Mesa Verde National Park: Cliff Dwellings and the Anazasi

Cliffside Dwellings, Mesa Verde

Photo by Dennis Adams Public Domain from
Photo by Dennis Adams Public Domain from

Mesa Verde National Park Overview

Mesa Verde National Park. Say it again: "Mesa Verde." Even if you have never seen the place, this is a name whose very sound evokes a feeling of times and places belonging to the past. Indeed, it belongs to times so far past it predates our own history as an American People. Back beyond the Revolutionary War, beyond Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, back before even what we regard as our own "American Indians," way, way back, almost to the dawn of pre-history.

Mesa Verde National Park is unique: it is the only one of our national parks founded around and featuring the works of mankind instead of nature.

The area now known as Mesa Verde began to be inhabited somewhere around 400 B.C.E. by the ancestors of the ones we now call the dliff dwellers, while the cliff dwellings themselves date back to about the 13th century. So, before many of the now famous historical events and people of the world were even thought of, there was a people here for hundreds of years. And then, one day, they were gone. Gone before any 'outsider' knew they had been. Gone, where no man can follow, leaving only their magnificent dwellings behind, and a trail of enigmatic clues.

This is the place of the fabled cliff dwellers, and it is a place of no small mystery. To probe its secrets, to walk among its ruins, is to experience an almost mystical kinship with earlier times and simpler folk and their ways. One walks about almost in a daze, trying to comprehend what knowledge these simple people had: what oneness with nature. We, today call them the "Anasazi." No one knows what these once proud people called themselves. Anasazi is a Navajo Indian word meaning simply, "the ancient ones." It is generally believed that these people, or what was left of them, migrated toward the southwest and into what is now New Mexico. According to Park Service information, the Pueblo Indians consider Mesa Verde to be an ancestral home.

Map of Mesa Verde National Park

Balcony House, Mesa Verde

Public Domain by Sally Pearce from
Public Domain by Sally Pearce from

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Prior to excavation/restoration. National Park Service Photo
Prior to excavation/restoration. National Park Service Photo

Cliffside Dwellings

Now, come with me, and see what wonders lie here. Climb down the nice trail to Spruce Tree House. Once inside, look up; look to the sides; in your imagination, remove all evidence of the trail down which you have just walked. Examine the sheer sides of the cliffs, the down-and-in-curving roof of the cave in which you stand. Try to see where the original denizens of the place may have gained entrance. It stymies the imagination. Did they cling to the cliffsides, groping for meager hand and toe holds? Did they use ropes? Crude ladders? A combination? We shall never know. Any such implements have long since returned to dust along with the bones of those who made them.

Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings. Current analyses estimate as many as 300 families lived here during its peak of occupancy. The space is maybe 90 - 100 feet deep at its widest point, and perhaps as long as 2, maybe 3 football fields (and I estimate very roughly). And we complain about crowded conditions today!! Peer into the deep recesses of this cave--see how room is built on top of room; room in front of rrom. Look above you now, 8 - 10 feet up the wall, and notice the ends of slender poles protruding perhaps 18 inches at intervals of about a foot. Archaeologists tell us these were the supports for a balcony no wider than the 18 inch length of the poles you see. Here, on warm days, womenfolk would sit at their chores, children at their sides. (And we shudder if ours climb atop a chair!)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace Public Domain, courtesy of National Park Service
Cliff Palace Public Domain, courtesy of National Park Service

Ancient Engineers

Behold here what these people of old did to make these cliff-side refuges livable. Carved with brawn and out of intuition, ingenuity, and even desperation, they fashioned huge cave cities--walls, doors, windows, balconies, walkways, even subterranean religious chambers. All the things necessary to their way of life.

Yet they possessed no colleges, no professors, no slide rules or higher mathematics. Still and all, upon this lack of formal education, built cities which have lasted for centuries, preserved, in part, in an ironic twist, by the very climate which may have driven them out of existence.

I wonder if our architects, engineers and contractors of today, stripped of their tools, could do as well?

Clifftop Ruins

Drive the Ruins Road loop, and see the cliff-top ruins. The Far View Ruin is the most extensive of the dwelling area ruins. These are the remains of pit-houses, even older than the ancient cliff dwellings themselves. It was from these ancient abodes that the Anasazi fled to the cliffs. Perhaps drought? Perhaps warfare? We are not really sure; there is no convincing evidence of the latter. Perhaps it was a command from their 'gods.' The answer to the question, "where did the Anasazi go, and why?" has vanished with them from the face of the earth.

Far View Ruin, Mesa Verde
Far View Ruin, Mesa Verde | Source
Sun Temple, Mesa Verde
Sun Temple, Mesa Verde | Source

Sun Temple Ruin, Mesa Verde

Visit, too, on this road the magnificent Sun Temple, which archaeologists believe was abandoned without ever having been completed. Both of these ruins (Far View and Sun Temple) have been stabilized by modern methods so they may be climbed over, upon and into with safety. There is much activity here--children scrambling about--no doubt oblivious to the significance of that upon which they so joyously clamber. Their parents, somewhat more cognizant, are snapping photos.

Connecting To The Past

I stood aside from the commotion for a moment, and visited the place with my soul as well as my eyes. There is a haunting lonliness here; a sadness pervades all and makes the soul cry out in anguish for what has been lost and can be no more. Even the ghosts are gone now from here. It is empty and sad and still. A tear has sprung, unbidden, to my eye, and I know I have been in communion with the ancient ones, if only for a moment.

The shouted discovery of another passageway by one of the children jerked me back to the present, and I, too, began to join the others in pressing shutter buttons, hoping to capture for myself a small piece of what remains.

Now, if you ever have a yen to visit our past, do tour Mesa Verde, and please--visit with your heart. Oh, and if you find yourself momentarily moved to another level of consciousness, say "hello" to the Anasazi for me.

© 2010 DzyMsLizzy

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Comments 5 comments

thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy

Awesome hub! It was a pleasure reading this, you are a compelling writer, well done.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

Very well written - you make me want to visit. I congratulate you on the hub.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 6 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

thooghun and wilderness,

Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I'm glad you both enjoyed the article.

molly campbell 6 years ago

Do you write travel books? This is just the kind of thing I would want to read out loud to my husband while riding in the car to our next vacation destination. love it~molly

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 6 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Thanks, molly, for stopping by. No, I've never written a travel book, but that is certainly one of my 'dream job' goals... ;-)

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