1. At about 150 miles away, we reached Page at about 6.30 pm and as it was getting late checked into Holiday Inn at US$125 a night. The next day, 9 June, Day 23, on way to Mesa Verde National Park, we decided to make a brief stop at Carl Hayden Visitor Centre to see Glen Canyon Dam and lunch at Lake Powell.
2. Behind the Glen Canyon Dam, water of Colorado River and its tributaries are backed up 185 miles to form the very scenic Lake Powell. Completed in 1966, the dam fulfills its goal of water storage and power generation, as well as providing recreation opportunities. With the advice of the Duty Ranger, we had lunch in Rainbow Room of Lake Powell Resort and Marina, with an excellent view of Lake Powell. It's interesting how it was possible to allow all the recreational activities in the water (saw water skiing and jet boating while we were lunching) while maintaining the quality of the water.
3. After lunch, we continued our journey to Cortez, near Mesa Verde National Park, first along Highway 89A, then Highway 160. We planned to stay the night at Cortez before visiting Mesa Verde the next day. Along the way, we planned to make a fun stop at the Four Corners National Monument. Here, if you could arch into a push-up position, you could be in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, all at the same time. To reach the point, we have to get in and out of New Mexico momentarily. Unfortunately, the monument was closed for renovation. We decided to follow the crowd and go in anyway. It was a work site and work was on-going. We didn't miss much.
4. It was more than 200 miles from Page and we reached Cortez at about 5.30 pm and booked into Ute Mtn Motel. We had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and had an early night.
5. Next morning (10 June, Day 24), before leaving Cortez for Mesa Verde, we had breakfast at a charming little shop which served great coffee called Let It Grow. I can't really say what kind of business the shop is as it sells many things - flowers and plants, gardening tools, toys, old books, gifts, and etc. I suppose the proprietor may have intended the merchandises to revolve around the theme of "growing". What differentiated the shop was its friendly intimate atmosphere, its coziness and its bright colourful flowers. We enjoyed the relaxing breakfast in a nice environment.
5. Mesa Verde National Park, 23 miles from Cortez, about 0.5 hr drive, in SW Colorado, was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), both atop the mesas and in the cliff dwellings below. The park includes over 4 500 archeological sites, of which 600 are cliff dwellings. They were built by the APs between 800 to 1400 years ago (around the time of Tang/Sung Dynasty in China and Angkor Wat of Cambodia). For reason which is still unclear, they abandoned the dwellings in late 1200s. Mesa Verde was only discovered by cowboys some 600 years later.
6. Unlike other parks, Mesa Verde's visitor centre, Far View Visitor Centre, is located deep inside the park, 15 miles from the park entrance. It is open only from mid-May to mid-Oct. It was teeming with visitors when we got there and we joined the line to book an organised tour. In Mesa Verde, there are 3 key attractions ( Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House) that could only be accessed by joining paid organised tours. In order to leave time to see other sites, we decided to join the tour to the Cliff Palace only, at a very reasonable rate of US$3 each.
7. Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It was discovered by 2 cowboys in 1888. It is located 7-8 miles further inside the park and when we reached there many visitors were already gathered at the overlook, all ready to begin the tour at 1 pm. Two restless kids were climbing up and down trees while waiting for the ranger to arrive. The ranger leading our tour was a very jovial Tom Wolf - a seasonal ranger here, he was very engaging, who interspersed jokes with information about the history of the APs and the Cliff Palace and got us all regularly laughing, not bad for a heavy subject like history.
8. To get to Cliff Palace, it was down a ladder and a steep flight of steps, and occasionally squeezing between vertical rocks before reaching the dwelling. Some may have difficulty passing through. According to Tom, it was unclear why the APs moved from staying up in the mesas (plateaus) to the cliff dwelling but he suspected that it was for defence against their enemies. I am inclined to agree with him. The attacking soldiers have to be trim and fit. As the APs left no written records and many things had perished since then, it was difficult to establish what actually happened.
9. However, it was clear that over hundreds of years, the APs had become more skillful and sophisticated, moving from staying in small pithouses to 3-4 storeys cliff dwellings, from nomadic life to settled living, and from small groups to organised community. As the largest of the cliff dwelling, the Cliff Palace has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. One source indicated that this dwelling supported a community of 200-300 people. Kivas are circular sunken community space which could seat 10-12 people around the circumference, probably for spiritual purposes. Each cliff dwelling would have its water source; in the case of Cliff Palace from the rock wall at the back of the dwelling. Tom said that this had since been diverted. Building materials were sandstone, mortar and wooden beams.
10. Tom controlled the tour group tightly, moving it along at a good pace to make way for the group behind. It was a busy day. Here, barriers prevented us from loitering into any of the room or kiva. End of the tour involved climbing a steep flight of steps back to the surface. It was over in about an hour.
11. After a quick lunch at Spruce Tree Terrace, we hiked to see Spruce Tree House, third largest of the cliff dwellings but considered the best preserved. About 90% of the site is original, as it was discovered in 1888. Here we could take our time, as its a self guiding tour attraction. Built between 1200 and 1276, the dwelling contains 114 rooms and 8 kivas into a natural overhang measuring 216 ft at its greatest width and 89 ft at its greatest depth. It is thought to house about 100 people. One of the kivas had been restored to allow visitors to descend into it and have a closer look. Its 6 ft down the ladder.
12. After Spruce Tree House, it was a steep hike up to the surface to Chapin Mesa Museum. A must visit to the park, the museum contains various artifacts about the life of the APs. Light condition was not good enough for my camera.
13. Before our departure, we decided to do the 6 miles Mesa Top Loop in our car. Highlights were:
(1) Square Tower House Overlook. Here, the APs had progressed to build structure 4 storey high.
(2) Sun Point Overlook. This location gives a great view of a number of cliff dwellings, communities organised in a larger community, making best use of the geographic features. Steps carved out of the rock surface could be seen in the picture on the right that allowed APs to move from one cliff dwelling up and down to another.
14. What we saw at Mesa Verde National Park was a tiny bit of life in America before Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered it in the 15th Century. Mesa Verde tells us that they were fairly advanced societies, quite contrary to the nomadic half naked Indians superficially depicted in cowboy films.
15. Leaving Mesa Verde National Park, we headed for Durango, about an hr drive away, to stay the night. From there, we would head for the scenic Million Dollar Highway the next day on our way North to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We reached there before dark and booked ourselves into Siesta Motel for US$ 93 a night.