“[Mesa Verde] is the hope chest of Southwest archaeology, where cliff dwellings have remained neatly sheltered for centuries, artifacts preserved inside them as if curated.”
— Craig Childs, House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

Spruce House cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde held no surprises for me.  Perhaps my experience was ruined by television and photographs, for I felt as if I had already been here and seen the famous cliff dwellings.  In a way, I was not experiencing Mesa Verde on my own terms, but rather through a filter of other people’s camera lenses.  In comparison to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, the Mesa Verde ruins seemed more cleaned up and sanitized.  While we could walk through the Spruce House ruin on our own self-guided tour, many of the other dwellings are accessible only as part of a group guided by a National Park ranger.

Still, as with every National Park I’ve ever been to, the site is magnificent.  And as awesome as these ancient dwellings are, they do not stand out as trophy houses dominating the landscape.  Instead, these cliff dwellings are sited inconspicuously.  They are unobtrusive and blend in naturally with their surroundings.

” . . . Mesa Verde seemed smug as a cat on a windowsill, tail curled around its body.”
— Craig Childs, House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

Spruce House with distinctive T-shaped, keyhole portals

We could go down this ladder into an underground, round kiva

Cliff House, another of Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings accessible only on a guided tour

Cliff House tour led by a National Park ranger

Distant rain storm on our departure from Mesa Verde

“The desert is a reliquary, its dryness and gradual pace preserving most of what people deposited on their way through.  When the Anasazi walked away from this region some seven hundred years ago, they left it like a made house, everything in its place.”
— Craig Childs, House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

“Perhaps among the ashes, sherds, and crumbling walls we may find a strange and unexpected sort of wisdom.”
— Richard W. Lang, from an informational sign at the Anasazi Heritage Museum

Mesa country of southwestern Colorado

For the next part of our road trip, my sister-in-law and I traveled to the southwest corner of Colorado to explore Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) culture.  After reading about guided tours in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park in the April 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler, I was very interested in experiencing this “off the beaten track” access to the remnants of Anasazi life.   (You can link to the article here:  http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/ute-mountain-tribal-park-traveler/.)  The Ute Mountain Tribal Park promised to be something special because National Geographic Traveler had designated the it as one of “80 World Destinations for Travel in the 21st Century,” and it is one of only nine U.S. destinations to be selected for the list.

We signed up for a half-day tour.  There were five of us, plus our driver and a Ute guide.  We stopped at several rock art and ruin sites in the Mancos Valley in hot, dry mesa country.  The ground at all of these sites was littered with pottery sherds representative of the black-on-white pottery characteristic of Anasazi culture.  We were free to pick them up and handle them, as long as we put them back as we found them.  This is so different from Mesa Verde National Park, where all remnants have been removed and cataloged, and the sites are cleaned up.

Pottery sherds in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The sherds would have come from black-on-white pottery like these artifacts, which I photographed at the Anasazi Heritage Museum in Dolores, CO.

Pottery sherd, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Textured pottery sherd -- the texture helped heat to spread evenly

We saw a couple of ruins of the cliff dwellings typical of Anasazi architecture, but the rock art was the highlight of the tour.  Some of the petroglyphs reflected the Anasazi interest in celestial alignments apparent during the solstice and equinox, or in predictions of other astronomical events.  The painted pictographs of the Ute, from 1600 – 1930, depicted more “modern” images — horses, cowboys, etc.

Granary ruin, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Sun panel used in conjunction with celestial alignments

Hands and sun pictograph panel, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Hoop/Sun spiral petroglyph

Petroglyphs, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Rock art, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Bear paws, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Woman and hands

Cowboy and horse pictograph, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

T-shaped window, characteristic of Anasazi structures, in a Tribal Park building from the 1980s

Mesas of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park