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New Tours Add to the Archaeological Richness of Mesa Verde National Park


A tour of Balcony House requires that you ascend into the cliff dwelling via wooden ladder. NPT file photo by Kurt Repanshek.

News that three additional tours will be available this year at Mesa Verde National Park is great news, for public access to the rich cultural resources in this park long has been restricted to just five cliff dwellings.

By adding tours to Mug House, Spring House, and the Wetherill Mesa, the combined efforts of the National Park Service and the Mesa Verde Institute are opening more windows into the past for visitors. And, perhaps, they'll bolster the Park Service's reputation for cultural oversight of its resources, something the agency was slammed for just two years ago.

In a sense, these additional tours are akin to going up into your attic and dusting off long-forgotten treasures from the past. And really, it's both amazing and unfortunate that while there are hundreds of cliff dwellings within Mesa Verde's boundaries, just five -- Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Spruce House, Long House and Step House -- have been open on a regular basis for visitors. Maps of the mesas included within the national park's boundaries are dotted with ruins -- Double House, Sun Point Pueblo, Square Tower House, Sun Temple, Fire Temple, Cedar Tree House, Kodak House, and Jug House. And those are just the ones with names. There also are sites denoted simply by numbers -- 1644, 1645, 1676, 1452, 1801, 1291, and 1595 just to name a few.

The problem of opening these to the public, of course, has been a lack of money and manpower. Money to both stabilize ruins enough so they can be toured, and manpower to provide the tours and the ongoing stabilization work. And then, too, there's the issue of access. Some sites are just too remote and difficult to reach to make public tours realistic.

Hopefully public interest in these three new tours will lead to more funding to not just provide for these tours to be permanently added to the other five, but to perhaps open some other archaeological sites, if logistically possible. Wetherill Mesa, which is the focus of one of the new tours, contains the second-largest concentration of ruins in the area, according to the Park Service. A 1958 archaeological survey "documented close to 900 sites, ranging in age from Modified Basketmaker pithouses (A.D. 450-750) to the Classic Pueblo cliff dwellings (A.D. 120--1300). During its occupation, this excellent location could have accommodated approximately 1000 to 2000 Anasazi people."

Mesa Verde is an incredible park, one that challenges your imagination as you struggle to envision life 800 years ago. Your imagination gets help during a visit to Balcony House, which requires climbing up a wooden ladder to reach the dwelling. And in Spruce House you can descend into a darkened kiva to, for a moment or two at least, try to envision the spiritual aspects these subterranean chambers were thought to offer the cliff dwellers.

A visit to Mesa Verde provides keen insights into how the ancestral Puebloans lived; how they built their homes high in alcoves for protection and yet farmed on the surrounding plateaus, for instance. In some cases they would climb down to the canyon floor and then go up the other canyon wall to reach their gardens. They also were masters at irrigating their gardens, and remnants of check dams can still be found on Wetherill Mesa.

Folks who make the effort to visit Mug House won't be disappointed. While the park's main dwellings that are accessible to visitors have been restored, Mug House has had only minor stabilization work done to it. That much of the complex is still intact after all these centuries is a testament to the building skills of the ancestral Puebloans.

Mug House was named for several mugs that were found tied together when the five Wetherill brothers, who pioneered much of the initial archaeological work at Mesa Verde in the late 19th century, and Charles Mason, a brother-in-law, ventured into the dwelling around 1890.

"It appeared as though the people had been frightened away with no opportunity to carry anything with them," Mr. Mason went on to note in his observations. "All seemed to have been left just where it had been used last. No house in Mesa Verde yielded so much in proportion to size."

Other items found in the dwelling included four axes, sandals, a willow mat, a small pitcher, two jars with rims for lids, bow strings, a buckskin sack, three belts or tumb-bands made from cotton and yucca fibers, arrow points, stone knives, and cups upon which there were figures of birds and animals.

When Gustaf Nordenskiold, a 23-year-old Swede who excavated a number of Mesa Verde's ruins in the summer of 1891, visited Mug House, he remarked that it contained "the only example of a fireplace that I have observed in any cliff-dwelling, except the hearths which always occupy the centre of the (kivas). This fireplace consists of a curved elevation of masonry corner in a corner of one of the rooms."

Today the mugs are gone from the dwelling, of course, but you still can peer into the kivas and rooms, see the smoke stains that cling to the sandstone alcove ceilings, gaze out over Rock Canyon, and simply stand in the quiet envisioning the sounds of laughing children and adults at work building fires or making pottery.


This is great!

And these three new back-country hikes aren't just window-dressing or public affair gimmicks---they are among the traditional jewels of the park! The hike to Spring House is just amazing and rewarding; the Wetherhill Mesa Experience will highlight not only the archeological value of the Wetherhill Mesa Archeological Project and its excavations, but also give visitors an opportunity to have a ranger led tour of the Badger House community; and Mug House has been one of the hidden favorites of most of the rangers and the former superintendent.

The new hikes have been made possible by a new commitment to make Mesa Verde National Park and its many resources more accessible. And the impetus to this has come from the new Acting Superintendent, Bill Nelligan. Kudos to Bill and his staff, and to all those responsible for trying to offer more options to Mesa Verde visitors!

When I worked at MEVE I hiked a couple times to Mug House. It is one of my favorites since it hasn't bene heavily impacted by visitation the way the 5 main ones have. I also love the fact that there isn't a paved trail running through the site.

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