Altitudes and Cliff Dwellings

Click to enlarge this route mapMesa Verde National Park is only a short drive west from Durango. We got there at about ten o’clock on a pleasant, sunny morning.

View from the north side of the mesa -- click to enlargeThe mesa is steep-sided on the north, where you enter the park from US-160, but to the south it slopes away gradually and is cut up by numerous canyons where the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians built cliff dwellings.

Late cliff dwelling -- click to enlargeThey occupied the mesa from about 550 AD, building increasingly complex houses that culminated in the cliff dwellings, which they built and lived in between 1100 and 1300. After that they abandoned the mesa, probably because climate changes and soil depletion made farming more difficult.

Kiva in Spruce Tree House -- click to enlargeThe earliest dwellings were built up from pits dug in the ground on top of the mesa. They were round in shape. Although the houses built later were rectangular, they always included round chambers below ground level, which were used for religious ceremonies. The ones in the cliff dwellings always have a fire pit in the floor and a ventilator shaft that lets in air from the outside. They are called kivas, though this is a modern Hopi word.

On the way to the visitor center, about 15 miles inside the park, we stopped to take pictures here and there, including Park Point, which at 8,572 feet is the highest point on the mesa. I felt the altitude more than I’d have liked. The previous day at Silverton I’d felt tired, easily winded, and a little short of breath — not surprising at 9,300 feet, but even this morning at Durango (2,000 feet lower than we were now) some of the same symptoms had been evident. After climbing up the steps to Park Point from the parking lot I felt as if I was at Silverton again.

We went to the visitor center intending to get tickets for a ranger-guided tour of Cliff Palace, one of the more elaborate dwellings, which is accessible only through these tours. At the door, however, we were met by a ranger who told us that if we had any heart, respiratory, or vertigo problems we should avoid taking any of the tours. Dorothea had calculated that she could manage the four 10-foot ladders at Cliff Palace without vertigo problems, but since I still wasn’t feeling quite right, we decided to wimp out and substitute a visit to Spruce Tree House, which is self-guided.

Structures in Spruce Tree House -- click to enlargeWe drove on to the museum, looked around, ate some sandwiches at the snack bar, and set off for Spruce Tree House, which turned out to have a long and steep approach, down almost to the bottom of the canyon and partway up again on the other side. Both the canyon and the ruin were beautiful. We suffered through the slow re-ascent, resting on every bench along the way. On the last one we met a couple more or less our age who had taken the Cliff Palace tour that morning, and they told us that it hadn’t been nearly as strenuous as getting to and from Spruce Tree House. Go figure.

We were still in good enough shape to drive around the six-mile Mesa Top Loop, where we found several great overlooks and photo ops. Rain threatened during this time, and we fully expected to be caught and drenched, but instead the clouds burned off.

International Amity

Leaving the park, we arrived in Cortez, CO a little after 5:00 pm, and I noticed that I’d recovered most of my vigor at that lower altitude. This was good, because we had to carry our baggage 50 or 60 feet, neither direct access nor a luggage cart being available at our Motel.

After checking in, we headed for the local library to see if we could find out whether the shortest route to Monument Valley was really practicable. Part of it ran over back roads on the Navjo reservation, which we were afraid might not be clearly marked. A nice lady at the desk assured us that it was both practicable and the best route to take. Dorothea wasn’t sure the lady's credentials were in order, but I was filled with hope, and we elected to give it a try.

While looking for the library we had met a French family (two people about our age, traveling with their 36-year-old son), whom we had seen at Park Point on Mesa Verde and who were now in search of the center of Cortez. As we headed toward the Main Street Brewery, where we had decided to eat, we saw them hiking along and offered them a ride downtown. This turned out to be closer than we had feared, and although we pointed out the restaurant, they weren’t ready for dinner at 6:30 — they were, after all, French. We parted ways, but later they arrived at the Brewery just as we were finishing our meal. (The main dishes had been slightly disappointing, but the focaccia was very good and so was the pale ale.)

The French family insisted that we join them, and I consented to be bought a third beer, though Dorothea remained true to her pledge and drank water. Our hosts had almost no English and we had very little French, both having been educated in the la plume de ma tante tradition. With good will on both sides, however, we managed to have a jolly time and a conversation of sorts. We now have an offer of a room if and when we happen to find ourselves in Burgundy. We of course made a reciprocal offer, which they received with pleasure though they didn’t appear to be sure just where Massachusetts is located. The evening was fun, and we thought we might see them the next day in Monument Valley, where they told us they too were headed, but this never came to pass.


> Top of this page


This section last updated 12-13-2004

Pictures from Mesa Verde National Park
Monument Valley
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Guide to what's on this site
Back to our home page