The main attraction in Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks are natural rock formations. After visiting Canyonlands and Natural Bridges it was time to start exploring some human created formations. We headed to Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. These sites (along with many others in the four corners region) contain the ruins of ancient civilizations. Specifically, Ancestral Puebloan communities that built large elaborate villages near canyons and cliffs.
Hovenweep National Monument
Hovenweep includes six different villages spanning the Utah-Colorado border. Like other places in Utah, a high-clearance vehicle is needed to reach many of the sites so we were somewhat limited in our adventure choices. We spent a morning hiking the Little Ruin Canyon Rim Trail (say that three times fast) which starts behind the visitor center. The 2-mile trail takes you through the Square Tower Group of structures. This is the largest of the six villages. It’s thought that 100-150 people lived in this community. The ancient ruins are perched above and inside the canyon. One house is even balanced on a boulder. There are towers of varying sizes and shapes, multi-room homes, kivas (ceremonial rooms), and a castle.
The majority of the still-standing structures were built between 1230 and 1275 CE (Common Era). It’s amazing what these builders accomplished in this small amount of time. Oddly enough, they didn’t stay in their stone houses very long. By 1300, they had all migrated south to areas that are now New Mexico and Arizona.
Mesa Verde National Park
Our next stop was outside Cortez, CO—our base for exploring more ancient ruins. There are numerous similarities between the Mesa Verde and Hovenweep inhabitants. These Ancestral Puebloan people lived in the area for 700 years (from 550 CE through the late 1200’s). To put this in perspective that’s almost three times as long as the US has been a country. They were farmers. Large areas of land on the mesas were cleared for crops and check dams were built to harness water. They were also artists and crafts people. Early civilizations were known for making beautiful and high-quality baskets. The era is even named after them—the Basketmaker Period. Later they learned to make clay pottery. Pieces used for special occasions were exquisitely painted with ornate patterns and images.
Like at Hovenweep most of Mesa Verde’s masonry occurred over a period of less than 100 years. And just a generation or two after that, these villages were abandoned. No one knows why. It’s thought that the move could have been due to drought, impending war, or land depletion after centuries of use and population growth. Even though the average lifespan was less than 35 years, the population grew dramatically while the Ancestral Puebloans lived here. It was actually three times more than it is today.
Scenic Drives and Hot Showers
Mesa Verde is divided into two sections—Wetherhill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. The drive there takes you up a winding road to the park’s summit and back down to the mesa tops. There’s a fair amount of elevation gain but fortunately Stan pulled through without any more breakdowns. The main road goes past the campground and what we consider to be one of the park’s best features—free showers! While we were a bit concerned by some of the signage, we kept our shower sandals firmly on our feet and basked in the free hot water.
The views along the drive are expansive. It was full-on Fall when we visited. The hills and valley below looked like a patch-work quilt of brown, orange, and rust blanketing the land. There are also many burned sections as forest fires are common. The highest point of the park at 8,500 feet features a fire lookout tower with 360° views.
The park has two different loop drives, both located on Chapin Mesa. The Mesa Top Loop takes you to various pit house sites. These are the first Ancestral Puebloan dwellings—recessed homes built into the ground. Eventually the architecture became more sophisticated and progressed to the stone buildings that Mesa Verde is famous for. These are complex multi-room structures grouped together into villages that resemble small cities. Most of these structures are built in natural alcoves along the canyon walls—hence the name cliff dwellers. The Cliff Palace Loop follows the canyon edge with overlooks of the villages.
Long House Tour
Tours are offered for three of the largest villages—Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. Cliff Palace was closed for the season, so we went for the most in-depth tour—Long House. It’s located on Wetherhill Mesa, which is the less busy area of the park.
The tour begins with a 1-mile hike along the mesa top where we encountered significant signs of horses…aka poop. This led our ranger guide to tell us about the herd of wild horses in the park. They get into the archeological sites and cause damage. The park service would like to relocate the horses.
This has resulted in a conundrum. The park service is tasked with preserving natural and cultural resources. This can be water (like in Hot Springs), unique geological features, or in this case cultural “works of man”. It’s argued that the horses should fall under the park’s protection as well, but they pose a serious threat to the archeological sites.
I for one, think that the park service has a very challenging job. They must balance an abundance of concerns, all while funding is decreasing and park traffic (and therefore resource and infrastructure needs) are increasing. Add to that, now fighting to keep these special places protected from those who wish to exploit the lands’ resources and it’s an enormous challenge. I won’t go on too much of a tangent here (I’ll save that for a future post😉). However, what we’ve witnessed this year has given us a tremendous appreciation for the work that goes into protecting and preserving these lands.
Exploring an Ancient Village
Back to the tour. After a short hike through the woods, the trail descends a steep flight of stairs and the Long House village comes into view. Of course, the original residents didn’t have this staircase. They used hand and foot holes gouged into the rock to navigate up and down the canyon and building walls. If you were an Ancestral Puebloan, you better hope that you weren’t afraid of heights.
We climbed up the sturdy but very tall ladder to access the upper area of this small city. The structures in the park have been preserved and somewhat restored. Long House is comprised of 150 individual rooms, 21 kivas, storage areas, and a large plaza. As many as 175 people lived here. There’s a natural spring along back wall that provides much needed water in the dry desert.
You can easily imagine the thriving community that lived here over 700 years ago—families cooking, building, crafting, and playing. Because of the large population in the area at that time, it’s now rich with history and artifacts. There are over 5,000 known archeological sites in Mesa Verde alone. We may never know exactly what motivated these people to leave their beautiful stone homes. What we do know, is that this place is still sacred to many people today. Over 26 tribes can be traced back to the Mesa Verde dwellers. Many make the pilgrimage here each year to participate in ceremonies and keep the customs, beliefs, and traditions of this ancient culture alive.
November is Native American Heritage Month. Here’s a link to find out about events and exhibits.