Loose Ends

Last Visit to Mesa Verde

Today we return to Chapin Mesa and the Mesa Top Loop to visit the spots we skipped on Monday.


Mesa Top Sites

For hundreds of years people moved in and out of Mesa Verde. They farmed, hunted, gathered, and re-settled on the same landscape over and over again. The big take away here is the realization that each group of Ancestral Puebloans learned from their elders, adapted to the conditions of their time, and passed their knowledge and experiences onto the next generation. At least 5 villages were built here over several hundred years, each built on top of the previous one. (plaques)

Here are 2 diagrams, taken from plaques, that depict 3 different building sequences and architectural styles from 900 – 1100 A.D.

I can’t really make heads or tails out of these excavated sites but the Mesa Top brochure explains that the earliest village was built with post-and-adobe walls. The second village, superimposed on the first, was of single-course masonry. And the third was constructed with thicker double-course masonry. At least the diagrams  above make more sense now.

What’s amazing to me is the fact that families lived here for centuries on this mesa exposed to the elements. The closest water supply, according to the Mesa Top brochure, was a quarter mile away. Did good farmland keep them here? Or was it  just the tendency to live in the same place where others lived before?

Why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave and return? Could it be as simple as they stayed where their basic needs could be met and moved on when conditions became unfavorable? But something brought later generations back again and again…

Kivas were the religious and sacred centers of Pueblo communities. Today they are still used for religious and social activities. In the drawing below, taken from the brochure, you can see examples of 3 different kivas, one from each century.

The kiva excavated below was built about 1074 A.D. as part of the last village built on this site.

Sun Point Pueblo A.D. 1200s

This is one of the last mesa-top pueblos built at Mesa Verde. The plastered walls contained small niches and a tunnel was dug into the soil to connect the kiva with the round tower. (brochure)

According to plaques around the excavations, this small town village was inhabited for less than 2 generations before the people living here moved into the cliff dwellings.

Sun Point View again A.D. 1200-1300

Visible from this spot are a dozen cliff dwellings set in alcoves high up in the canyons. (Trust me, they’re there but hard to spot with the naked eye.) Between 1200 and 1300 A.D., half the population of Chapin Mesa lived here. (brochure)

Oak Tree House A.D. 1250

There are about 600 alcove sites in Mesa Verde National Park. About 90 percent contain fewer than 11 rooms. At least one-third are simply one room structures, probably storage rooms for a nearby cliff dwelling. There are only about a dozen cliff dwellings that contain 40 or more rooms, including Oak Tree House. (plaque)

Fire Temple and New Fire House A.D. 1250

According to the plaque and brochure, Fire Temple was probably not a place where people lived. Its open courtyard may have served as a dance plaza for the surrounding community near and far. Figures of rain clouds, cactus, humans, and animals were painted on the plaza wall.

New Fire House is a cliff dwelling that contains 22 rooms and 3 household kivas.

Look closely and you will notice a hand-and-toe hold trail chipped into the rock connecting the upper and lower alcoves.

Here’s a birds’ eye view of the canyon where the cliff dwellings are tucked inside the alcoves. Just below the horizon to the left is a mesa top structure called Sun Temple.

As we head toward Sun Temple we notice some spectacular flowers. We really need a bumper sticker that reads, WE BRAKE FOR FLOWERS!

The large white flowers are Tufted Evening Primrose, Oenothers Caespitosa and the small pink petals peeking through the leaves are Erodium Cicutarium, Filaree.

Sun Temple A.D. 1250

Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes led the excavation of this mesa top structure in 1915 and this is what he had to say about the discovery: “This building was constructed for worship, and its size is such that we may practically call it a temple.” The D-shaped floor plan consists of nearly 30 rooms within a thousand feet of finely masoned walls, four-feet-thick. However, a lack of roof beams or evidence of any household goods suggests that Sun Temple was never completed. Why? (brochure)


Sun Temple is unique among all the other structures in the Park. It was part of the community of cliff dwellings but unlike the few similar D-shaped buildings found in the region, it is the only one not built within a pueblo. Could it have social, ritual, or symbolic functions? (plaque)

Dr. Fewkes also speculated that the existence of a natural rock basin in the southwestern corner of the structure served as some kind of solar marker for celestial observations. (brochure)

I totally missed observing this, so here is a diagram and drawing from the brochure:

Just past Sun Temple is an overlook with a great view of Cliff Palace.

Mystery not only surrounds Sun Temple but also the disappearance of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in Mesa Verde for centuries. What prompted their final migration in the late 1200s?

Final thoughts…

I didn’t know what to expect visiting Mesa Verde National Park but this sacred place is not to be missed on a list of “Must See National Parks.” Long before Europeans explored North America, an ancient culture built elaborate stone communities and flourished here for almost a century. Archeologists named these peoples Anasazi from a Navajo word meaning “ancient foreigners.” Today we call them Ancestral Pueblo or Ancient Puebloans as a tribute to their modern day descendants.

Local ranchers discovered these cliff dwellings in the 1880s. Since then archeologists and historians have pieced together an evolving story of an incredible human culture adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at carving out a life in a difficult land.

If you stop and listen, these ancient rocks have so much to say!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.