Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Colorado: September 3, 2009. Mesa Verde National Park General Overview

Mesa Verde National Park

Downloadable maps of Mesa Verde NP

(Click on highlighted text to link to additional info)

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.

The early Pueblo people lived and farmed on the top of the mesa from about A.D. 600 until after A.D 1000, then for reasons not clear today, they started building the cliff dwellings and continued to farm the mesa tops.

At the peak of the mesa top development there were an estimated 20,000 people living in the general area of Mesa Verde NP. That figure includes all the areas within about 20 miles of the park.

From about A.D. 1280 to very early A.D. 1300 all the sites were abandoned. Perhaps climate change made them leave. Their primary food crop was corn. Corn takes about 75 frost free days & nights to grow and mature. One thought is that climate cooling changed the normal 85 frost free days to something too short for the corn to mature. One ranger said that in Europe starting about 1280 and continuing for a 100 years or more, there are written reports of a mini ice age. Lots of crop failures and very cold long winters. Tree rings, starting in 1280, show very stressful growing conditions, i.e. the tree rings were very close together for many years after 1280.

Research using tree rings has developed a continuous picture of the climate history from current time going back some 2000 years or more. Send a core sample from a tree, or tree used in a building, to, I think, the University of Arizona, and they can tell you when that tree was cut down or stopped growing. This allows very accurate dating of the buildings used by the Ancient Pueblo people.

Several of the communities built on the top of the Mesas built water tanks for domestic water storage.

These people were very ingenious. Notice, in the picture above, the water inlet comes in along one side of the tank. Most people even today build water storage tanks with the water inlet coming straight in. But doing that allows the mud coming along with the inrushing water to flow into the center of the tank, eventually filling the tank with sediment. It requires lots of labor to dig the dirt out of the center of the tank. By having the water come in the side, that makes it much easier to remove the sediment.

The other half of the water tank

Views of mesas and canyons:

The cliff dwellings were built in alcoves just below the top layer of sandstone, you see in this picture.

This is an example of a spectacular cliff dwelling.

The tower in the center is about 25 feet tall. These dwellings have NOT been restored. They were so well built, they are still standing in very good condition after over 700 years. Granted they are sheltered from rain and snow, but I wonder how many of our homes would be standing after 700 years?

Look at these wooden beams, fir trees actually, about 12-18 inches in diameter, and the hand cut sandstone blocks in these buildings.

Keep in mind they didn’t have any steps leading down to the cliff dwellings. They cut hand & toe holds in the sandstone cliffs to climb up and down. For ropes, they used the fibers from yucca plant leaves, twisted and woven together. Lots and lots of work went into building these dwellings.

To move between the different levels in the dwellings, they used wooden ladders like these.


Since Mesa Verde's inception as a National Park in 1906, 80% of the park has been burned by fire. Since the 1920s there have been, on average, 8 fires per year. Since 1970 this average has increased to 20-25 fires per year. The increase is most likely the result of a nearly 100 year total fire suppression policy at Mesa Verde National Park. The unburned areas of the park look a lot like the hill country area of Texas, north of San Antonio and west of Austin. Hills covered with cedar, which are actually juniper trees. In Mesa Verde it is a mixture of pinion pine and juniper.

In the areas covered with pinion/juniper forest, there is very little grass or plants for deer and elk to eat much like in Texas. If I had remembered to take a picture of the pinion/juniper forest, I could show you a picture of a forest w/little grass.

Contrast that with these pictures with abundant grass several years after the pinion/juniper forest was burned off:

This is from a fire in 2000

And these two are from areas burned in 2002

From what I have read, the hill country in Texas was similar to this, prior to sheep, goat & cattle grazing and fire suppression - large areas of good grass lands interspersed with areas of cedar (juniper) trees.

You may have noticed the coyote in the last picture. It must have been accustomed to humans. Right after I took the above picture, it had a huge yawn.

A nice looking coyote, but a bit skinny.

Other wild life we saw in Mesa Verde

Rock Squirrel


Horned Lizzard

Mule Deer Fawn, still with spots

One really nice thing about Mesa Verde is that many of the pathways to overlooks and sights are paved so Sharon could ride her scooter.

That’s all for now. Next up will be a closer look at the cliff dwellings.

Until later,

Al & Sharon

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