It was a long drive from Farmington, New Mexico but we made it to Mesa Verde National Park. It is a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma County, Colorado. It protects some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States. Once again we followed The Oscar Rule and watched the free informative video at the visitor’s center. The visitors’ center overlooks a spectacular canyon and an absolutely incredible view of Spruce Tree House Cliff Dwelling. The view from the railing is pretty impressive.
Mesa Verda was designated an archeological preserve in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest (Where Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah meet). It is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, with more than 4,300 sites archeological sites, and 600 cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It was truly a spectacular site to see! Unfortunately, as it was winter, we were not allowed to walk the long, narrow, icy path down the canyon to the cliff dwellings. We didn’t think they looked too terrible, but we will have to come back again in the spring or summer to explore the ruins more!
Starting as early as 7500 BCE, the Mesa Verde area was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians, the area referred to as the “Foothills Mountain Complex”. The nomadic natives that lived here thousands of years were likely from the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. By 1000 BCE, the Basketmaker Culture emerged from the local Archaic population, dwellings were more permanent, and by 750 CE the Basketmaker culture developed to the Puebloan people that inhabit surrounding areas to this day.
The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650 CE, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285 they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including Rio Chama, Pajarito Plateau, and Santa Fe.
Though it is not entirely known what caused the exodus, archeologists suggest a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts. Puebloan decedents, however, simply referred to the ancestral tradition of always “moving in the direction intended”, and that the cliff dwellings, as all other semi-permanent homes of the Puebloan people, were never intended as a stopping point. Rather, they stayed as long as they meant to stay, and moved on to where they were meant to move, as they always have, and will again.
The theme of this entire trip is community and at Mesa Verde it’s impossible not to consider the overwhelming sense of community that the cliff dwellers must have shared. Not only is the actual construction of these houses, shared spaces, and ceremonial rooms hard to imagine, but the generations that lived, worked, and shared to make the community successful is awe inspiring.
Four Corners Monument
As we were nearby, we couldn’t pass up the only opportunity in the U.S.A. to stand in four states at the same time. So we headed to Four Corners Monument, where the square corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The monument also marks the boundary between two semi-autonomous Native American governments, the Navajo Nation, which maintains the monument as a tourist attraction, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation. More on the Navajo Nation and our drive through Monument Valley next time!
The origins of the state boundaries marked by the monument occurred before and during the American Civil War, to combat the spread of slavery to the region. When the early territories were formed, their boundaries were designated along meridian and parallel lines, which were not surveyed and marked until the 1860s. These early surveys included many errors, but even so, the markers placed became the legal boundaries. Though far less of a perfect straight line than the geographical meridians and parallels, the borders including the Four Corners Monument continue to this day. It looks much nicer on a map than if you were to really try and drive those straight looking lines!
Personally we thought the Four Corners Monument was an odd place. There is very little out there. Though people warned us, be prepared that the area is simply off one highway and down a dead end, with no shops, gas stations, or even much shade. There’s a booth you pull up to to pay $5.00 per person to enter which goes to the Navajo Nation, so you can at least feel better about where your money is going. There are stalls for vendors, but we visited in the winter and nobody was there during such a low tourist season.
The monument itself is a circular space that has an auditorium feel, and there’s a little plaque in the middle where you can stand in four states at once and take pictures, so of course we took the tourist pictures. It is all a little underwhelming, but the history and concept of the four states area is the interesting part. Something to tick off the list if you’re in the area, but probably not something to go far out of your way for.
One more majestic desert sunset and we’re back on the road!