Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mesa Verde - Ruin and Restoration

1891 Photograph of Cliff Palace by Gustaf Nordenskiold
On the Colorado Plateau certain geographical and cultural features have attained name recognition with the general population because of their unique qualities, and Mesa Verde definitely fits that category. As probably the best known collection Ancestral Puebloan "cliff dwellings" Mesa Verde ranks high on many people's list of places to see, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Located in southwestern Colorado on U.S. Highway 160 about 10 miles east of Cortez, Mesa Verde was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to "preserve the works of man" and is the only National Park in the U.S. dedicated solely to human achievement. Within the 52,000 acre boundary over 5000 archaeological sites exist including 600 cliff dwellings, although the majority of these are not accessible to the general public.

Although the park is open year-round, certain areas are closed seasonally - check the Park website for additional information.

Mesa Verde

The main focus of the Park consists of two separate paved roads that circumnavigate Chapin and Wetherill Mesas, with most developed ruins found in canyons below the rim. The Park Visitor Center is located at Far View, as well as lodging, dining, and shopping for those who desire the convenience of staying in the Park. For the more self-sufficient the concessionaire operates a large campground complex at Morefield Village.

Once past the entrance station the road into the Park offers excellent scenery as it climbs 1000 feet along a series of switchbacks. Mesa Verde translates from spanish to "green table", and the appellation is well deserved as steep slopes clad in scrub oak and pinyon-juniper forests rise to the relatively flat terrain of the plateau.

At the high point elevation is just over 8000 feet above sea level, with the rest of the Park lying between 6500 and 7000 feet. At this altitude summers are generally warm and sunny, although afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. Fall and spring present a typically varied pattern of mild days and chilly nights, while winters tend to be cold and snowy.

The first development occurs 4 miles along the road. Morefield Village offers the Park's only gas station, grocery store, and campground. The campground is large and sprawling with both RV and tent sites, and is open from mid-May to mid-October. Visitors should also be aware that trailers and towed vehicles are not permitted past this point.

One notable feature of the campground is three hiking trails which offer opportunities to climb up onto the surrounding mesas for excellent views of Montezuma and Mancos valleys outside the Park. These pictures are from an outing on the Point Lookout Trail.

Far View

11 miles beyond Morefield Campground is Far View. This is the focal point for Park Activities during the warmer months, offering a Visitor Center with information and tickets for Ranger led tours of cliff dwellings. Far View Terrace and Lodge offer dining and a place to stay for those who desire the convenience of in-Park hotel accommodations. All facilities here operate from late April until late October.

Far View is also where the Park road splits, with one leg heading west towards Wetherill Mesa, and the other destined for Chapin Mesa to the south.

Wetherill Mesa

The 12 mile western leg ending at Wetherill Mesa is a seasonal road, closing for the winter in early September and reopening in late May. Be advised there are restrictions on who may drive this narrow, two lane route. Specifically no vehicles over 8000 lbs. GVW and not longer than 25 feet in length, and no bicycles allowed.

Wetherill Mesa offers a slightly less developed experience than Chapin Mesa, with tram and foot trail access from the Wetherill Ranger Kiosk located at the end of the road. From here the unhurried traveler can spend time exploring ruins such as Nordenskiold #16, Step House, and Badger House Community. There is also a ticketed, Ranger-led tour of Long House available during the summer.

Chapin Mesa

The road to Chapin Mesa is open year-round. Along the route is the opportunity to stop and see the Far View Sites, offering a self guiding tour of mesa top villages. At five miles beyond Far View the visitor will encounter Spruce Tree House, one of only two major cliff dwellings open to the public without Ranger supervision (during the summer months only - in winter visitors must accompany a Ranger)

Another feature found at this location is Chapin Mesa Museum, with information, exhibits, and a bookstore. Once past this congested and busy hub of activity there are two spurs that culminate in loops. The eastern leg is a six mile drive called Cliff Palace Loop which leads directly to the very popular Cliff Palace and Balcony House cliff dwellings.

The western segment is also 6 miles long and is called the Mesa Top Loop. This is billed as an auto tour featuring various overlooks and short walkways leading to mesa top sites.

Cliff Palace

Perhaps the best known and most visited dwelling at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace. Tucked beneath a large alcove beneath the rim of the mesa, Cliff Palace is the largest structure with the greatest number of rooms, and was the first one discovered by anglos in the area. Access to the ruins is by Ranger led tour only and requires paid admission.

Tickets must be purchased at Far View Visitor Center or Morefield Village and are for specific time slots. When choosing a time period for the tour be aware of the time it takes to make the trip from these outlets, as missing the appointed time will result in not being able to participate in the tour. Visitors should also be aware that tour groups can be very large, and schedules are tight. This is not a leisurely stroll at your own pace.

Beginning on the rim with a brief orientation, the tour drops off the rim via a series of stairs and ladders to reach the alcove where the ruins are.

Unlike some of the other cliff dwellings I've visited, the tour at Cliff Palace presents only the facade of the ruins, and visitors are kept well away from the buildings for the obvious reason of preservation. The following images are presented without narrative, as they speak for themselves.

Balcony House

Located on the same loop as Cliff Palace, Balcony House is another popular attraction that requires a ticketed tour to visit. On the day I was there all tours were sold out so I could not participate, which in retrospect was probably a good thing. See the commentary at the end of the post to see why I feel that way.

I did get some long range photos of Balcony House from the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail.

From various points along the Soda Canyon trail, granaries and houses built beneath cliff ledges can be seen across the divide. I enjoyed spending time here scanning the walls for signs of habitation, and was surprised at how many small structures I could see.

Spruce Tree House

One of the more prominent and best preserved cliff houses open to the public without a Ranger (in summer) is Spruce Tree House located near Chapin Mesa Museum. A self guiding tour begins near the museum and allows visitors to spend as much time as they like inspecting the ruins.

One unique feature is a rebuilt kiva where people can descend a short ladder into a ceremonial chamber.

This cliff house also offer visitors the chance to walk around the structures, although some areas are still off limits.

I spotted this turkey vulture perched in a nearby snag. He might have been waiting for an unfortunate tourist to drop in for his next meal.

The Park was quite crowded when I visited in October, and Wetherill Mesa had already closed for the season. This limited the places I could see, so after walking through Spruce Tree House I decided to make an exit.

Before concluding, I would like to make a few observations about the subtext of this post: Ruin and Restoration. For ruin, we have to mention the legacy of Richard Wetherill.

Photo courtesy of
Richard Wetherill

In discussing Ancestral Puebloan sites such as Mesa Verde one name comes up again and again - Richard Wetherill. Richard was a member of a well established ranching family in southwest Colorado with ties to local tribes, particularly the Utes. His name is given to the eponymous Wetherill Mesa primarily because he and another cowboy named Charlie Mason are credited with being the first white men to discover Cliff Palace in 1888.

He is also associated with "finding" Keet Seel and Betatakin, and was part of the Hyde Exploring Expedition that famously exploited Chaco Canyon for its cultural treasures.

Considered a controversial figure by many academics for the systematic plundering of these sites, Wetherill was a man of the times. In hindsight it is easy to be critical of what he and his family did in the pursuit of artifacts to sell and collect, yet many of his contemporaries enthusiastically joined him with shovel in hand.

To be sure, modern archaeological practices had not been established by the late 1800's, and like-minded people of the era felt it was appropriate to loot ancient sites for objects of great value. Although extensive damage was done and much of what was removed is lost to the public, judging him by the standards of the day would render a more honest appraisal of the man and his actions.

After all, even though it was not his intention the attempt to attain control over Chaco Canyon for personal gain led indirectly to the eventual protection and preservation of many of these places.


In terms of site preservation archaeological thinking is much different today than it was even 25 years ago. In the past, once these cultural remnants were discovered the initial approach was one of excavation, removal, and cataloging of artifacts.

But everything made by man has a life span, and uncovering fragile structures that are hundreds of years old carries many risks, with renewed exposure to the elements accelerating that inevitable deterioration. In addition, opening these sites to the public hastens their demise as thousands of visitors walk, climb, and crawl over ruins, breaking them down stone by stone.

When the earliest stewards of the fledgling Parks and Monuments realized that stabilization and restoration would be necessary if their respective collections were to endure, most turned to contemporary building materials like Portland cement and asphalt as a means to keep walls and structures from crumbling further.

To improve access they also installed sidewalks, steps, and handrails to allow more people to see these cliff houses perched high on canyon walls. In some cases Rangers reconstructed towers, rooms, and walls in a well meaning but misguided attempt to recreate the "actual" appearance of a pueblo or kiva.

Today the management philosophy has changed, and basic stabilization of ruins using native materials is accepted practice in most federally managed cultural Parks and Monuments. This also includes leaving ruins buried in accumulated deposits, thus keeping the forces of nature at bay for a while longer. And for purists reconstruction is no longer the preferred means of displaying ancient structures.

Conclusion and Criticism

I rarely develop unfavorable impressions about any of the places I choose to visit on the Colorado Plateau, however this is not the case with Mesa Verde. Before I offer my opinion however, understand I am not attempting to discourage anyone from making the trip. There are many aspects of the Park I did not get to see because of seasonal closures, and among those that I did get to there were worthwhile and enjoyable moments.

I have always maintained that I do not enjoy large crowds corralled together to experience the wonders of man or nature, and that may be part of my disenchantment. But for me to chronicle my trip and not mention the things that disturbed me would be doing a disservice to anyone who reads this post.

Mesa Verde is undoubtably one of the more important Ancestral Puebloan communities, not only because of the spectacular setting and architecture of the dwellings, but also because it represents a once thriving cultural center that stretched across much of the Four Corners region.

Unfortunately what is on display for the public at Mesa Verde does not always present an authentic picture. Because of historical looting in search of relics, a great many of the original structures were compromised. Compounding the damage was that early on visitor access to the cliff dwellings was poorly controlled, leading to additional deterioration.

Over the years a great deal of stabilization and reconstruction work has been done on the larger cliff houses, and handrails, paved walkways, and smoothly plastered walls add to the museum-like atmosphere. Some of what I saw appeared more like a carefully crafted exhibit instead of a 900 year old Ancestral Puebloan dwelling. While I understand the need to preserve and protect what remains, there were times when I felt the artifice of the place.

Another criticism I have has to do with the "theme park" like atmosphere I observed in regards to touring the major cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde showcases five substantial cliff dwellings, three of which require a ticket and a scheduled time to visit.

Perhaps my experience was unique, but on the tour of Cliff Palace I participated in the group was exceptionally large, consisting primarily of international visitors traveling via multiple tour buses. The majority spoke little or no English, and this resulted in a lengthy delay as the Ranger had to wait for the group guides to translate and relay questions.

Because of the very tight schedule, the tour was bracketed by groups from the earlier and subsequent time periods as we snaked through the ruins. The result was not a thoughtful introspective on the lives of cliff dwellers, but rather an affair that felt hurried and disjointed as we filed through like cattle.

I sympathize with Park Service personnel as they attempt to manage throngs of people who descend upon them each summer season. I understand they do the best they can with what they have, and trying to accommodate the largest number of people possible while preserving restored but still fragile sites is probably the number one challenge they face.

Having been to many other important Ancestral Puebloan communities such as Betatakin and Chaco Canyon, I could not help but compare the contrasts between my visits to each place. I suppose the distinguishing factors are notoriety and ease of access, as Mesa Verde is well known across the globe whereas the others are less so.

To be fair both Chaco and the ruins at Navajo National Monument require some form of commitment to reach, either via a rugged dirt road or a semi-strenuous hiking trail. Mesa Verde can be seen by just about anyone with minimal effort, which is understandable as it is the mission of the Park Service to provide access to all in the areas they serve.

I left Mesa Verde feeling largely disappointed, being neither enlightened or impressed. I know that if I ever choose to visit again, it will be in the off season when I might have a better chance to explore and enjoy the ruins without feeling rushed or herded.

I enjoy visiting significant ancestral sites, and Mesa Verde is one of those places that should be seen at least once by those who are similarly intrigued. But if you go, be prepared to share the experience with lots of others in a tightly controlled environment.

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