The Ghosts of Mesa Verde National Park

Based on my original article for World Property Journal

Sheer cliff city
Entire cities were carved into sheer cliffs. (Photo by Steve Winston)

In this silent place of towering mountains and golden canyons whose shades change all day long, you can walk in the footsteps of those who lived and worked and raised families here a thousand years ago. And sometimes you can almost hear those footsteps.

They designed buildings that still stand, in some form, long after many civilizations have disappeared. They constructed these buildings to withstand a searing desert sun, dust storms, and violent thunderstorms. And their spirits are still here.

In this place of silence, you can almost hear them walking amidst the sheer cliff dwellings they once inhabited or the six-story towers they built for armaments and protection. You can almost hear them walking among the bears, coyotes, snakes, deer, and wild horses roaming their old hunting grounds. And among the dried-mud ruins of buildings where they once laughed, cried, prayed to the Great Spirit, buried their dead and gave birth to their children.

At Mesa Verde National Park, in the southwestern tip of Colorado, you can see the architecture they left for us to wander. And the artifacts, ceremonial objects, and animal bones they used. This is the richest archaeological region in America, with some 20,000 archaeological sites.

Pueblo peoples farmed this arid land – which in appearance is more akin to the ancient lands in Arizona and New Mexico rather than Colorado - until the 1300's. They grew corn, beans and squash, and hunted wild turkey and deer.

Then, in what’s still a mystery to archaeologists and historians, they disappeared.

Some of the people are believed to have morphed into what’s today the Ute Tribe, whose reservation takes up much of Mesa Verde National Park. And when you see the mesa on which they live, you won't have to ask where the National Park got its name. This enormous hump of mountains and canyons and cliff dwellings stretches for more than twenty miles.

Navajo-Churro sheep
The Navajo-Churro sheep are coming back from extinction here. (Photo by Steve Winston)

Ute guides will take you into the Tribal Park, where you'll see the ancient cities; artifacts along the trails; and the rock art drawn by the ancients. And you can also climb among many of the buildings. At the isolated Far View site, you can walk through an area where people once planted and harvested their crops, and you’ll see some of the mortar and mud foundations of the buildings still standing.

In this part of the “Four Corners” region, anchored by the tiny town of Cortez, some local farmers are bringing back from near-extinction a breed of Navajo sheep called Churro. And now the region has about 8,000 of them.

At the Anasazi Heritage Center, you'll get a good insight into the where the ancient cliff-dwellers came from. At the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, you can actually touch thousand-year-old artifacts, and see the ancient mounds where some discoveries were made.

At Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, encompassing some 175,000 acres, you can see stone “Great Houses” such as the Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo. And you can wander around old pueblo structures and walk on roads where the ancients walked.

Historians believe people have been living in this region – probably at first on top of the huge mesa - since around 550 A.D. At that point, it’s believed the tribe(s) started carving their homes inside the mesa, for security.

Cross the state line into Utah, past the small reservation schools and abandoned old general stores once run by legendary characters. Then stop at Hovenweep National Monument, with six-story towers built by talented “architects” of the pueblo peoples, and a gorge with extensive cliff dwellings.

Thousand-year-old ruins
Thousand-year-old ruins. (Photo by Steve Winston)

This is a land of endless vistas. Of stillness. Of dramatic colors and shapes. And herds of magnificent black horses.

And plenty of coyotes, too. One of them, in fact, walked nonchalantly right in front of our car on my last visit there. He threw us a disdainful look as he passed, as if to say, “Hey, this is my territory, not yours!”