Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff dwellings and the Old West
January 30, 2015 Updated: January 30, 2015

It is very easy to romanticize about what life must have been like at the end of the 13th century at Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking Montezuma Valley, Colorado.

Mornings come softly, even tenderly, and full of light. Light winds blow the fendlerbushes, golden asters and scarlet globemallow as songbirds awaken us. The sky appears endless, save for a distinctly modern image: three jetstreams that try to compete for the eye’s attention.

We are perched atop a high plateau at the only lodge here, from whose vantage point we can easily see Shiprock, New Mexico, as well as Arizona and Utah, whose borders all meet with Colorado’s at a nearby junction called the Four Corners.

Although these dwellings have long been emptied of all their archeological treasures, being amongst them truly fires the imagination.

But the true treasures are just a few minutes away by car. We are merely a stone’s throw from arguably the most important existing cliff dwellings of the Anasazi people. The cliff dwellings, the Anasazi’s ancestral home in Mesa Verde, allow the park to make the claim of being the only American National Park devoted to the remembrance and preservation of human endeavours.

We are about to visit a huge ghost town, the remnants of an entire civilization that seems to have voluntarily disappeared from this area 850 years ago.

Voluntarily disappeared? For the last century, numerous theories have tried to explain why such an advanced civilization, living in permanent, sophisticated apartment-style cliff dwellings would suddenly decide to abandon their settlements.

Mesa Verde is the perfect place to get a glimpse of, or seriously study the Anasazi (or Ancient Puebloan) people, allowing one to follow their evolution from pit houses to pueblos (small villages) to full cliff dwellings.

The latter attract the most visitors, and although these beautifully crafted and magnificently located dwellings have long been emptied of all their archeological treasures, being amongst them truly fires the imagination.

From the precariously located Balcony House to the homey Spruce Tree House, each series of dwellings housed up to 100 people. The entire region was home to about 45,000 people. But around 1250 everyone disappeared, leaving their living spaces intact and fully supplied, as though planning to return at some future date.

The Anasazi chose well-protected cliff areas that provided natural alcoves, hidden from casual observers and always where there was a water supply. They lived in ingeniously crafted communal abodes overlooking the canyons below, linked by granaries and ladders and centred around hollows called Kivas, thought to have been used for both religious and social purposes. Kivas were essential to the Anasazi as they linked them to their Creator.

Birds and butterflies go about their business as today’s visitor clambers up and down steep ladders that lead into and throughout the mortared stone apartments.

Visiting at any time of the day is worthwhile, but a twilight tour of Cliff Palace allows one to feel somewhat in communion with the Anasazi spirits and feel a kinship with the area.


Our guide was a park ranger who assumed the identity of Lucy Peabody while leading the tour. Peabody was an early 20th century visionary who saw the urgency of protecting the ruins and saving the Anasazi artifacts.

Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swede, is both given credit for and scorned for his involvement in the early excavation and exploration of the area. An aristocrat whose father was a famous Arctic explorer, he came to the area in 1890 hoping to be cured of his tuberculosis, only to be caught up in the excitement of the era, pioneering archaeological techniques that are still used and admired today.

He also pilfered countless artifacts, a fact that led to his confinement at the Strater Hotel in nearby Durango for a month in 1891 as local law enforcement officers tried to uncover a law or regulation that would prevent him from removing his stolen treasures and returning to Sweden.

They failed, but heritage preservers like Lucy Peabody lobbied the federal government to eventually pass the Antiquities Act as a means of protecting American heritage.

Nordenskiöld’s collection is now housed at the National Museum in Helsinki, thereby allowing Europeans to become more easily acquainted with Anasazi history. Locals in the Mesa Verde area seem to begrudgingly accept that this has allowed a larger audience to appreciate their prehistoric culture.

When you descend the mesas (flat topped canyons) into the floor of the Montezuma Valley, you’re hit by the extreme dryness of the area. A lack of water is one of the main theories explaining the disappearance of the Anasazi from the cliff dwellings. Or did they over-farm the area? Did they cut down too many of the critically important juniper and pinyon trees? Were there more droughts than they could manage? Yet the mesas seem much greener than today’s surrounding, lower valley.


We pondered these theories in nearby Durango, well-known for its connection to the gold- and silver-mining days of the 1890s. The city celebrates its direct connection to the mining days and to Nordenskiöld. Ironically, at the same time that Nordenskiöld was removing Anasazi artifacts, bank robbers such as the infamous Butch Cassidy were learning how to steal and escape with their booty.

You can still take the original coal-burning steam locomotive that was used during the gold rush and later in the classic movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The cars are like in the old days and black smoke billows into them as the train chugs up a steep canyon, through the dense forest of the San Juan Valley, steam whistle a-blowin’.

Cassidy robbed his first bank at nearby Telluride and spent the night at the Dunton Hot Springs, where he ran and hid after the robbery. This was before he met the Sundance Kid, a somewhat violent character, portrayed in a sympathetic way by Robert Redford in the film.

Dunton Hot Springs, a going concern in the 1890s, became a ghost town for most of the 20th century. In its latest incarnation, you can sit at the oak bar of the resort it has become and gawk at the name Butch Cassidy, just where he carved it 120 years earlier.

The ghost town was occupied by bikers in the 1970s and their carvings almost conceal Cassidy’s. When the bikers were forced to leave, they were not happy and set fire to some of the old buildings. Happily the town has been fully re-created, with some buildings fully restored and others of the same era brought in from other locations.

It’s great to soak in the murky orange-coloured waters and contemplate life back at the turn of the century when gold and silver were king and the Anasazis’ treasures were first being brought to light.

Bruce Sach is a veteran Canadian travel writer.