Not only did the Ancestral Puebloans run, but also scaled cliffs to reach the safety of their homes. Imagine climbing a 100 foot precipice each time you had to run to the grocery store. Well that’s what the ancient peoples who inhabited what is now Mesa Verde National Park had to do in the 13th century AD.
My family recently traveled to SW Colorado for a vacation where we were able to explore the cliff dwellings inhabited by the ancestors of modern day Native Americans. The park is mostly known for short, but strenuous hikes to the various cliff houses, but also includes one longer trail near the campground where we stayed.
The first evening we hiked the Knife Edge Trail which affords spectacular views of the valley floor and shale deposits left by an ancient sea. The trail is short enough (2 mi round-trip) to take kids on a sunset hike. On our way we kept hearing a strange crunching sound coming from the trees. On closer inspection we noticed that the trees had been taken over by cicadas.
We spent several very hot days touring the various cliff ruins which required hiking down steep slopes or stairs into the alcoves below. Some of them had ladders we had to negotiate to reach the upper levels of the houses. Maddie rode on her Momma’s back in a baby wrap on a few of the tours and I wore her on my back on one occasion. This was difficult enough and I gained great respect for the people who lived and worked in this place. They must have been superb endurance athletes to carry fire wood, food, water and building materials while climbing up and down the cliffs.
One morning I woke before everyone else and headed out for a run on the Prater Ridge trail. This one is a seven mile loop that takes you along the rim of the mesa after you climb about 700 ft in one mile up to 8400 ft elev. The morning was chilly and the sun was still below the horizon when I began, a nice change from hiking in the heat of the day. Blooming flowers brightened up the trail that meandered through gambel oak, juniper and piñon pine. This is known as a “pygmy forest” because these species of trees don’t grow very tall. Occasionally a gnarled dead tree would tower high above the lush green growth.
I enjoyed views of the canyons below, adjacent mesas, and sandstone cliffs while I huffed and puffed running at high elevation. Sometimes the trail would traverse bare rock where cairns marked the way. These were good places to stop and peer over the precipitous edge. Along the way I spotted several birds. A common raven, one of the most intelligent bird species and what I believe was a mountain bluebird...or western bluebird...um...or some other blue colored bird.
My favorite hike in the park was the Petroglyph Point Trail although it was extremely hot when we hiked it. This 2.5 mile loop descends into Spruce Canyon and takes you along water shaped sandstone alcoves. We passed through narrow slots with overhanging boulders and walked down carved steps that eased the steepness in spots. I was amazed at the way eons of water had shaped the stone creating works of art that only nature could sculpt. Some of the erosion had formed holes and even round windows in the cliffs. Some nooks were large enough for us to sit under and rest in the shade.
|Water worn sandstone|
Mesa Verde is full of mystery. Even after much study, archeologists really don’t know why the Ancestral Puebloans retreated into the cliffs after flourishing for many years on the mesa top. The cliff dwellings were only inhabited for around 80 years. This was learned by dating tree rings in the logs that were used as roof beams. Years of drought may have reduced crop output requiring them to hoard food and supplies. Clashes between clans may have led to the outbreak of wars requiring them to seek the security of the cliff dwellings. Eventually the people migrated out of the Mesa Verde area and went south into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.
The resourcefulness of the ancient people was truly remarkable as can be seen in the construction of their buildings. I can visualize them hunting and farming on the mesas and living, eating and sleeping in their cliff homes. Did they really run here? What do you think?
See you on the trail.