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the most famous ruins in the Southwest. While most people know Mesa Verde for its cliff-dwellings, the first settlements in the area were actually built on top of the mesa. The Anasazi lived on the mesa-tops from about 500-1200. Around 1200, they moved underneath the mesas- most likely for defensive purposes. By 1300, Mesa Verde-along with virtually every other Anasazi settlement in the area- was abandoned.
The descendants of these people then moved both west to the Hopi mesas of Arizona and southeast to the Rio Grande valley of central New Mexico. They are now called the Hopi, Navajo, and modern Puebloan peoples.
Something not obvious to the virtual tourist is just how large Mesa Verde actually is. From the visitor center, it is more than 20 miles up to the Mesa Top. From there, there are 3 loop roads that are each 3-7 miles long. Each loop road has 5 or so stops to look down on the cliff dwellings. During the summer, you can tour some of the larger dwellings with park rangers.
Being the day after Thanksgiving, the park was nearly empty. We saw only three other groups: a couple, a solo man with a great camera and a really strict family from India. Because of the loop road format, we ran into these groups at least 15 different times.
The largest, most impressive, and most famous ruin is called the Cliff Palace.
We also got to see a bunch of others including the Hemenway House, the Sun Temple, and Spruce Tree House. We spent about 2 hours in the park before pressing on. Had it been the summer, we probably could have spent an entire day here.
After a surprisingly good Mexican lunch in the town of Cortez, we drove southwest to an unpaved county road.
We crossed two No Trespassing signs and arrived at the Box Bar Ranch, which serves as the entrance to Yucca House National Monument. The Federal government has a public easement to access the ranch as means to visit Yucca House. The monument was declared in 1919 to protect a large pueblo that housed an estimated 13,000 people until around 1300 when everything was abandoned. For comparison, the current population of Montezuma County is 26,000. It is believed that about 100,000 people lived in what is now Montezuma County during the height of the ancient Puebloan culture.
This unusual monument does not get many visitors and for one main reason- that there is nothing to see. In an incredible display of foresight, the archaeologists who discovered the site decided to leave the site buried underground until better preservation methods could be developed. This way, the ruins will not be destroyed by looters which happened to Mesa Verde in the early 20th century.
A boardwalk leads to a gate service as the entrance to the monument.
Past the gate, faint trails eventually fade into the scrubland. We saw a few remnants of bricks and a wall, but not much else on the 34-acre site. After 30 minutes of hiking around and exploring, we headed back to the truck.
While walking through the untouched native scrubland was fun, I would not recommend going here unless you are (really) into archaeology or on a quest to visit all the National Park Service units.
My dad and I then headed north back through Cortez to the Anasazi Heritage Center. In addition to a fantastic exhibit on modern Puebloan baskets, the museum had some great films about the history of the region. The films discussed two narratives of the sites here.
For archaeologists, the sites are windows into a past culture. Modern scientific methods can teach us how these people lived and why they abandoned all the sites in the area around 1300. The tree records show 70 years of drought and cold temperatures during the 13th Century. It also appears that the people cut down every single tree that could be used to build houses. This severe lack of resources may have also led to internal strife.
For the modern Puebloan and Hopi people, the sites were never abandoned. Rather, the migration to their current location is part of the Great Migration. The sites still house the spirits of their ancestors and are still important places in their stories and their religion. The dichotomy of narratives of the sites here is important to recognize and factors heavily in how the sites are treated and excavated.
Here is a link to a NY Times article about what happened in 1300
The sun was now getting low in the sky and we still had some driving left. We headed off to the small town of Dolores nestled between a and a steep hillside. Just above the town, was Sophia’s, a soon-to-be retreat center. We rented a room there on AirBNB and were greeted by the lovely staff.
The AirBNB had some unique amenities including a labyrinth and goats!
For dinner, we went to the Dolores Brewery, which was surprisingly good- the brewmaster used to be the corporate brewer for the Rock Bottom brewpub chain before marrying a girl from Dolores. In addition to great beers, they had amazing pizzas. It was so good, we got a second pizza.
We went back to Sophia’s and went to bed early, ready for another big day in Utah!
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