Ah, Colorado!It's about a 15-mile drive from the park entrance to the visitor center, so we stopped along the way to admire the view from one of several overlooks.
After spending the night in Cortez, we drove the short distance to Mesa Verde National Park. (For those keeping score at home, that makes three national parks and one state park in one week!) Just inside the park gates, we met up with Gayle and her two sons. Gayle and I were roommates at UT, and we hadn't seen each other for 10 years or so. It was SO good to see her! She had graciously offered for us to stay with her family while we were in the Durango area, so she thought it'd be a good idea for our kids to get acquainted this way.
Once at the visitor center, we were able to buy our tickets for the guided tours, which are the only ways to see the famous cliff dwellings up close.
Before our first tour began, we got our first good look at the Cliff Palace, the largest of the park's cliff dwellings.
Then we were on our way! To get to the dwelling, we had to climb up ladders and down steps and all around some steep slopes.
Finally, we made it to the Cliff Palace. It was fascinating to see the Puebloans' homes!
Many of these apartment buildings are in remarkably good condition, especially considering they've been around for more than 800 years.
The park ranger giving the tour did a great job of describing the Puebloans' lives as they're understood today, but the guy's Boston accent added another dimension to his descriptions. We loved hearing him describe the many uses of "yucker" (yucca) and the design of the kivers (kivas).
It's pretty cool to see how well the rooms and open spaces were fit under the sandstone cliff.
They believe that as many as 150 rooms and maybe 75 open spaces were eventually created at Cliff Palace. The Puebloans worked hard to build retaining walls and flat surfaces for these living areas.
These included some rectangular and round towers that were carefully constructed. The mortar throughout Cliff Palace was chinked with smaller stones to reinforce it, and surfaces were covered in colored plaster.
We could see a little bit of that plaster inside this tower.
More than 20 kivas were part of Cliff Palace. These kivas were used for ceremonies or social gatherings. Back in the day, this kiva would've had a roof over it. Later in our day, we were able to see a kiva with a reproduced roof.
After the Cliff Palace tour, we began the long climb back to the mesa.
More ladders! This became a recurring theme as the day wore on.
As we drove from the Cliff Palace to our next tour, we stopped at another scenic overlook. From here we could see the Balcony House, our next stop. If you click on the photo above, you can see the giant ladder we had to climb to get to this cliff dwelling and the slightly less frightening ladder we ascended at the end of that tour. You can also get a sense of the sheer drop-off from the retaining wall to death/oblivion below.
From this point we also had a great view of Soda Canyon.
Along the way we saw some gorgeous prickly pear.
Several times throughout the day we'd see other cliff dwellings.
It was incredible to imagine the lengths the Puebloans went to (a) to build their homes there and (b) to travel to and from their homes between hunting, farming and other daily expeditions.
Between our two guided tours, Gayle treated us to a picnic. Then we split up so the four of us plus her youngest, Travis, could take the Balcony House tour while Gayle and her oldest, Michael, took a break.
The Balcony House tour is known as the "adventure tour" because of the physicality of it all, including the 32-foot ladder at the very beginning.
It really wasn't all that bad, except for the urge to race your climbing partner!
Brett got about halfway up and said, "Hey, it's cool to look behind you!" I opted out of that when it was my turn to climb. I knew that we were climbing up the side of a cliff, and if I looked back while on the ladder, it would look like we were ON THE SIDE OF A CLIFF.
After we got up there, our park ranger told us that the Puebloans didn't have nice ladders like that to help them get to their homes. They had tunnels and hand- and footholds that they'd use to make their way home, and if you didn't start out on the correct hand and/or foot, you could get halfway up (or down) and fall. Not bad for a home security system!
Hearing that story made me thankful for the ladder! (But do you see what I mean about not wanting to look back?)
We learned how the Puebloans had added to Balcony House over the years. Here, for instance, you can see how the rooms to the right had been added later than the ones on the left. See how the wood supports on the left are doubled? The thought is that wood was more scarce later when they added the other rooms.
To move from one part of the tour to the next, we got to try out some footholds. Cool!
Balcony House also had two kivas, and we got to see this one.
Our park ranger/tour guide told us that the Puebloans who lived here were apparently concerned about security because of the extreme measures they took to enter and exit their homes. To exit the tour, we got to experience the 12-foot long tunnel that used to be part of the only way into the dwelling. Then we got to climb more ladders!
(And no, I still didn't look back! Hand over hand, step by step, looking only forward and up, up, up.)
Break time! All that climbing and hiking really got to us! We had to remember that we aren't used to that altitude.
After some hiking and some scenic overlooks, we made our way to the Spruce Treehouse, which is a self-guided tour.
Here we were able to climb down a ladder into a reconstructed kiva.
It was nice and cool inside the kiva (or kiver, as our Bostonian tour guide would've said).
At the treehouse, we were able to get another look at some of the rooms and the architecture.
After a full day, we loaded up our cars and headed to Gayle's house. The drive back was an adventure. We still weren't used to the Colorado scenery and all those winding mountain roads!
But I was thankful for guardrails and that Brett's such a good driver!
That night Gayle and her husband, Rich, grilled hamburgers for us, and it was WONDERFUL to eat some home cookin', especially after a week on the road! We did some laundry and basically made ourselves at home—so, so nice. Even better was getting to catch up with Gayle after all these years.