Mesa Verde: An Archaeological Pilgrimage

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado (near Four Corners) ranked Number 1 on my destination list after I first visited its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings at age five. I credit my fascination with archaeology to this park. A love for all things ancient has become one of my lifelong passions.

My childhood sense of adventure was kindled by climbing log ladders to reach Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings—built by the Anasazi people, as they were called when I was a kid. (Today they’re called Ancestral Pueblo people because they were the forebears of the Pueblo tribes that now live in Arizona and New Mexico.) Hearing stories about Anasazi ceremonial, underground, circular rooms, called kivas, sparked my imagination.

Decades later, Mesa Verde continues to enchant me. I’ve take archaeological pilgrimages there four times since my parents first brought me. Over the years, I’ve never tired of hiking southwest Colorado’s desert landscape or pondering the archaeological remnants of the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area’s canyons and high plateaus from about 600 to 1300 A.D.

Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings—the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Cliff Palace is the most visited, and it’s exciting because you can see it from a distance before you hike down to explore it.

Park ranger Tim McNeil, Mesa Verde ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Park ranger Tim McNeil explains the history of Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ranger Interpretation Adds Dimension

Some of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are open only when you’re guided by a ranger. You’ll need to buy a reserved ticket up to two days in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum in the national park, or at the Durango Welcome Center in the nearby city of Durango.

Though it takes some extra effort and cost ($5 per person), it’s well worth it. The rangers who led my husband and I through the beautiful dwellings were fountains of knowledge—and their knowledge of history and archaeology helped bring the ruins to life.

You don’t need to know that little windowed niches tucked under the cliffs were for storing corn and beans to appreciate the sandy geometry of the architecture or the permanence of stone. Still, it’s nice to know the function of towers, “middens” or garbage dumps, or about the spiritual significance of the sipapu, a small hole in the floor of the circular kiva. (The sipapu is the symbol of the Place of Emergence, where humans entered through the earth world from the spirit world according to the beliefs of the Puebloans.)

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Climbing to Balcony House

To visit the Balcony House ruin, you climb log ladders up a cliff, scramble through Balcony House’s narrow passageway just as the ancients who lived here a millennia ago did.

Four decades after I first visited as a little kid, Balcony House’s tunnel is a tight squeeze for me—yet Mesa Verde continues to charm me. Ranger Tim McNeil described the Ancestral Puebloan diet, which relied heavily on piñon nuts and “The Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, which are not only staples, but grow symbiotically.

Looking at thousand-year-old beams and rooms gives me a different perspective—of how short a time we have to live, and how many wonderful antiquities there are to explore.

For details on Mesa Verde, see Visit Mesa Verde.  For information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

First posted in August 2011

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Discover Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[May 2017 update: The Trump administration has placed Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger the monument’s irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites.]

If you’re driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, don’t miss a sweet little ruin down a mile of dirt road off Road 10. (It’s not too far outside of Hovenweep National Monument, another enchanting site for prehistoric ruins in the Four Corners area.

My husband, Ken, and I bumped down the road (it can be a little rough) until we found the Painted Hand Pueblo trail leading to a lovely 13th-century Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) tower gracefully perched over the canyon.

We parked and then took the short ¼-mile hike. The beginning is easy, leading through piñon and juniper forest. Scrambling down the banded sandstone to reach the tower’s base was more challenging (I was glad to have sturdy hiking boots!). However, the view of the stacked-brick tower beckoned.

As we explored and enjoyed the tower, it was Ken who found and pointed out the faint shape of three white hands painted on rock—the reason for the ruins’ name. The lonely call of a hawk overhead got me wondering about the long-ago artist who left handprints handprint on this peaceful valley.

What’s There: Painted Hand has interpretive signs and brochures at its trailhead. There’s no water or toilets—and the road is rough. (We made it in our Toyota Camry, but if the roads are muddy, you might need a four-wheel drive.)

About Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeological important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(originally published October 2008)

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments: