We decided that there were enough self-guided areas to keep us busy for a good part of the day, so we began the drive towards the Chapin Mesa.
As we drove into the park, we were climbing in elevation until we reached the highest point in the park – Park Point Overlook.
From this point, we could see Shiprock in the west (faintly, through some haze), and Hesperus Peak in the east.
At the overlook, there was also a fire tower that the Park Service Rangers use to keep an eye on wildfires – several of which have burned in Mesa Verde in past years. We saw some evidence of fire damage, but luckily we’ve been fire-free so far this season.
Looking back over the “green table”, we could see the roads we had taken to get to this point.
From here, we drove back down in elevation until we reached the Chapin Mesa, around 7000 feet. We were all getting hungry, so we stopped in the picnic area to have our lunch before we explored the cave dwellings. The picnic area was almost like a small camping loop, with little individual parking spaces and picnic tables scattered throughout. We found a spot that had a table in the shade, and enjoyed our lunch.
Bryce and I spotted this little blue bird, and I just had to take his picture . . . I don’t know what he is, though!
After lunch, we parked in the overflow parking lot (yes, it was THAT crowded!), and walked to the Chapin Mesa Museum to watch the Mesa Verde Orientation video. We learned about the various dwellings that have been found at Mesa Verde . . . mesa top houses, pit houses and villages, and finally cliff dwellings. Our visit today will take us to all three of them!
There are 5 cliff dwellings accessible to the public, 3 of them on ranger tours, and 2 that are self guided.
At this location, the Spruce Tree House is available as a self-guided tour . . .
it’s a 1/4 mile hike and a 100 ft. decent to the cliff dwelling . . . pretty easy going down, but challenging on the way back up!
It was a beautiful walk down into the canyon, and we even spotted some wildlife!
We reached the bottom pretty quickly, and even though we could not enter the dwelling, we were able to look through a few windows,
and even climb down into a Kiva (religious ceremonial room).
Kivas are always below ground, and they may have been used for healing rituals, or praying for rain, successful hunts or good crops.
The small opening in the ground, and the wooden ladder are exactly how the ancient Puebloans entered the ceremonial room.
Down below was a small dark room, with seats around the circumference, and a place for a fire in the middle.
Most of the remaining kivas are open, without ceilings, but the one that we went down into was recently restored so that visitors could have the experience of entering the ceremonial room.
Back above ground, we explored the rest of Spruce Tree House,
then it was time to make the climb back up 100 feet to the Museum! On the way down, we had heard a Ranger describe the walk as 1/4 mile down and 6 miles up!! Actually, it wasn’t too bad . . . we took it slow, drank our water, and stopped for breaks in the shade . . . and before long we were back to the parking lot.
Since we didn’t have tickets for either of the Ranger-led tours at this location, we got back in the car and drove the Top Mesa Loop . . . a 6-mile loop that took us through 600 years of Ancestral Puebloan development, and included overlooks of numerous cliff dwellings.
Our first stop on the loop was the Square Tower House Overlook. The Square Tower House is another cliff dwelling from the same time period as Spruce Tree House.
The construction was similar, but the Square Tower House included a section of dwelling that was multiple stories high.
The next stop were the Pit Houses, from the 750 – 1100 AD time frame. There are several along the loop, and the construction of the pit houses resembles the Ceremonial Kivas.
They are circular in shape, with a hole in the center of the roof for entering, and a ventilation shaft to bring in fresh air.
From the Sun Point View, we could see several cliff dwellings across the canyon from us.
Continuing along the loop, we reached the Sun Temple, and from there we had a really great view of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace is one of the dwelling accessible only on a ranger-led tour, and as we sat at the observation point, we could watch the tours as they made their way down into the canyon.
The Cliff Palace Tour was the one that we thought we would go on, but since we got such a good look at it from across the canyon, Tom and the boys are thinking they would rather do the Balcony House tour, since it is only visible on the tour, and not from any of the overlooks. It’s a bit more challenging, though, so I may not join them!
We sat for a bit, watching the tour group progress through the dwelling, and enjoying the view of the canyon,
and then we made our way out of the Top Mesa Loop, and back towards the Visitor Center. On the way out we stopped at the Far View Sites, which we had missed on the way in, and explored the mesa-top farming community and the dry water reservoir.
By the time we finished the walk through the Far View sites, we had pretty much had our fill of archeology and history, and were ready to head out.
We still had a 20-mile drive down from the top of the Mesa, and we admired the surrounding vistas as we made our way down.
The view back toward Mancos was especially amazing!
We finally made our way back to the Visitor Center, and since we were all pretty hungry we decided to go into Cortez for dinner, before going back to the ranch.
Even without getting into a ranger-led tour, we had a pretty full day at Mesa Verde! Now we just need to come back to visit the other half of the park!