A one day itinerary exploring the Four Corner and the Puebloan ruins at Mesa Verde National Park
Yesterday we took the short drive from Monument Valley across the State Border into Colorado. En route we decided to cross through the area known as the “Four Corners”. This is well known to most people here in the US as it is the only point where four States meet; Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. As you might expect it is easy to get confused as to which one you are in at anyone time around here. To mark this spot, there is a monument, which sits on Native American Indian land. As with all such landmarks on Native American Indian territory there are traders selling a host of crafts, both traditional and not so traditional. Whist you can get prissy about the despoiling of landmarks life is hard for these people so we can fully understand why this is allowed to happen – especially after what has been taken from them in the past. Having said all this the monument itself is not very exciting and after a picture or two all is done and we actually spend more time looking at the craft work which is actually very good quality. From the Four Corners we swiftly move on to our stop over point for the night Cortez, Colorado.
The reason for selecting Cortez is it’s proximity to Mesa Verde National Park. This National Park is home to the largest and best preserved dwellings of the pre-historic peoples of the United States, the Ancestral Puebloans. When we set off from Cortez this morning it was a cold and damp day, and as we rose up on to the Mesa Verde the weather got bleaker as we entered into the cloud base and colder. By the time we got to the Far View Visitors Center it was down right cold and miserable. Not to be deterred we bought our tickets for the tour of the largest preserved ruin, the Cliff Palace and set off across the mesa top. Luckily the weather took a turn for the better and the time we got there the clouds had started to break up and the sun was shining.
The tour itself is wonderful. They do say that it is a strenuous tour, and that is surely the truth as you have to descend down the steep cliff a few hundred feet to get there and then go up some ladders to reach the ruin. The situation of these dwellings underneath the ledges of the sandstone cliffs is amazing. Winters are cold and the summers hot so it is easy to see why these places were chosen, but there accessibility is problematic especially for what essentially were a stone-age people. All the materials required to build these complex building structures had to be carried down from the top of the mesa. Our Ranger guide gives us a fascinating tour, explaining the history of these Puebloan people and how their society operated. Whilst these Puebloan people disappeared from these locations some 900 years ago, their descendants still live further south in New Mexico and Arizona. Many traditions have remained preserved and the tribal storytellers have continued to pass on stories of the Ancestors down through the generations. We are spell bound by the complexity of the building structures and how they have cleverly used the contours of the rock formations in their architecture. As they say what comes down must go up – and the route back to the mesa top is no less strenuous than the way down.
A short drive from the Cliff Palace is the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. This is a wonderful museum that has a series of dioramas that depict the development of the Ancestral people from basket makers living in pit dwellings through to the pottery makers of the cliff dwellings. In addition there is a fabulous display of artifacts of these people. To help put this into context there is also a short film about the Puebloan people and the history of the National Park. By the time we have worked our way through the museum the sun is now fully out and it has warmed up considerably. Not far from the museum is another ruin, Spruce Tree House. This is the best preserved dwelling in the Park. The walk is down (and up) a fairly steep pathway but the journey is well worth it. Spruce Tree House is not as large as the Cliff Palace but the buildings are in better condition. There is also a reconstructed “Kiva”, a circular under-ground building used for ceremonial purposes. We are allowed to climb down into the Kiva via a rickety old ladder in the roof. Surprisingly it is not too claustrophobic down inside. The climb back up to the museum is quite steep, and as it is now considerably warmer we feel that we have earned the right to an ice cream – so on the way back out of the park we stop again at the Far View Visitors Center, this time at the restaurant. We happily ate our ice creams whilst gazing out of the window across the vast mesa top below us and into the valleys beyond – bliss!!