Cozy Cliffsides and Brilliant Corners

We rounded out our ancient Native American dwelling theme with a relatively short visit to Mesa Verde National Park, which sits just southeast of Cortez, CO in the Four Corners region of the country.  For a relatively open and unpopulated area, Four Corners has a lot going on, scenery and heritage-wise.  Utah and Arizona share Monument Valley, which anyone who grew up on Roadrunner / Wile E Coyote cartoons would recognize immediately.  New Mexico has Shiprock, which is of course a monadnock, a word I learned two minutes ago.  And Colorado has EVERYTHING ELSE – Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients, the San Juan mountains, Telluride, Durango, Ouray, and probably a few dozen more amazing places I don’t even know about yet.

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Mesa Verde had been a “can’t miss” National Park since our early planning stages, but I have to admit that I wasn’t certain what to expect, other than cliff dwellings, of which I’d seen several pictures.  (This one’s mine)

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A few things surprised me about Mesa Verde.  One was the number of dwellings, which they call “houses,” each of which housed multiple families.  I had imagined there being only one large complex of dwellings, but there are in fact many of them carved into the sandstone cliffsides.  Another was the fact that they’re designed to be climbed down into rather than up to.  The majority of the residents’ farming, hunting, etc was performed on the high mesa above the cliffs, which, due to topography and micro-climactic factors, was quite fertile considering its elevation and relative dryness.  Envisioning the logistics of getting the spoils of a hunt to the family by climbing down the cliff via the tiny footholds in the sandstone was mind-bending.

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As we only had one full day to explore the park, we arose early and headed straight for the ranger station.  Guided tours are the only way to see the most popular “houses,” and they’re number-limited, so it’s good that we arrived early.  We had a choice of several, and opted to tour Balcony House after getting buy-in from the kids.  The Balcony House tour is billed as the most challenging one due to several exposed ladder climbs and a tiny passageway through which everyone needs to crawl in order to exit the site.

The girls grabbed their Junior Ranger booklets once again and got to work.

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Here once again I’ll defer to the pictures to tell the story, as Balcony House truly was an extraordinary site.

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The kids tackled the challenging terrain without hesitation, which was far from a given, and we were thrilled to see them pushing themselves a bit.

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One other surprise, about which we learned during the tour, was the relatively short time frame in which the cliff dwellings were actually inhabited.  They look so intricate and painstakingly crafted, yet they were abandoned after only a few generations.  The exhibits within the ranger station mentioned drought as a likely reason for them moving on, but I had to wonder whether the high degree of difficulty in reaching them played any role.  As a parent of young kids, it’s hard not to view something like that through the lens of potential catastrophic accidents.

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Here’s that tiny passageway we had to crawl through.  I don’t mind tight spaces, so didn’t find it nerve-wracking, but I can certainly imagine how someone might.  It stayed that height and width for a good twenty yards; turning around would’ve been pretty much impossible for all but the smallest people.

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All in all, Mesa Verde more than lived up to its “can’t miss” status and cemented my appreciation for this region of the country.

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Next up is Lake Powell, which I’ve been looking forward to introducing the family to for quite some time.  Lots of water play in our very near future!

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