The Long and Winding Road to Wetherill

Mesa Verde National Park, continued….

Back on a cold winter day in 1888, the Wetherill brothers were out in a snow storm looking for lost cattle when they spotted through the snowflakes something they described as “An enchanted castle.”  They had stumbled upon what is now known as the Cliff Palace.  Therefore, like Columbus who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to “discover” America, the Wetherill Brothers were credited with being the first to “discover” the Cliff Palace.   Nevermind about the people who lived there for 100 years, or all the subsequent Puebloans, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, etc. that followed.  The mesa is named for the Wetherills.  (You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself!)

The term "Mesa Verde" translates to "Green Table."

The term “Mesa Verde” translates to “Green Table.”

Early morning fog on the drive to Wetherill Mesa

Early morning fog on the drive to Wetherill Mesa

This is reported to be the “quieter side of Mesa Verde,” as it does not contain the more popular tourist draws like Cliff Palace and Balcony House.   I know the road is going to be a “treat” when I read that no vehicles more than 25 ft or 8,000lbs are allowed on the 12 mile, narrow, steep and winding road to Wetherill Mesa.   When I also read to allow 45 minutes to an hour to travel twelve miles, well, I know it’s going to be a rough ride.  There’s not a straight, level stretch in the entire 12 miles.

View from the Long House.  Do you think they knew they had a "view?" Or was the view all they ever knew?

View from the Long House. Do you think they knew they had a “view?” Or was the view all they ever knew?

View of Long House from across the canyon.

View of Long House from across the canyon.

The primary reason to visit Wetherill Mesa is to tour Long House, another Ranger-led tour.   Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, including 150 rooms and 21 Kivas, just slightly smaller than Cliff Palace, yet it is not visited as frequently.   This tour is considered a little more strenuous, because it involves a 2.25 mile hike to reach the site, including ladders, stairs, and a 130 ft elevation gain.

Long House, 2nd largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde NP.

Long House, 2nd largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde NP.

View of Long House, looking out from the back of the alcove.   This tour allows deeper access than Cliff Palace.

View of Long House, looking out from the back of the alcove. This tour allows deeper access than Cliff Palace.

The tour ends at the trail head, giving the option to continue hiking the mesa, or returning to the Wetherill Visitor’s Kiosk.   The mesa is designed more with hiking and biking in mind, and vehicles are not permitted on the roads.  At one time, there was a shuttle that made stops along the 5 mile Long House Loop Road, but there was a dispute with the concessionaire Aramark, and the shuttle no longer runs.   Therefore, the only way to access the additional mesa sites and overlooks is on foot or by bike.IMG_2196

Long House has many granary rooms on the second floor.

Long House has many granary rooms on the second floor.

Following the Long House Tour, I opt for the Badger Community Loop hike on the return.  This is a mesa-top display in four separate protective aluminum buildings linked together by trail.  These above-ground sites show signs of habitation prior to the cliff dwelling period, back to the pit houses of AD 550.  Although the Ancestral Puebloans are best known for their cliff dwellings, this was only a small part of the time they occupied Mesa Verde.   Most of their habitation was on the mesa top, where they farmed squash, corn, and beans.  It was only in the last 100 years that they moved down into the alcoves and built what have come to be known as “cliff dwellings.”IMG_4016



There is no indication why they moved down off the mesa, nor is there any clue as to why they left the area altogether 100 years later.   There are lots of myths about the Anasazi, that the entire civilization just “disappeared.”   However, they did not disappear, but rather migrated down into Arizona and New Mexico.   Tree ring analysis indicates there was a major drought around the year AD 1200.  So they could have moved into the alcoves to seek closer proximity to the water source, the seep springs within the alcoves.  It is also believed this drought of biblical proportions may have been a leading contributor for why they left the mesa altogether.

This side of the mesa also includes another self-guided tour, the Step House, where evidence of two periods exists side by side.  A restored replica of a pit house from AD 550 exists next to the later period cliff dwelling from the 13th Century.  This is another site that does not require an additional fee to enter, and there is a Ranger on duty to answer questions.

The Step House, accessible as self-guided tour.

The Step House, accessible as self-guided tour.

Ranger standing guard at Step House to answer questions.  Note restored Pit House, AD 550, to his left.

Ranger standing guard at Step House to answer questions. Note restored Pit House, AD 550, to his left.

My most memorable moment of my time spent at Mesa Verde was during the Long House Ranger-led tour, when the Ranger had us all sit, theatre-style on a large original stone ledge beneath the alcove.  He told stories of family life believed to have taken place during the time of habitation…he talked of egress into the alcove via toe and hand holds, the collection and organization of firewood, and even the location and condition of some sacred remains of a four year old girl, found wrapped in a feather, beaded blanket and buried within one of the rooms near where we sat.  Then he asked everyone to get still.  No shuffling, no talking, no photo taking for two solid minutes of silence.  Good luck getting a crowd of 25 people to sit still for 10 seconds, let alone 120.  But on the heels of his story telling, he was successful.   He asked that we take this time reflecting on why we came to Mesa Verde, and what we would mentally take away from our time here.  The sounds of the chirping birds and chattering squirrels echoed off the back of the hard stone alcove wall.  I spent my two minutes pondering what it must have been like to be among the first to wake here, looking out over the canyon at daybreak.

Ranger John tells good stories...

Ranger John tells good stories…

Looking out from the alcove, imagining what it was like to be a resident 700 years ago.

Looking out from the alcove, imagining what it was like to be a resident 700 years ago.

Then, he shared a recent meeting with a Hopi woman, a descendant of the Ancestral Pueblo people.  He asked what would she like for him to impart on the hundreds of tourists that walk through her ancestral home each day.  Her answer was “We didn’t disappear.  We’re still here.”

She then shared her belief that “Mans one purpose in life is to bridge the earth and the sky.”  That’s a purpose I can get behind…IMG_4066 IMG_4064

16 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road to Wetherill

  1. Ranger tours are just the best. We loved touring the dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. When we were there they had switched from the former name, and in the visitor center videos, they were talking about how they had not left. It was very interesting.
    I love the second to the last photo. The light is so good.
    Wish we were there… Post a lot so we can see new things.

  2. The other theory is a sad one and the one I believe.

    In addition to Mesa Verde, I have toured other Ancient Ones locations, including Grand Canyon, Grand Gulch west of MV, Bandelier, and several places North and South of MV. The thing they seem to have in common beginnng about 1100 or so (per tree rings and carbon dating) is they went defensive in a big time way.

    Th hand hold only accesses, the slots in the boulders, the placing of guard houses near grain stores (particularly in Grand Canyon) all indicate they became very afraid od someone. Their era predated the influx of the Ute amcestors and the other later 4-corner tribes. They also predated the Navajo who were apparrently hunter-gatherer-wanderers before they stumbled on the ruins. Navajos don’t loke death and won’t speakmof their dead. So, all this evidence of an unknown population now gone and dead to them creaded the Anasizi name which means evil dead ancient ones.

    So, if it was none of these people, who then? I thought maybe there was a mysterious plains tribe who mauraded and raided but lived on the move. Trouble was, no evidence of any such existed.

    In 2006, after a backpack down into Geand Gulch, I learned the enemy was probably themselves. Massive civil unrest began among them because of the failures of their religious leaders to produce. The building of the roads to and structures at their religious center, Chaco Canyon, was sappong their time and energy to farm as the drought began. The last straw that broke the society apart was the Elders’ inability to bring rain and summin good harvests. Resources like firewood in the canyons were also becoming scare. In short, there was not enough to go around.

    The bands and clans sought protection of their resources from each other by building what amount to forts. They lived there and climbed up tomthe mesas or down to the bottoms to farm.

    Raiding in a big time way began. Graineries were raided. Several have been found that look sealed up first but broken into by tearing parts of walls down. The owners would not have done that.

    The worst of it is evidence has been found in the Gand Gulch and other canyons stretching south of apparrent canabalism. It indicates the depth of the fragmentation among the peoples.

    Many, many must have died of starvation or murder. So, the almost instant migration in 1350 was probably a fraction of the numbers who lived in 1100.

    Why, then, did they stop in Arizona and New Mexico and rebuild pueblos? One theory is the ruling religious class at Chaco was behind some of the bad raiding parties. Either get in line or you’re dead kind of thing. When thise leaders lost power or were killed, so e rhink the migrating groups eventually outran the fear of being attacked by their own who probably didn’t exist as a pn organized group by then.

    Certainly the long and deep drought had lots to do with things; but droughts worldwide usually don’t result in everone’s leaving with no one staying behind. Plus, the drought didn’t cause the forts and guarded grainery stashes. I believe that the move was motivated by fear and a desire to get away from their failed religion.


    • Jerry, thanks so much for sharing the very in depth theory. I loved reading it! The Rangers did speak of possible “defense,” but no one would speculate on from what they were defending themselves. I find it fascinating to think it could have been “themselves,” and think that is a very likely prospect. Especially when you through in the religion angle. Thanks again, I enjoyed reading.

  3. Great photos and story. I visited Mesa Verde a couple of months ago and took two of the ranger-led tours. One was like listening to a high school recitation on the site, but the other was transcendent (similar to your experience here). Mesa Verde–this is true of all National Parks that I’ve visited, fwiw–has some amazing people working to bring the place to life for its visitors. God bless the park rangers.

    • Thanks for the comment, Shane. I agree, the Ranger can make or break the tour. I got lucky at Mesa Verde, as all three Rangers were clearly passionate about telling the story of the people who inhabited these dwellings. I loved all three of the tours, and would do them all over again.

  4. If you ever get the chance to do the night walk at Bandelier National Monument (northern new mexico) it is so moving and really gives you a small glimpse into life in the dwellings of the ancestral puebloans. The walk is done in silence with the ranger, usually a member of a nearby Pueblo, telling stories. There is a magical, spiritually moving surprise toward the end of the walk. Not to be missed.

    • Thanks, Karen — I visited Bandelier back in my 20’s on of all things, a “familiarization trip” at work. I had no real appreciation at that age, so I would like to go back now and visit again….especially after you told me about the night walk! That’s my kinda tour! Thanks for the tip!

    • Thanks, Mi Amiga — I miss “chatting” with you, but know it is a busy time for us both as summer rapidly winds down. Will promise to catch up soon!

  5. Your photos and words transported me back there Suzanne. Lovely post! I particularly like the two minutes of silence suggested by the ranger. Great way to reflect upon your time there.

  6. Thanks, LuAnn — Yes, the two minutes of silence was one of those things where I looked around at the chatters in the group and thought “Yeah, this will never happen!” I was so pleased when it did, as it was most memorable. Thanks for stopping by!

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