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Mesa Verde Springtime

A few months ago, my sister invited us to join her and her kids in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado the first week of May. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance! So here are a few highlights and a bit of history from the trip.


Lamentably, we got wind, wind, and more wind our first days out. However, the Spanish Peaks had a beautiful snowcap from a couple days before our travels. And I got a nice shot of

Photo of the Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado with snowcaps in late spring
The Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado
Photo of Mount Mestas, a bare peak along the La Veta Pass route
Mount Mestas near La Veta, Colorado

Mount Mestas just north and west of La Veta. This mountain is over 11,500 feet high, but because of the high altitude of the La Veta Pass road, its prominence is right around 3000 feet.


As we drove into the San Luis valley near Alamosa, we could see the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park was being lofted high into the air - we could see plumes of dust well above the height of the dunes from several miles away. In the same area, a few farmers attempting to work their fields were ending up with the same situation - plumes of dust that could be seen for miles. But, just a couple dozen miles down the highway, we saw a snow squall covering some of the mountains south and west of Monte Vista, in spite of the warm day.


Even with the wind, we explored a number of side roads using our camping location near Cortez as a base while waiting for family to catch up to us on their travels. Then, to Mesa Verde NP for two days at the Far View Resort. Because it was early in the season, we did get "skunked" by some road closures (one road will be closed through 2023 to construct a

Photo of two teens sitting sitting above a canyon in Mesa Verde National Park
Teens enjoying the views of Cliff Canyon and cultural history of the Mesa Verde area (used with permission)

visitor station to replace one damaged by fire, another road had construction/repairs under way), so we weren't able to see some of the cliff ruins for which Mesa Verde is famous. Sadly, due to continued instability of the cliff face above it after the 2015 rock fall, one of the most accessible ruins, Spruce Tree House, is still closed to visitors.

Photo of Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde NP
Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde

The history of Mesa Verde and the people who lived there fascinates me. For example, the earliest archaeological evidence of permanent dwellings on top of the mesa (roofed pithouses sunk into the ground) dates to about 550 CE (although the area has been inhabited for thousands of years). The people were called Basketmakers because of the quality of the baskets and woven bags they made - some so tightly woven they could hold water - many of which have been found throughout the Southwest, indicating a robust trading culture as well.

Photo of an ancient Mesa Verde dwelling with openings lined up with each other and exceptional stonemasonry.
Exceptional stonemasonry
Photo of stone storage bins at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Stone storage bins

We often only learn about European history, so for a bit of perspective, around the time Charlemagne became king in 771 CE, the Ancestral Pueblo people of Mesa Verde began building structures using pole-and-adobe methods and stone. Over the next 300 years, these Ancestral Puebloans would build entire villages using stones located on the mesa, chipped into rectangular blocks and mortared for stability. Their stonemasonry was exceptional, considering they had no metal tools to work with. They did a beautiful job of leveling top and bottom surfaces, and in some cases, chipping and carving decorations into the stones. I can't imagine the time, effort and patience involved in taking a sandstone rock and shaping it into the "bricks" they used to build some 35 villages on the mesa-top that housed hundreds of people. I love these examples which show neatly leveled stone bricks, openings lined up with each other, and even a longer lintel-stone above the doorway of the center wall, as well as the slender slabs fitted together to make useful storage bins.

Photo of a spiral carved into a stone brick at Mesa Verde National Park
A spiral carved into a stone brick

Some stones had decorations carved into them. Although the spiral in this photo likely had ceremonial significance, I sometimes wonder if some of the decorations may have served as home address markers?


Around the same time, the distinctive Mesa Verde pottery was developed - elegant light-gray pottery with black designs unlike the pottery of any other Puebloan people. These ancient potters also made mugs with handles (almost identical to many coffee mugs today!). This is not something that's found among the historical pottery of other peoples; many made vases and larger vessels with handles, but not personal-sized mugs. Some of the mugs found by archaeologists contained traces of cocoa, showing that trade with peoples as far away as Mexico was probable.

Photos of a cup with a Mesa Verde pottery cup with a handle (National Park Service photo)
A wonderful example of the Mesa Verde pottery showing a mug with a handle (National Park Service photo)
Photo of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

From around 1000 to 1250 CE, the majority of the cliff dwellings were built and, again, the construction is fantastic. These villages were built over periods sometimes spanning decades on narrow ledges high on the cliff faces. I'm afraid of heights, so I just can't imagine people climbing the narrow trails, ladders and chipped footholds, or navigating the slickrock areas dozens to hundreds of feet above the canyon floor with heavy loads on their backs. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling, with 150 rooms and 23 kivas, possibly homing up to 100 people. Most dwellings found in the area had from one to five rooms, and there are a number of isolated cliff structures that were used for storage; the unusual size of Cliff Palace may mean it had special social significance. And then, sometime in the 1200's these people began to migrate away from the mesa until eventually all the villages were abandoned. The reasons for their doing so are obscure although theories range from drought, disease, war, and depletion of local resources.

Photo of The Knife Edge, Montezuma Valley and Lone Cone in Mesa Verde National Park
The Knife Edge, Montezuma Valley and Lone Cone (distant left) near sunset

Geologically, Mesa Verde is a cuesta (a steep slope on one side, more gentle on the other) that trends down toward Shiprock, New Mexico, about 50 miles southwest, rather than a mesa (a flat topped prominence with steep cliffs on all sides). Its makeup is mainly sandstone and shale layers; this view of The Knife Edge shows the grayish Mancos Shale layer under the Lookout Point Sandstone formation. The cliff dwellings were built into alcoves eroded from the Cliff House Sandstone formation. There are several additional formations, evidence of long-ago periods in which this area was under an ancient sea; additionally, evidence of volcanism is present in the surrounding area.


Photo of Mesa Verde and landscape near sunset with Mormon tea shrub and dead juniper
Left to right, Abajo Mountains in Utah, Point Lookout and The Knife Edge, Mount Wilson near sunset

Because Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States and a UNECSCO World Heritage site, it has so much more to explore than we could do

in the limited time we had. It's absolutely worth multiple visits.

Photo of dead juniper silhouetted with sunset flare, Mesa Verde NP, Colorado
Sunset silhouette of a dead juniper

As I was putting this post together, life events caused me to miss my self-imposed deadline for it; more about that another time. I've also missed my personal deadlines for posting new works, but I'm hoping to be back on track very shortly.

In the meantime, you're welcome to check out the travel, nature and wildlife photography already posted on my website, www.DeniseDethlefsen.com. To continue seeing my ramblings about nature, wildlife, photo art prints and ideas for your home or office, and our adventures with our teardrop camper, please "sign up to stay connected." #wildlifephotography, #NaturePhotography, #naturephotographer, #photography, #nature, #birds, #travel, #colorado, #photoart, #buyart, #artforsale, #wallart, #metal, #canvas, #prints, #art, #interiordesign, #interiordecor, #interiorstyling

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