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Destination: Mesa Verde

Adrienne Bass - July 19, 2010

In southwestern Colorado, near the Four Corners region in the United States, is a beautifully preserved monument to American history. But it’s not the American history you typically think of—on the cliffs of Mesa Verde, you can find evidence of an ancient people in the adobe cliff dwellings built six hundred years ago.

In 1888, on a snowy December day, two ranchers in southwest Colorado set out in search of stray cattle. Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, decided to rest their horses for a bit on a mesa top while they stretched their legs and walked to the rim of the mesa. What they saw shocked them. Across the canyon lay an ancient cliff dwelling sheltered under the rim of an alcove.

That sandstone habitat is now known as Cliff Palace and has since been excavated and preserved in the Mesa Verde National Park. People from all over the world come to witness for themselves the evidence of this well-preserved ancient life. What two cowboys stumbled upon over one hundred years ago is now considered one the most popular archaeological sites in the United States.

Mesa Verde provides so many opportunities for exploration and discovery. Nearby lay the communities of Mancos and Cortez. Both offer lodging, restaurants and shopping as well as two very different histories of the establishment of the Church in their respective areas. Mancos's history involves a rich pioneer heritage while the Church in Cortez has evolved slowly.

The first LDS member to enter the Mancos Valley was Joseph Stanford Smith who arrived with his family in 1881. They settled south of the town of Mancos in the Weber Valley. Other Saints arrived rapidly, and four years later a fund was created to build a meetinghouse. Albert Farnsworth, the presiding authority, announced at the beginning of July that a new building was to be built by July 24 - Pioneer Day. This ambitious project reached its potential (minus doors, windows, and a complete ceiling) and the Saints celebrated Pioneer Day at the new church. A mere 12 years after the initial arrival into the Mancos Valley, membership had reached 250 Saints. Today, the number of Church members has risen to 2,000.

In 1926, elders came to a community just north of Cortez called Lakeview. At the time, only three families were involved in the Church. They worshipped in each other's homes, the city library, a lodge, and even the schoolhouse over the next several decades, until enough members lived in Cortez to build a meetinghouse. These early Saints struggled to keep the Church going. However, in 1951, a building was constructed for the 100 members who lived in the Cortez area. As these Saints continually work to strengthen the wards, growth continues, and the area now includes over 1,600 Church members.

Those who live in the shadow of Mesa Verde love this land, and so do the many who discover its sites and learn about the people who once lived there - the Ancestral Puebloans.

For the Adventurous Climbing ladders, crawling through tunnels, and scaling a 60-foot open rock face are just some of the activities that await explorers at Mesa Verde. Sites for the adventurous to discover include Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Knife Edge Trail, which all require visitors to have stamina and sure-footing.

Your first and necessary stop after the main entrance, however, is the Far View Visitor Center, where a Park Ranger can assist you in planning your visit. Purchased tickets for guided tours are required for three of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House (see "For the Family," below). But these dwellings are well worth the extra effort to see them.

Cliff Palace offers an exciting look at the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. To reach and exit the site, you must climb up and down five 8- to 10-foot ladders and manage some narrow passageways. With more than 150 rooms, this site provides a brief look into Ancestral Puebloan life. Old, smooth stones are displayed showing the constant chore of grinding corn for flour, and 23 kivas - rooms intended for religious rituals - are a reminder of ancient traditions. Visitors are allowed to walk along the front of the dwelling and take as many pictures as they want. Children can maneuver this site with help and supervision, while very young children can ride safely in a backpack carrier. Park rangers can help decide if your children are able to visit this site.

Visiting Balcony House requires an even more adventurous spirit. To get there, visitors must climb a 32-foot ladder, then crawl through a narrow rock tunnel and ascend an open face rock wall (which has toeholds for support). Balcony House is set inside a cliff that sits high above the bottom of the canyon. Inside one of the structures at this site are rare, authentic wall paintings which visitors are able to view. Only older children with direct supervision and young children in carriers should come along. While Balcony House might sound intense to get in and out of, be aware that countless people maneuver this site unharmed.

To complement your adventure, consider staying at Morefield Campground, which is open for campers early May to early October. Tents, trailers, and RVs are all allowed with other convenient accommodations. Several trailheads begin at Morefield Campground, such as the Knife Edge Trail. This two-mile round trip hike follows along part of the old main access road that dates back to 1914. The road was steep and narrow, hence the name "Knife Edge Road."

After a day of adventurous exploration in the park, take this trail out to watch the sunset over Montezuma Valley. The views will astound you as you look out into the clear, endless landscape.

For the Family If hiking is fairly new to your family, or your children are small, Mesa Verde still has possibilities for you, including Spruce Tree House, a hike to view petroglyphs, and sites at Wetherill Mesa.

Spruce Tree House (located on Chapin Mesa) provides an excellent opportunity to explore a cliff dwelling without a guided tour (with the exception of early November to early March). Going down to the site is fast, but be prepared to utilize the benches provided at various locations on the way back up—it can get steep at times. Once at the site, a park ranger can tell you about the culture and architecture of the dwelling, or you can explore for yourself. Spruce Tree House offers a unique opportunity to enter into what a real kiva might have been like. In this kiva, excavators have reconstructed a roof over the top. You can climb down a short ladder and even take pictures of this room with your children.

As you are leaving Spruce Tree House, the trailhead to Petroglyph Point Trail branches off the paved pathway. The trail is 2.4 miles round trip and displays a wall of petroglyphs painted by Ancestral Puebloans. On this hike, views of the canyons and abundant wildlife will amaze you. Lizards thrive and scurry along the trail as you make your way on this scenic walk. Deer are also prevalent at Mesa Verde, as are many species of birds. On rare occasions, a herd of wild horses roam the nearby plains and can be spotted as they graze on grass. The pinon and twisted wood of the juniper trees dot the landscape. Although the Pony Fire of 2000 left some areas scorched and barren, many trees and varieties of plant life still exist.

On the other side of the park lies Wetherill Mesa, where you can find the Long House, Step House, and Badger House dwellings. Once you travel about 45 minutes from Far View Visitor Center, a tram will take you around the sites (a self-guided hike to Step House and the Badger House Community is also available if you are not visiting Long House). Of these sites, Long House offers the most interactive and intimate view of the cliff dwellings. A hike up a long, steep staircase, a few turns, and two 15-foot ladders allows visitors access into the site (access is not allowed in any of the other cliff dwellings). Children will enjoy the unique opportunity to walk around a portion of Long House and touch ancient pottery and toys left behind by Ancestral Puebloan families.

A More Leisurely Visit Mesa Verde is not just about hiking and climbing. You can still see cliff dwellings and discover remains of ancient life at a more relaxed and leisurely pace. A visit to the museums and use of the auto tour can easily allow people of any ability to enjoy Mesa Verde.

Far View Visitor Center and Chapin Mesa Museum display a history of the people who lived here for over 700 years. A bookstore and nearby gift shop to the museum are also excellent places to learn about Mesa Verde. After visiting the Museum, take a short walk to a shelter that overlooks Spruce Tree House. The shelter provides a place to snap some pictures and examine at a distance this remarkable and lasting structure.

Next, try the Mesa Top Loop - an auto tour with 12 stops. Some of the highlights on this self-guided tour include Square Tower House Overlook - an overlook that allows you not only to see the site, but also enjoy the panoramic view of the Navajo Canyon below - and Sun Temple. Sun Temple, an unfinished structure believed to be one of the last built by the Ancestral Puebloans, has a paved trail circling around the building with a place to peer into two small windows to view the inside of the temple. As you walk the short distance around Sun Temple, there are multiple opportunities to see Cliff Palace across the canyon. The next few stops on the auto tour show several other cliff dwellings not accessible to the public and only visible from Mesa Top Loop Road.

Mesa Verde offers endless opportunities for exploration. Just as Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason unexpectedly came across this ancient treasure, you might also discover something new for yourself.

Visit nps.gov/meve for information on seasonal closures and other Mesa Verde features.

© LDS Living, July/August 2010. Photo by Sarah Dawn Nichols/sxc.hu.