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Escape crowds at Mesa Verde’s remote villages

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CORTEZ, Colo. — Standing on the canyon rim, about to descend the trail to the Long House, is a small group of Mesa Verde visitors. The sun-drenched silence is broken only by the crunch of footsteps and the cawing of a raven. Is he welcoming or warning off this next group of guests?

Every hour, a ranger leads a small group of tourists down the trail to one of the most elaborate, but least visited, ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings that comprise the main attraction at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.

For those who have been to the park before, or who just want to avoid the crowds, consider spending your next day at Mesa Verde on Wetherill Mesa.

Yes, it's still there.

True, most of the mesa-top pion and juniper woodland is charred. But although fires ravaged this part of Mesa Verde National Park last summer, most cliff dwellings were unscathed. Such damaged structures as Step House are being assessed and repaired to reopen as soon as deemed safe.

Of the park's 600,000- plus visitors each year, only about 10 percent make the longer drive to Wetherill. Their reward is that it's less crowded but has most of the same wonders offered by the more popular and accessible Chapin Mesa.

Wetherill Mesa is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day, partly because it is the least visited, and thus a lower priority, in a tight park budget.

It's not inaccessible, though. A 30- to 45-minute drive takes visitors over a road that snakes along the mesa top, with several stops for scenic overlooks of the Montezuma Valley and Sleeping Ute Mountain, to the parking lot that serves as a base camp for a variety of fascinating ruins. (From here, you can walk or take a shuttle to the various sites on Wetherill.)

"I love every bit of this place," says tour guide Mike Petrosi, "but I have a special place in my heart for Wetherill. My favorite ruins are here."

Petrosi, who was born and reared in this area, works for Aramark, the company that runs park concessions, including the Far View Lodge, the only accommodations in the park. The Puebloans abandoned the area around 1300.

Even before the fires, it was not very green here, though the natural abundance of the mesa is amazing, if subtle. Juniper berries, pion nuts, prickly pear cactus and spiny yucca fruit all flavored a diet of corn, beans, squash and wild game.

But for ancient travelers crossing the deserts of the Southwest, the semi-green mesa tops must have looked absolutely verdant.

Thus, Mesa Verde — or green table, in Spanish. A high-altitude oasis where they could find respite, make a home.

The remains of those homes, which evolved from simple pit houses to the grand architecture of the cliff dwellings in a period from A.D. 600 to 1300, are carefully preserved and, after many years, still studied intensively.

It will take more than fire to destroy the remains of that tenacious tribe, officially known as ancestral Puebloans and often called Anasazi.

Visitors often ask: Why did these people come down from the convenient mesa tops and build homes in the sheer, inaccessible cliffs?

Park ranger Sharon Sage offers the official version on her tour of the Long House, the park's second-largest ruin.

"It may be that they came down here to get water from the natural seeps and after a while, thought it might be a pretty good place to live," she says.

Archaeologists recently came to another realization: These ancient people may have moved off the mesa top to avoid such fires as the ones that ravaged the park last summer. Despite extensive burning, most of the cliff dwellings escaped damage.

Sage points to the blackened wall, where centuries of cooking fires left their mark. She points out places on the seemingly unscalable cliff face where handholds and toeholds were carved for those who went up top to tend crops daily.

And, if the ranger forgets to show you, be sure to ask about the six-fingered pictograph on one of the Long House walls, Petrosi says.

The story of Mesa Verde is a story of human ingenuity.

"Just think of the problems these people solved," Petrosi says. "They figured out that the smoke from the kiva fires was giving them emphysema, so they constructed a deflector wall and a chimney" to carry the smoke away.

They figured out that the corn ground in a hollowed metate (grinding stone) left grit in their food that wore away their teeth — and replaced it with a flat metate where the grit could roll away.

They figured out that the fibrous bark of the Utah juniper, when rolled between the palms, made good firestarter — and great diapers for their babies.

They domesticated turkeys.

Rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason, went looking for stray cattle on Ute land and instead rediscovered the ruins in the early 1880s.

What an eerie experience it must have been to ride up on a ridge and spot this abandoned city, which Wetherill whimsically named Cliff Palace. The name still identifies the largest of the cliff dwellings on Chapin Mesa.

And what an amazing thing it was, upon further discovery, to find beneath collapsed roofs an ingenious masonry that lasted for half a millennium. Clay pots and tools lay as they had been abandoned 500 years before, ashes remained in hearths.

A visit to Wetherill or Chapin mesas shows the evolution of the ancestral Puebloan home — from the simple pit house to the sophisticated cliff dwellings — and visitors can only marvel that those ancient dwellers had the tenacity and imagination to create these cliff-side cities.

Although the figures keep being revised, it's now thought that at its peak, maybe 4,000 ancestral Puebloans lived in the area.

A group of 50 archaeologists worked in the park last summer and will again this summer, trying to unearth more ruins and re-examine those already found, cataloging and assessing sites (both pre-existing and ones uncovered by the recent fire).

It's not just the mysteries of Mesa Verde that call to scientists and tourists alike.

It's a feeling that's variously described as "spiritual" and "peaceful."

"I've had a lot of people tell me when they come here they can feel the spirits of the people who once lived here," Petrosi says.

"There's a special feeling here."