Thursday, October 1, 2009

Colorado August 28- September 5, 2009. Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde NP

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde

The following link is to a PDF file describing the history of Ancient Pueblo People and their buildings. It gives a much better description than what I could write.

Ancestral Puebloans

It is really amazing how well the cliff dwellings remained intact for over 700 years. The NPS says they don’t “restore” historic site. They do “stabilize” sites to prevent further deterioration.

The following two pictures supports what the NPS says. The first is from the NP web site and was taken in 1899, about 110 years ago. The second was taken during our visit.

With the exception of the multi story tower on the right, the other structures look about the same in both pictures. To be sure, all the rubble at the base of the structures have been removed, but the basic buildings are the same. As far as the large multi-story tower is concerned, rebuilding the missing corner would constitute “stabilization”.

Most of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are only accessible with a park ranger as a guide. This keeps vandalism and graffiti at a minimum. The NPS runs a tour about every 30 minutes all day long with about 40-60 people in each tour.

I took two of the guided tours to Cliff Palace and Long House.

First walk was to Cliff Palace. At Cliff Palace they have a sunset tour each day at 7pm. The ranger who leads this tour dresses in 1880’s period costume and acts the part of a historic person. Our guide was Al Wetherill, the first person to see Cliff Palace in the 1880’s.

For more information about the Wetherill family & the first explorations of the cliff dwellings follow these links.

The following PDF file is fairly large & may take a while to load.

As you read the following about the visitors going down to and returning from the cliff dwellings, keep in mind, the people who lived here did not create any steps. To go up and down the cliffs they carved toe and hand holds in the sandstone walls.

Looking down on Cliff Palace from the overlook.

To get down to the cliff dwelling we had to walk or climb down a series of steep steps carved out of the sandstone. Some of the steps have been worn down so they slope downward. If you are not careful it would be easy to slip.

Visitors going down the steps.

Looking across Cliff Palace with the moon rising over the cliff.

If you look closely in the upper left corner of the above photo you will see a vertical crack in the sandstone. This is where we will exit.

We start our exit climb by going up sandstone steps in this little crevasse

And finish by climbing the ladder to the top.

All the literature describing the Cliff Palace tour calls the walk strenuous and tells about the steps and ladder. But we still had several folks my age or older, who had difficulty walking comfortably on level ground, take the tour. They really struggled going down and especially climbing back up.

I highly recommend taking the sunset walk. Our guide did an excellent job of portraying Al Wetherill. I had to force myself several times to remember that this guy was a ranger and not really a person from 1885. He made the cliff dwelling come to life.

The second walk was to Long House.

They stored their food in this alcove above their houses.

Looking directly up at the entrance door

They used a ladder to access the storage rooms. See the two groves at the base of the doorway? They were worn into the sandstone by the ladder.

A sand & mud mortar was used to cement the hand carved sandstone blocks in place. If the mortar was used by itself, it had a tendency to crack and crumble over time. They found if they wedged pieces of sandstone in the motar it wouldn’t crack.

Keep in mind this wall wasn’t restored. This is the way it looks after standing for over 700 years!

The ancient people even devised a method to know when a sandstone ledge was about to fall on them.

This overhanging ledge is right over houses

They wedged juniper branches into the crack at the bottom of the ledge

If any of the branches fell down to the ground they knew the ledge was shifting and would fall soon.

Since the creation of the national park, at least one time they have documented a branch being found on the ground and within a week or two the ledge fell down on the ruins.

That’s about all for Cliff Dwellings.

Until later

Al & Sharon

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