Spotlight on Parks: Mesa Verde National Park

Before visiting Mesa Verde National Park this past Memorial Day, I had visions of stark, red sandstone cliffs, and sparse vegetation. I should’ve known better. After all, in Spanish, “Mesa Verde” means green table. Although dry by the standards of the Front Range, the oak scrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands of this southwestern Colorado park is a far cry from the blasted landscape I expected.

Balcony House. Photo by Jamie Simo

The most spectacular aspect of Mesa Verde is, of course, the cliff dwellings for which it is most famous. Mesa Verde was designated a national park on June 29, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt and was the first national park to preserve human culture rather than natural beauty, although it certainly has that too. Currently, the park protects nearly 5,000 architectural sites built by ancient Pueblo people who lived in the area from about 550 to 1300 C.E.

We arrived late afternoon on the Friday before Memorial Day and set up camp in Morefield Campground, which is operated by the vendor Aramark. Although the campground was busy, we were lucky to secure a site that backed up to a tangle of Gambel’s oak that was filled with songbirds, including a pair of Chipping Sparrows that happily brought hair and fluff to pad their nest, oblivious to the human observers sitting mere feet from them. Unique to the other parks I’ve camped at, Mesa Verde has its own gas station, limitless hot water showers in private shower rooms, and pancake breakfasts. I suspect these amenities are due more to the remoteness of the park than anything else, but boy were they welcome, especially the shower!

Chipping Sparrow at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One of the best parts of camping for me is that you don’t need to set an alarm. Common Poorwills traded shifts with the day birds, including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees and Hermit Thrushes just before 5am, singing me gently awake. While there were sightings of a black bear sow with cubs in the campground, I was lucky not to run into them the following morning. I did see several mule deer traipsing between tents, however, while I chased flycatchers and bluebirds.

Tickets to the most popular cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Balcony House, are just $4 and run on a regular schedule, so we drove down to Balcony House for the 10:00 am tour. Balcony House is built into the side of the cliff and was the next architectural evolutionary step from the pit houses the Pueblo people built on top of the mesas. These pit houses evolved into the “kiva,” an underground room in the cliff dwellings that served as a religious center. The theory for the transition is that moving into the cliff allowed easier access to water. At the back of Balcony House and other cliff dwellings water puddles in the form of a seep spring, so-called because it drips through the porous sandstone until it hits the less-porous shale below, whereupon it “seeps” out onto the alcove floor. The Puebloan people could then gather the water from the spring.

May and June are probably the best times to visit Mesa Verde; on our way down into and up out of Balcony House we got great views of the canyon below and various brightly-colored wildflowers and lizards. We had access to ladders to get back up to the mesa top when the tour was over, but the ancient Puebloans would have used hand and foot holds to free climb. Just thinking about that makes my palms sweat!

Scarlet Gilia. Photo by Jamie Simo.

On our second morning in Mesa Verde we decided to tour Long House. Long House is especially impressive for the sheer number of kivas. Our Park Ranger guide speculated that Long House used to serve as a ceremonial gathering site and that perhaps the large number of kivas allowed different groups of Puebloans the ability to hold religious ceremonies at the same time. While we looked around I marveled at the petroglyphs of hands on the back wall. Who did they belong to?

One of the park workers told us about a mountain lion with cubs denning just off Knife Edge Trail so we made a pilgrimage one afternoon. I have yet to see a mountain lion and was excited to see one with cubs. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the cats. We did see plenty of cottontail rabbits though.

Stone metate and mano used to grind grain, especially corn in ancient Puebloan society. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The entry fee for cars at Mesa Verde National Park is $10 a day in the off-season and $15 a day in the busy season. For motorcycles or bicycles, entry fees range from $5 to $8 depending on the season. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual National Parks pass for unlimited entry to all parks within the parks system. Camping reservations are done through Aramark.

Although it was chilly at night and hot during the day, camping at Mesa Verde was great and I’d love to go back and see some of the sites that we didn’t have time to check out. I’d also love to see the eastern collared lizard that I missed out on seeing. So much to see and so little time!

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