Friday, September 28, 2012

Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace

On an earlier visit to Durango, CO, for some unknown reason, we had missed seeing Mesa Verde National Park.

Not this year.

Our route to the RV park in Cortez, CO, took us along highway 491 from Gallup, NM, through the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands and past landscape scenes like these in the next three photos below.

The next day, we made the 10-mile drive to Mesa Verde NP. The 15-mile, winding drive from the park entrance to the Visitor Center rises from an elevation of about 6900 feet to over 8500 feet at the road’s highest point.

Another eight miles along Chapin Mesa brought us to Cliff Palace. Taking a step back in time to December 18, 1888…. “Two cowboys, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, were riding across the mesa top looking for stray cattle. At the edge of the pinyon and juniper forest near today’s overlook at Sun Temple, they came upon a vast canyon.
Through the blowing snow they could distinguish something in the cliffs which looked like 'a magnificent city.'
"These ranchers from the Mancos Valley may have been the first white men to see what they called 'Cliff Palace.' After further exploration, they entered the dwelling and made a small collection of artifacts before leaving for the day.
"Over the next 18 years, these same men, as well as various exploring parties and tourist groups, made expeditions into Mesa Verde.
“Many of the early visitors to the Mesa Verde area camped in the dwellings for days or weeks at a time while they were sightseeing or looking for stray cattle. No laws protected the sites at the time, and earlier visitors often removed artifacts or defaced the sites.
"Protection for the dwellings came with the establishment of Mesa Verde in 1906. In 1909, Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution excavated and stabilized Cliff Palace.
“Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units.
"If you visit Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
“Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash.
"Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called "chinking." Chinking stones filled the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people decorated with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white -- the first things to erode with time” (

Amazingly, “The village as it appears today dates to the late 13th century” (Kathleen Fiero at

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