Visitors to the Four Corners most likely have Mesa Verde National Park on their trip planning list and while there, they’ll wonder why the people left. Drought is a fact of life in the desert Southwest, so it isn’t surprising to learn the lack of rain is a principal reason the Chaco culture collapsed. For years, the common belief was these ancestral puebloans simply disappeared, as if they evaporated. They didn’t. Their descendants are living among us today . . . but that’s another story.
As drought ruined the livelihood of one farmer after another, farming families left in search of better land and water. People lived and farmed in the Four Corners region for centuries — namely 550 to 1300 CE. They lived in pit houses and grew corn, beans, and squash along streams and on mesas.
Why were cliff dwellings built?
Then something changed. People began building cliff dwellings — at Keet Seel and Betatakin in Arizona and Mesa Verde in the southwest corner of Colorado. Archaeologists have asked why. In his book, Anasazi America, University of New Mexico archaeologist David Stuart offers this explanation. Perhaps it made more land available for cultivation. Perhaps the cliff dwellings were built for defense against some unidentified enemy.
Unidentified? The land was hot and dry. People were suffering, some even starving. Conditions were perfect for social unrest. Perhaps, if one group succeeded in growing food, a less successful contingent would try to steal it. The enemy wasn’t unidentified. It was their neighbors.
More secure than a gated community
Cliff dwellings were an elegant solution. Built on southern canyon faces beneath overhanging rock, people were warmed by the low winter sun and shaded from the high summer sun. Bottomlands and mesa tops could be farmed. People could withdraw from pit-house villages on mesas for winter or when threatened. A few sentries with dogs posted above the cliff dwellings could protect occupants below from sneak attacks.
Up and down of living in cliff dwellings
When you visit Mesa Verde, you’ll soon learn how hard life was for those who chose to, well, dwell there. Imagine living in one of the block rooms. You want water? You climb down a hundred or more feet, then haul a pot laden with water back up. You want corn? You climb a hundred or more feet to the mesa top to cultivate and harvest it, then haul the grain back down to your house. All because some neighbor thinks he deserves the fruits of your labor.
Why people abandoned cliff dwellings
It was an untenable way to live, and the cliff dwellings were occupied for only about a hundred years. Then, people abandoned these remarkable structures, but they, too, didn’t evaporate. They moved. Many migrated some 200 miles to the southeast. They didn’t go blindly, and they didn’t all go together. It was a gradual process. They found the tributaries of the San Juan River, Rio Chama, and Rio Grande. They found water and arable land. And they stayed, building multistory villages out of adobe brick. We know them as the Tewa, Tiwa, and Kerasan people living in what the Spanish called pueblos — Taos, Ohkay Owingeh, Laguna, Sandia, and others among the 23 sovereign nations of New Mexico.
What you can see and do
Visiting Mesa Verde is an amazing experience. It has some of the most notable and best-preserved ruins in North America with more than 4,700 archaeological sites. You can do it the elegant way, staying at nearby lodges. Or, if you’re more of an adventurer, you can reserve a campsite and sleep under the stars. Either way, the journey is unforgettable.
The National Park Service assesses a seven-day entrance fee of $30 per car from May 1 to October 22, and $20 for the balance of the year. Hour-long, ranger-guided tours to the Cliff Palace are ticketed at $8 per person. Demand for tour tickets is high, so it’s best to reserve them early online at recreation.gov.
Get your hands dirty on Balcony House tour
You may visit Balcony House in an hour-long, ranger-guided tour from late April until mid-October. One of the most intimate, adventurous tours, Balcony House challenges your fear of ladders, heights, and small spaces, giving you opportunity to explore the common areas of a mid-sized, 40-room dwelling. The Balcony House tour requires you to descend a 100-foot staircase into the canyon, climb a 32-foot ladder, crawl through a 12-foot-long, 18-inch-wide tunnel, and clamber up an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps. Tickets can be purchased online at recreation.gov.
There are hiking trails you can explore, but they’re strenuous with steep elevation changes. Still, you’d get an idea of what life was like for people living there. Balcony House and other trails are not recommended for anyone with heart or respiratory problems.
Drive the loop road for an overview
You can also drive the Mesa Top Loop Road with overlooks of the most spectacular dwellings — Cliff Palace from Sun Point View, Spruce Tree House, Square Tower House, the Sun Temple, and others. The loop road is open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset.
Other learning adventures
While you may devote most of your attention to the architectural highlights of Mesa Verde, it is also a place for bird watching, plant walks, observing wildlife, studying geology, and stargazing under some of the darkest skies in the country.
Visit the Mesa Verde National Park website for detailed information and reservations when planning your visit. Then go and see how these early Americans lived.