We were super excited to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. We actually passed right by this park on last year’s trip, but decided not to stop since it was November and the tours had already shut down for the season. This year we were early enough that the main tour was still running. On the way to the park, we made a stop at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument as well.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Off to Mesa Verde with a slight detour! On our way to the park we passed Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. It sounded promising and mysterious so we thought we’d stay there for a night before heading to Mesa Verde. We didn’t see any designated campgrounds within the monument so I called to see where the rangers recommended people stay. I was told that really anywhere in the park is okay land to camp on but in the visitor’s center they had a map of preferred camping spots that were more frequented.
This sounded great so we headed to the visitor’s center. Sadly, the sweet volunteer at the desk hadn’t heard of any camping map and when I asked for camping suggestions within the very large monument he uncertainly told me about a road 30 minutes from where we were. I asked if they had a Jr Ranger program and the man gave me a circling and coloring worksheet and some badges. This is definitely not what we’re used to. The Jr Ranger books are usually packed with information, fun activities that aid in learning about each location and are challenging for the girls. They have to earn their badges!
I have to say though, their visitor’s center was awesome!! It had grinding stones similar to those that the ancient Pueblo people used that you could try grinding corn with. Not easy work by any means! It had discovery drawers for kids and adults to pull open to learn about various plants, animals, traditions and Pueblo culture. They had microscopes for us to look at beautiful black and white pottery that had been found on the grounds.
Our favorite part though was the replica of a Pueblo pithouse. Boy, these were so simple but very functional indeed. Pithouses were half underground and half above ground with a roof made of wood support beams, sticks and clay. The roofs could hold people but were not strong enough to hold the weight of another home. The pithouse had an an ingenious and necessary “L” shaped air cavity that helped circulate the air and funnel the smoke from their fire up through the center hole which was also the entrance and exit. It was so neat to see how they might have had it arranged.
Justin and I talked it over and since the gentleman giving out information was not certain in the slightest about where to camp and the road he suggested was in the opposite direction we were headed we decided it was wise to carry on in our journey to Mesa Verde. It was really too bad because I’m sure there were lots of neat things to see there but there.
I picked up some informational booklets I found at the visitor center and plan to create my own Jr Ranger book and pledge for the girls encompassing the ruins of the ancients so they can earn their badges properly. I figure I’ll wait until we have a stretch of cities and we are all missing the Jr Ranger programs.
We arrived at Mesa Verde that evening after the visitor’s center had closed for the night. The campground was fairly empty and we soon realized it was because it was nothing too special. Our oldest was in a huff and asked, “Why are all the sites so crumby here?” It’s not that they were bad sites they just were not what we have been pampered with within other National Parks we have visited. The sites were in an open grassy slope with sparse hills in the background.
The best part, which was pretty fun, was that our site came with some friendly wild turkeys. In our exploring of the park we learned that the ancestors of these wild turkeys had once been pets of the ancient Pueblo people. Isn’t that neat that they stuck around?
The next day we chose to take our chances at getting tickets to go on a cliff dwelling tour. The rangers had told us they sell out quick so to ensure a time slot we should be at the visitor’s center by 8am. Back in the days when the girls were babies this would have been no problem as our day started at 5:30am each morning. However, over time our schedule has shifted to later bedtimes therefore later wake-up times. So, getting to the visitor’s center by 8am was a bit of a stretch for us. I sadly even had to wake up our youngest!! I absolutely dread doing this to either of the girls and especially dreaded waking our little one as she hasn’t been sleeping through the night lately. But, we figured this might be our only chance so I scooped the little sweetie up out of bed and popped her in her carseat with a soft warm blanket hoping she would sleep in again the following day. Of course they never sleep in when you want them to. Only when you’re hoping they wake early. Why is that?!
The visitor’s center is a bit of a haul from the campground so we brought our breakfast along figuring that while Justin was in line for tour tickets, I could feed the girls. It worked!! We got tickets for the 10am “Cliff Palace” tour. That Cliff Palace was an hour away from the visitor’s center so Justin had to scarf some breakfast so we could pop in Azul and head straight for the dwelling to make it in time.
We made it with some time to spare. I think the rangers tell people it takes an hour to drive there so nobody misses the tour. In reality it took about 45 minutes which gave us all time to use the bathroom and eat a snack as there obviously weren’t any bathrooms or eating allowed on the hour long tour.
Cliff Palace Tour
The tour was phenomenal!! We first started down a set of sandstone steps beautifully carved into the cliff edge and straight in front of us was an amazing view of one of the intricate cliff dwellings from the ancient Pueblo people on the opposite side of the canyon.
In many places along the steep path down to the dwellings the with of the path narrowed down to no more than a foot and a half at pinch points. This always feels so neat to have two beautifully strong rocks on either side of you as you walk through a passage. We all then happily climbed a sturdy wooden ladder up to the next platform along the path.
Once the group had reached Cliff Palace we sat under an overhang in the rock to listen to the ranger tell us about its history. My goodness!! It was such as amazing sight to see! It was a mini city, IN A CLIFF! The construction was just phenomenal and they used every inch of space to its full capacity.
The ranger told us that the Pueblo people abandoned these cliff dwellings about 800 years ago for whatever reason. Scientists have figured this out by looking at the age of the logs used to build their structures. They could actually map out what buildings were created first and which ones followed in order. How neat, right?!
Some restoration has been done on some of the taller structures. The ranger showed us where the restoration had taken place last year and what parts were original. Guess what? The parts that were restored were crumbling already after only a year! That tells us what skilled masonries the ancient Pueblos were. Their’s lasted more than 800 years and ours only a year. We have a lot to learn from their people that’s for sure.
The Kiva’s in particular were so fascinating to me. They are round rooms that were build underground with the roof sturdy enough to hold people walking on but not an additional structure to be held. They were used, and are still used, for ceremonial purposes yet it is believed that in the dead cold of the winter this is where families slept as it was the warmest structure.
Can you imagine how much work this would have been to create. Each one of the sandstone bricks had to be hand chiseled and stacked just so. Each of the structures were artfully formed around existing rock under the overhang. Such a perfect spot they found to create this living space. Scientists estimate it took 90 years to build which to me sounded quick when you consider the amount of labor that went into it. It was incredible to witness this kind of skill and beauty. I felt honored to get a peak into what life might have been like for the Pueblos so many hundreds of years ago.
Although it looked as if the people who once lived in this cliff dwelling were isolated from other families they in fact were not. As we explored the park we saw with our own eyes that this was true. It was amazing how many pithouses, pueblos and cliff dwellings still existed and how close they all were to one another. Just as if they were all back country neighbors.
We learned that the first people of the area lived as hunters and gatherers following the herds to find food therefore having no permanent homes.
After this time there were the basket weavers who would set up shop under the overhangs of the sandstone rock.
The next time period, the Modified Basketmaker Period, is what we were able to view remains of, which was when the Pueblos started making pit houses around 1300 years ago.
1200 years ago they moved on to make pueblo houses and starting dry farming growing beans, squash and corn.
Lastly, about 800 years ago the cliff dwellings were created which included farming and the addition of multistory structures.
There is a drivable loop with dozens of amazing remnants of the Pueblo’s homes over time. They were simple yet functioned very well. Some deeper pits than others, some larger or with overlapping homes. It was really neat to imagine living in such a house in all weather. I do wonder what the weather was like back then and if it got as scorchingly hot in the summers and so dreadfully cold in the winters as it does now in those parts. There was such a neat part of history all around us.
That evening the girls had a blast helping start and maintain the campfire and Justin got in some guitar playing time. I envy Justin that he is able to have some hobbies that don’t involve the family.
I think I’ve finally come to the realization that any hobby that doesn’t directly contribute to the rearing of kids such as playing an instrument or painting will have to wait until the girls are a bit older and more self sufficient. Hobbies such as sewing, to mend clothes or make things we need, or knitting, which involves things to use and allows me to pick it up and put if down often, are realistic hobbies to have in this time of my life. It makes me sad some days but in the long run it probably contributes to my happiness because it’s less frustrating.
At the campground the girls set up the cutest little greeting station for campers coming in and out of our loop. Each used a bucket as a seat and used sarongs as pads and blankets. When they would hear an approaching vehicle they would yell, “Car!! Come quick!!” They would get into position and wave like crazy with their biggest smiles. Later in the day they moved to the nearby gate so they could climb to a higher perch. They used the flag from our double stroller as an extra greeting tool. It was pretty sweet and gave everyone they waved to a big smile.
We decided to use the next day as a down day to play, cook, get a solid day of schooling in and clean. The girls cheered Justin on as he split wood for our morning schooling fire which was pretty cute. We ended up spying a lot of really neat bugs throughout the day including lots of boat-backed ground beetles, a robber fly (actually eating a fly which was neat) some honeybees sipping the previous nectar from the beautiful thistles, grasshoppers and lots of yellow-jackets.
While I baked nuts, carrot cake and potatoes our oldest helped make Azul sparkle. The bugs had really started to collect on the windshield! She was so excited to be able to climb right up on Azul’s nose.
A word about the solar oven; it is overall nice to cook in but unfortunately making anything quick bread or cake texture is kind of an issue. Unfortunately, when the back is done cooking the front is still mushy. With anything liquid or hard like nuts it doesn’t matter much that it doesn’t cook evenly because you can periodically stir it. This is not the case with moist breads. What ends up happening is that all my moist breads are dumped out into a pile of large crumbs and then I cook the front park a bit more. I have only once been able to pop the quick bread out as a whole. A bit frustrating so presentation is not great but it still tastes good. I’ll have to find the tricks.