The next stop in our epic desert road trip was Mesa Verde. I had seen pictures from my parents’ previous visit – all red soil and thick ladders. I was excited to see the famed cliff dwellings for myself, and they didn’t disappoint!
The major ruin sites can only be visited by guided tour. While I was initially put off by this, I quickly understood why this is. Tall ladders can be dangerous, and cliff edges are not fenced. I was surprised to learn there is not currently a minimum age requirement. I have to wonder how the original residents handled children living there.
We opted for the two tours we felt would give us the most well-rounded experience: Balcony House and Cliff Palace.
The first is billed as the “adventurous” tour, and I would agree. After scaling a 32′ ladder, we scrambled through the ruins, squeezing down narrow passageways and crawling down tunnels… only to ascend another ladder back to the mesa top. It is not for those afraid of heights or tight spaces.
The second is the largest dwelling in the park. Comprised of 150 rooms and 23 kivas, this simply begged to be explored. It had everything from apparent lookout towers to small granaries wedged into the narrow crevices.
Both were truly amazing to see firsthand. We learned so much about the history and the culture – from water sourced from seep springs to poor dental health stemmed from chewing small rocks inadvertently ground in with their corn – and Dad asked dozens of questions (Where did they go to the bathroom? How did kids climb in and out of the cliffs?) to sate his inner historian. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have been like to live there and how fun it would be to wander about the dwellings, much the same way a labyrinth intrigues me.
The ingenuity of the construction had me awed, and I was having a field day with pictures. Unfortunately, as is typical in sunny Colorado, there wasn’t a cloud in sight, so I battled with harsh lighting and stark shadows. Fortunately, the dwellings were mostly in shadow, so photos while we were there were easily manageable with the even lighting. I really wanted to join in on one of the twilight tours (specifically for photographers!), but we were just out of season for that.
We didn’t make it over to Wetherill Mesa, as it was a bit farther than we wanted to drive, so we missed out on two of the other larger dwellings. We also got to see Spruce Tree House from a distance, but it was closed due to integrity concerns. However, the two we did see were enough to feel we adequately experienced the park.
I was happy with our choices, and I’m glad we started with Balcony House. Cliff Palace felt a bit more mainstream tourism, though it was still amazing to see. Understandably, there were fewer people at Balcony House (the adventure scared them away!), so we never felt rushed. However, between Dad’s questions and my photography, we still managed to be the last ones out. Our first exposure was with what I considered the more genuine experience (more ladders and more cliff). On top of that, had we done the opposite, we would have hit Balcony House in the afternoon, and by then, it would have been in direct sunlight – terrible for photography.
We certainly didn’t hit all of the 600 dwellings in the park, and we’re left wondering the same as everyone else – why did the ancient Puebloans leave? But it was a great first visit, and that just leaves us a reason to return!