Step House Ancestral Site, Mesa Verde

Overlook on Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site from an overlook, Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park.

At Mesa Verde National Park you can only visit the cliff dwellings on-site as part of a Ranger-led tour. To protect them from the high numbers of visitors that want to see them these days. (If you don’t care for such a one or two hour trek, there are nice overlooks to get photos from above).

Path to Step House ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Paved path down to Step House alcove site, Wetherill Mesa.

The Ranger-led tours only cost $5 per person, per tour. A nominal fee. But you have to buy your tickets in person at the park, or in Cortez, not online. You can buy them locally up to two days in advance, though.

Step House Ruin, the stone steps, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site, looking up at the ancient stone steps hugging the face of the alcove.

There is one notable exception: the Step House site on Wetherill Mesa. You don’t need to buy a ticket, because they station a Ranger down there from 9am to 4pm to both protect the site and to answer questions for visitors.

Step House cliff dwelling pueblo, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The cliff dwelling pueblo at Step House, Wetherill Mesa.

Step House is also an easy walk, on a paved path. Not only that, but it has been developed so as to show off two very distinct periods of habitation. Most noticeable is the cliff dwelling pueblo, which was the later period, just before they exited the area around 1300 A.D. But long before that, the pre-puebloans, who had not yet learned how to fire pottery, let alone build habitable stonework pueblos, lived on the same site in pit houses.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling, Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling at Step House.

And at Step House a pit house has been reconstructed to give you a much better idea of what that had looked like. It’s a wonderful two-for-one walk, just a stone’s throw from the parking lot.

Panoramic photo of the Step House Ruin site on Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step house alcove panorama, Wetherill Mesa.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg

The Green Table Finally Greens Up (Mesa Verde)

Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus, at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) leafing out and flowering, Mesa Verde, April 24.

Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish. Mesa Verde National Park is a tilted green table, heavily dissected by its canyons that also flow south.

Other than its famous prehistoric cliff dwellings and dizzying geology, the Mesa looks rather drab after the snows are gone and the deciduous vegetation has yet to leaf out.

Thus it has been interesting watching the progression of springtime through the various shrubs, forbs and grasses as they turn the brown and gray back to green.

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) leafing and blooming, Mesa Verde National Park, May 4.

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) leafing and blooming, Mesa Verde National Park, May 4.

The earlier leafing species such as Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) and Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) seem to be well adapted to the weather swings of early spring. They don’t sweat cold snaps, even the occasional late snow storm.

Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) blooming at Mesa Verde, May 7, 2017.

Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) blooming at Mesa Verde, May 7.

On the other hand the “Oakbrush”, the Gambel Oak (Quercus gambellii) that tough small tree that resprouts vigorously even after the major fires that occurred in the park about 15-20 years ago, is cold sensitive. It leafs out later, and cautiously. I was to find out why during this particular spring.

Gamber Oak, Quercus gambellii, leafing and beginning to flower, Mesa Verde National Park.

Gambel Oak leafing and about to flower, Mesa Verde, April 24.

Things had been greening up nicely in the park. In fact, it was a very early spring, especially judging by how early the yucca plants were beginning to send up their flower stalks, at 7,000 feet in elevation.

North Rim of Mesa Verde, from Montezuma Valley Overlook, May 4, 2017.

North Rim of Mesa Verde, Gambel Oak barely leafing out, May 4.

However, things changed on May 18 when a late snow storm hit the area.

Late snow, Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde.

Late snow, May 18, Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde.

The early leafing shrubs showed why they have the confidence to take late cold snaps in stride. A little bit of cold damage to their newest shoots, but otherwise no sweat.

Early leafing shrubs in late snow, May 18, 2017 Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Early leafing shrubs in late snow, May 18. The Oaks are still brown.

The Oaks, though, were stunned. Tender baby leaves, and flowering catkins, were zapped. The storm passed quickly, providing some gorgeous parting shots. But as far as the Oaks, you could almost hear them arguing (“I told you it was too early!”).

Wilted Gamel Oak (Quercus gambellii) leaves after the May 18, 2017 cold snap storm, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Wilted Gamel Oak leaves after the May 18 cold snap storm.

So the Oaks had to regroup, not that they are not splendidly built for that, too. (I told you they are tough). Their Plan B was to shift their energy to leafing out yet again, and the heck with the flowering this year. There’s always next year, you know.

May 18 ice on Mountain Mahogany, Mesa Verde.

May 18 ice on Mountain Mahogany, Mesa Verde.

Which means few acorns, that round fat nut that wildlife like deer,  turkeys, and rodents feast on in the fall. But even more so the black bears, which chow down on the acorns for their high starch content, building up the layer of fat that their bodies will depend on during their winter hibernation. So we could see more bear incidents this fall, as they try to supplement their diet with human garbage and such.

Above Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, June 11.

Above Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde, June 11.

But finally, the Oak shrubs/trees are almost fully leafed out. The Green Table is back to being almost at its height of green for the summer.

At Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, June 11, 2017.

At Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde, June 12.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

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Wildflower Portraits: Fendlerbush

Fendlerbush - Fendlera falcata (F. rupicola), Mesa Verde National Park

Late springtime blossoms of Fendlerbush – Fendlera falcata (F. rupicola)

Southwest Colorado, the first day of June. I chose to spend my early evening walking at the Far View pueblo sites at Mesa Verde.

Along the trail I am taken by yet more pure white blossoms of Fendlerbush (Fendlera falcata (F. rupicola), a tough and beautiful shrub that thrives here.

Fendlerbush - Fendlera falcata (F. rupicola) at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Fendlerbush closeup.

Fendlerbush - Fendlera falcata (F. rupicola) at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Fendlerbush blossoms set against their green foliage.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. See more of my photography at NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Montezuma Valley Blue Horizons

View from Park Point, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The Montezuma Valley from Park Point in Mesa Verde National Park.

After a late May cold front that gave us more snow and hurt the Oak leaves that were trying to emerge, for the second time (don’t worry, they are tough), we seem to be back to wonderful late spring weather. Warm during the day, but not hot. Chilly at night, but only freezing for a night or two.

Now that true May weather has resumed, I continue to watch the rest of the deciduous vegetation unfold.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde National Park highway, from Point Lookout.

Point Lookout, Mesa Verde

Point Lookout, Mesa Verde National Park, from the entrance road.

Point Lookout, from just inside the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. It will be even greener soon, when the Gambel Oak have fully leafed out.

When visitors drive into Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, the first thing that grabs their attention is a promontory called Point Lookout. As they will soon find out, they will be driving up a series of switchbacks taking them around its eastern flanks to a notch in the topography that has them up onto the northern end of the mesa. From there the road winds back and forth as it negotiates the North Rim, heading toward the Far View Lodge, and on to the Museum and the Cliff Dwellings.

Utah Serviceberry in bloom, Point Lookout Trail, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Utah Serviceberry in bloom, Point Lookout Trail.

But what of that vertical chunk of bright sandstone towering far above the greening slopes? Wouldn’t it be awesome to be on top of that, looking over the edge?

Utah Serviceberry in bloom along the Point Lookout Trail, overlooking Morefield Campground, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Utah Serviceberry in bloom along the Point Lookout Trail, overlooking Morefield Campground. The gray patches are Gambel Oak, which are just starting to leaf out.

It is, and you can go there, too. It’s the Lookout Point Trail, and it begins at the end of the campground road, near the Amphitheater.

North Rim of Mesa Verde, with Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance, from the Point Lookout Trail.

Looking southwest along the North Rim of Mesa Verde, from the Point Lookout Trail.

The trail is only 2.2 miles round trip, but it does climb 400 feet in the first mile. So it’s strenuous, but well built, with plenty of switchbacks to keep the grade reasonable. And there are spectacular views along that part of it, as well.

Paintbrush blooming atop Point Lookout, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Paintbrush blooming atop Point Lookout, May 4, 2017.

Before too long I had crested the southern rim of Point Lookout. Easy walking on top from there.

Common Paintbrush, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Paintbrush blooms closeup.

The northern rim of the Point is spectacular, of course. Rather dizzying from too near the edge, looking down on the park road, the Visitor and Research Center and the Mancos Valley, with the still-snowy La Plata Mountains in the distance.

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View north from Point Lookout, with the Mesa Verde park entrance road far below.

Another view to the southwest peers out over the Montezuma Valley and the town of Cortez, with Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance.

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View southwest along the North Rim of Mesa Verde, toward Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Then it was back down the switchbacks to the trailhead. Going downhill, working the quad muscles this time. A good walk on a stellar early May day, and I didn’t meet another person in the 1.5 hours it took. Sweet.

Tent caterpillar nest in Utah Serviceberry, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Tent caterpillar nest in Utah Serviceberry, Point Lookout Trail.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

A Real April Day at Mesa Verde

April 27, and the Four Corners region was finally getting back to some real springtime weather. As in moisture: rain, snow showers. Good. It had been almost three weeks without precipitation.

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A wet cold April morning at Far View in Mesa Verde National Park.

I had gone up onto Mesa Verde early, hoping for some parting clouds kind of scenic shots before I had to be at work. I pulled over at a choice spot, waiting. But it turned out to be a nice little nap while the rain continued to softly fall on the windshield.

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Wild Turkey gobbler, Mesa Verde.

As I neared work, a wild turkey gobbler (i.e., a male) was strutting his stuff on the shoulder of the road. It’s mating season, so he feels the urge to proclaim to his corner of the world that he’s the top male around here. Living in a national park, he knew that he wasn’t going to get shot, so he had the luxury of parading around only semi nervously. I made a number of (camera) shots of him, but the light was still too poor for more than a few in-motion captures.

Utah Serviceberry, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Utah Serviceberry blossoms and new leaves.

Mesa Verde is covered with innumerable shrubs of Utah Serviceberry, which emerges early in the spring, both the leaves and the white blossoms. I stopped to capture them in the soft overcast light and wetness.

Then some Bitterbrush as well, a tough shrub that is a favorite food of deer.

Bitterbrush - Purshia tridentata, Mesa Verde National Park

Bitterbrush – Purshia tridentata

Then it was to work, cooped up inside the Chapin Mesa Museum building except for a couple of short breaks, and lunch. Outside it was rain, clouds, fog, and even a blizzard-like snow squall for a while.

Navajo Canyon Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Navajo Canyon Overlook, Mesa Verde.

After work, it was my time. I drove out the Mesa Top Loop road to see what was going on with the interesting light from the clearing storm front. First stop was the Navajo Canyon Overlook. Some sunshine through the heavy clouds provided a rich and dramatic view.

Square Tower House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Square Tower House Ruin, Mesa Verde.

Nearby was the Square Tower House Overlook. This Ancestral Puebloan village is not the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, but it is one of the most photogenic. Its tower is the tallest in the park. At that time of the early evening in late April, the sun and shadows contrasted nicely.

Sun Point View of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde.

Sun Point View of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde.

At Sun Point View, I made a panoramic series of shots of two converging canyons, including a distant view of the iconic Cliff Palace. A number of cliff dwellings are visible to the sharp eyed, especially as aided by the interpretive signs.

Mummy House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mummy House, Mesa Verde.

Remains of room blocks on a sandstone shelf below Mummy House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Remains of room blocks on a sandstone shelf below Mummy House.

The last stop was to drive the Cliff Palace Loop and take another several shots down onto the Palace. The crowds were gone for the day, the overcast light was soft.

Cliff Palace panorama, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace panorama, Mesa Verde.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

See more of my photography at http://www.NaturalMoment.com

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde Spring Wildflowers

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Utah Serviceberry in bloom at Mesa Verde.

Springtime on Mesa Verde, the “green table” in Spanish. A titled table, and highly dissected by canyons draining to the south. Which is getting greener by the day, now that it’s springtime.

But this is about some of the vegetation growing on the upper reaches. The most noticeable shrub in early spring is Utah Serviceberry, Amelanchier utahensis, both because of its many white blossoms and because it adds a lot of greenery to an otherwise drab landscape this early in the season.

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Double Bladderpod, Physaria acutifolia.

Double Bladderpod, Physaria acutifolia, has a whorl of silvery-green leaves that mostly hug the ground. It raises a lot of small yellow four-petaled flowers.

 

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Double Bladderpod blossoms emerging.

Back to the white blossoms, we have Patterson’s Milkvetch, Astragalus pattersonii, of the pea family. My source says that there are 13 different species of milkvetches at Mesa Verde. So how is one to really know? They grow on shale slopes and soils containing selenium, so you neither want to smell them very long, or eat them. Their feathery blossoms, though, are just fine for looking at.

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Patterson’s Milkvetch, Astragalus panttersonii.

Gambel Oak, Quercus gambellii, is the tough, small tree that keeps resprouting from wildfires, of which Mesa Verde has had some horrendous ones over the past couple of decades. And it’s good for the soil that they do resprout rather than die, because they hold the soil on on the slopes. The other plant species should thank them.

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Emerging leaves and flowers of Gambel Oak.

We bring up the rear, so to speak, with another yellow wildflower that catches the eye on a drive along the park. This one is Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Balsamhoriza sagitatta. In the Sunflower Family, so you know it likes to show off. As it should. Elk, deer, and the feral horses like it, but somehow it tolerates being munched on by them, too. So did the Ute Indians.

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Arrowleaf Balsamroot.

Stay tuned for more. Spring is just beginning in southwest Colorado.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde: The Far View Sites

Far View Village pueblo site, Mesa Verde

Far View Village pueblo site, Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park, the seventh U.S. National Park (1906, while Grand Canyon was still at National Monument status until 1919), is most famous for its incredible cliff dwellings from the Ancestral Puebloan era of about 800 years ago. The park is most famous for Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

But…the cliff dwellings period at Mesa Verde was very late in the game, before they moved on once again to locations south.

Until these people somehow (subject of much controversy among archaeologists, still) decided to make those much more defensible dwellings in precipitous sandstone cliffs, they lived on the mesa tops. Up on the flat. Where they were so much nearer to their crops of corn, beans, and squash. Where they could catch maximum sunlight to warm themselves and their homes year around.

So I stopped off the main park road on Chapin Mesa, between park headquarters and the Far View Lodge, to see the mesa top pueblo sites. It was a very easy and pleasant springtime walk.

Kiva (ceremonial chamber) at Far View Village, Mesa Verde National Park.

Kiva (ceremonial chamber) at Far View Village, Mesa Verde National Park. This would have had a roof over it in its time.

The main site that has been cleaned of rubble and stabilized there is called Far View Village. It is considered a Great House, the center of this long-ago very vibrant community that thrived before the Spanish ever brought the horse and the wheel and metal tools. In fact, the ancestral ones were long gone from here before the Spanish landed in America. They had other places to go. They knew what they were doing.

Pipe Shrine House at Far View, Mesa Verde National Park

Pipe Shrine House at Far View, Mesa Verde National Park

A stone’s throw away from the first one was another pueblo site, called Pipe Shrine House, because archaeologist Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes found a dozen decorated tobacco pipes onsite in 1922. Archaeology in the U.S. was merely beginning, and Fewkes was to become one of the giants while he probably still struggled to figure out what he should be doing as a scientist in this new field.

But back to the ancient ones. I walked on to the next site on the path.

And there, not to be outdone by all the masonry work (using only stone tools) of the pueblos was the nearby Far View Reservoir. Reservoir? Like in a dam, an impoundment of water? Yes. Dug out by hand, no beasts of burden yet introduced to the continent. And you thought you’ve put in a hard day’s work. Amazing.

The Ancestral Puebloans' Far View Reservoir, Mesa Verde.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ Far View Reservoir, Mesa Verde.

After an early evening of contemplating the mysteries of stone building by ancient human hands, I still had to pass by more stonework: that of the planet.

So as I once again drove along the northern rim of the mesa, I continued to revel in the springtime light, and the clouds. Gorgeous. Stopping again at the Geologic Overlook. I made several photos to later merge into a panorama.

North Rim of Mesa Verde from the Geologic Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

North Rim of Mesa Verde from the Geologic Overlook.

Sky and Earth, indeed. Southwest Colorado. No wonder I keep wandering around here.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

View more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

First Wildflowers and Cedar Tree Tower, Mesa Verde

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Hood’s Phlox, April 2, 2017, Mesa Verde National Park.

I stopped off at the Cedar Tree Tower site on Chapin Mesa in Mesa Verde on a recent April evening. The tower site is a short, paved drive off the main park highway. Just before I got to the parking area I spotted some Phlox wildflowers already in bloom amidst the green blades of new grasses sprouting.

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Hood’s Phlox on Chapin Mesa in Mesa Verde National Park, April 2, 2017.

It was Hood’s Phlox, Phlox hoodii, as I learned from the book Wildflowers of Mesa Verde at the Mesa Verde Museum Association’s bookstore. https://www.mesaverde.org/category/books/plants-wildlife.

I continued on to the Ancestral Puebloan tower site.

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Cedar Tree Tower and kiva site.

The ancient ones of that era (A.D. 1100 to 1300) built small stone towers in a number of locations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. Their purpose remains a mystery. Since they are often very near a kiva (a subterranean ceremonial room), they may have had a ceremonial purpose themselves. Or they could have been line of sight with other towers, allowing for signalling with a fire in times of danger. Or to announce: “This area belongs to us — approach in friendship, or else!”

Archaeologists believe that this particular tower was two stories in height. It is located on a high spot on Chapin Mesa (a part of Mesa Verde), with a view in all directions. They farmed this area in corn, beans, and squash. Nearby is a trail to some of the terraces and check dams they built to collect the fertile soil and capture water from rain and snow melt.

View south from Cedar Tree Tower ruin, Mesa Verde.

Looking south toward one of the many deep canyons that dissect Mesa Verde.

Notice all the standing dead trees. This portion of the park was burned by the Long Mesa Fire in 2002. Fire is a natural part of the pinyon pine – juniper high desert forest community, and the Long Mesa Fire was naturally caused, by lightning. However, a century of unnatural fire suppression has caused higher than natural fuel loadings, making such catastrophic fires more likely.

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The kiva adjacent to Cedar Tree Tower. The roof has not been reconstructed.

But it begs the question: Did this area look all that much different when the Puebloans were living here? Their need for wood products was tremendous, both for heating and cooking, as well as roof beams for their pueblos and kivas. There may have not been many trees left nearby.

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By the way, there are no cedar trees on Mesa Verde. The early pioneers thought the Utah juniper trees were cedar trees, as best they knew.

For more information, go to Mesa Verde National Park’s web page about this site:

https://www.nps.gov/meve/learn/historyculture/mt_cedar_tree_tower.htm

Photo Location: Chapin Mesa, in Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

For more of my photography, go to www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

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Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

Square Tower House ruin ancestral pueblo site, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

I am beginning to think that my favorite ancient site in Mesa Verde National Park is Square Tower House.

Oh, it’s famous, all right, being easily viewed from a short walk from the Mesa Top Loop road, which is open year around (weather permitting in winter, of course). But not nearly so famous as Cliff Palace, the largest such cliff dwelling site in the Southwest.

So the other day I again drove out the Mesa Top Loop in the early evening. Springtime. Crowds very light. An early spring, shrubs leafing out.

And at this time of year, with the days lengthening quickly, the sunlight is still low enough that in late afternoon the alcoves (overhanging cliffs) that are facing south are nicely lit up. A great time to visit the park, before the crush of summer crowds.

As far as Square Tower itself, the three story tower dominates the site, as it surely was meant to do. Imagine yourself living at that time. Imagine building that…with nothing but stone tools. No metal tools. No beasts of burden: horses hadn’t yet been introduced to North America by the Spanish. Nothing larger than their dogs. Only human labor and dedication to creating something awesome.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg / Stephen Krieg Photographics