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Mesa Verde National Park's 700 Years Tour (by Aramark)

Mesa Verde National Park's 700 Years Tour (by Aramark)


By avatar  Stacy
Posted On 02/22/2019 17:35:04
Trip Date 10/17/2018  

Destinations | Camping | Hiking | Colorado | Mancos | What to see and do at Mesa Verde | Mesa Verde National Park Tours | Cliff Palace | Balcony House Tour



During a phone call to Aramark to make an adjustment to the dates for our camping reservations, I spoke to Jill who recommended a guided tour to enhance our visit. Since she was so helpful and the tour sounded like a great introduction to the park, we made a reservation for the two of us.

If you have plans to visit Mesa Verde National Park, check out this post for our review of the 700 Years Tour. We start with a overview of the tour, provide details about each of the stops along the route and wrap up with our "WE Did It!" evaluation. By the end of the post, you'll be able to answer the question of whether or not this tour is right for you and your traveling companions.



Overview of 700 Years Tour

The 4 hour long 700 Years Tour begins at the Far View Lodge with a second pick-up point at Far View Terrace. Operating mid-April through mid-October, the tour provides an overview of the time period between about 600 AD until the latter part of the 1200's. In addition to commentary during the ride in an air conditioned motor coach, guided visits are made to sites in both the Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop.

Our guide was quite interesting and learning a little about archaeological digs was fascinating. I was definitely intrigued with her sharing that "when archaeologists dig, we know when we've found something ... as it just feels different!" During our time together, we got a good baseline understanding of the life and times of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi). In addition to the optional stop for an awesome ranger-led cliff-dwelling tour, we made five stops, each requiring short walks to the various archaeological sites



Pithouse

The Pithouse remains were still being excavated at our first stop so they didn't look like much more than dirt in the ground. Hearing and reading about the earliest homes in the park, however, was rather interesting. Since the Ancestral Puebloans lived in the area year round (not just during "peak visitor season"), they built their homes partially underground to help keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Named for the 600 AD pre-pottery time period known for finely crafted baskets, the homes were also referred to as Basket Maker III Houses. Made of adobe, stone and/or wood, each structure typically had two chambers consisting of a large "main chamber" which served as the living space and a smaller "antechamber" thought to be used for storage.


Pithouse at Mesa Verde National Park

Pithouse at Mesa Verde National Park

Navajo Canyon

Our second stop was just long enough to catch a glimpse of the 600 foot deep Navajo Canyon through the very dirty windows of the coach.


Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park

Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park

Pueblo II and III Period Homes

The remains that we saw on our next stop to look at "homes" were 300 - 500 years newer ... and a bit easier to visualize too! The earlier pithouses evolved into single story structures by around 750 AD. Then, unlike before, during the Pueblo II period (circa 900 - 1150 AD), homes were clustered around multi-story central community structures which included "great houses" and kivas (round chambers), often constructed of masonry. These public buildings included space for ceremonies and meetings as well as central storage and distribution/trade areas. By this time, pottery had been introduced as well as ancient roads connecting some communities.


Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park

Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace Overlook

Before splitting into two groups (hikers and not), we made a brief toilet stop at one of the overlooks in the Mesa Top Loop. A few of us found a path that took us out to a viewpoint where we caught our first glimpse of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park which is often listed as one of the must see places to visit in a lifetime.


View of Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace from Overlook

View of Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace from Overlook

At this point, each participant on the tour had to make a decision as to which of two options they preferred for the next 1 1/2 hours:

  • join a ranger-led tour of a cliff dwelling (normally the tour is of Cliff Palace, however Balcony House was substituted during our visit due to preservation work underway); or
  • tour the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and see the view from Spruce Tree Overlook.



Optional Ranger-Led Tour of Balcony House

We joined about half of the passengers on the ranger-led hike which took us to Balcony House. (The remaining passengers opted to skip the required climbing up and down long ladders and crawling through a short tunnel that was required to get into and out of the cliff-dwelling.) After exiting the coach, our guide waited until we were linked up with the ranger who took those of us from the 700 Years Tour along with others who only purchased tickets for Balcony House.

Balcony House is located in an alcove with the meeting point for the tour actually sitting above the cliff dwelling. Other than the ranger-led tour, the only place to get a look at Balcony House is from Soda Canyon Overlook just a little further up the Cliff Palace Loop road . Although the distant view avoids climbing and crawling, it does require hiking.

After a brief introduction, our ranger guide collected tickets and we began our descent so that we could then climb the 32 foot ladder up to Balcony House. Getting to the top was a little bit of a slow process with a group of our size, but once at the top, we were actually inside the cliff dwelling.


Climbing up to Balcony House in Mesa Verde National Park

Climbing up to Balcony House in Mesa Verde National Park

Built in the 13th century, the medium sized Balcony House is nicely preserved. Our tour allowed us to see the kivas, plazas and rooms occupied about 800 years ago. It was amazing to see the elaborate construction of this community made of blocks shaped from sandstone and held together by mortar made from dirt and water. The ceilings and walls blackened with smoke are evidence of fires used for cooking and providing warmth so many years ago.


Sandstone Blocks forming Rooms at Balcony House

Sandstone Blocks forming Rooms at Balcony House

Balcony House Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park

Balcony House Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park

Before the conclusion of our tour, we each had to crawl through a 12 foot long tunnel that was only 18 inches wide.


Exiting the Tunnel in Mesa Verde Park's Balcony House

Exiting the Tunnel in Mesa Verde Park's Balcony House

It is the tunnel, passageways between rooms, stone steps and ladders required to both enter and exit the cliff dwelling that cause the tour to often be described as "the most adventurous" in the park.


Exit Ladder from Balcony House

Exit Ladder from Balcony House

Before rejoining our original group on the bus, we had one final view of the canyon.


Mesa Verde National Park's Soda Canyon

Mesa Verde National Park's Soda Canyon

Optional Self-Guided Tour of Museum and Spruce Tree Overlook

Those wishing to avoid crawling and climbing stayed on the coach where they completed the Cliff Palace Loop and then drove a short distance back toward our starting point. They had just under an hour to watch the introductory movie, explore the exhibits and shop in the bookstore all located in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Before returning to pick up passengers who chose the Balcony House tour, they also had an opportunity to get a view of Spruce Tree House which has been closed to visitors due to falling rocks. Third in size behind Cliff Palace and Long House, this dwelling has 8 kivas and about 130 rooms. Named for the Douglas Spruce tree (now called Douglas Fir) that was originally growing in front, it is thought that entrance to the dwelling required a climb down the tree.



Cliff Palace View

Once the entire group was back together on the bus, we wrapped up our tour with one final stop at the Cliff Palace View Camera Point.


Cliff Palace View Camera Point

Cliff Palace View Camera Point

It is estimated that from the time that the Ancestral Puebloans began moving from the mesa to the alcoves (1200 AD) until about 1250 AD, there were over 30 cliff dwellings. Each was a real community full of people of all ages living their life - just a bit more primitively than our life today. From the viewpoint, we got a bird's eye view of a couple of the other cliff dwellings in the Cliff and Fewkes Canyon area.


Cliff Dwelling Remains at Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Dwelling Remains at Mesa Verde National Park

More Cliff Dwelling Remains at Mesa Verde National Park

More Cliff Dwelling Remains at Mesa Verde National Park

It is thought that the 150 room Cliff Palace was home to 100 people of all ages who each helped with labor in order to survive. With 23 kivas, the dwelling is believed to have been popular for ceremonies and other social and administrative activities. Since the cliff dwelling is closed to visitors, the next best thing to being on a guided tour is seeing Cliff Palace in the distance!


View from Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace View Camera Point

View from Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace View Camera Point

The "WE Did It!" Evaluation

While the Wordy Explorers enjoyed the 700 Years Tour, if we knew all that we now know following our visit, we would not recommend this tour to those with only one day to explore Mesa Verde National Park. Here's why:
  • The park maps available online and upon entrance to the park make it easy to navigate around the park in your own vehicle.
  • Signage within the park is excellent, and will allow you to learn much of what we learned during our tour at no cost other than the park entrance fee - the downside is that you do have to read!
  • When touring the park on your own, you can go at your own pace - if you want to stay at a site longer to explore more, just do it. (Or, if you don't need a restroom break, you don't have to stop and wait for others!)
  • Currently advertised at $75.00 for adults and $55.00 per child aged 5 - 11, in our opinion the tour is rather expensive for what you get. Don't forget that entrance to the park is not included in the tour, so if you don't have an America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass, add another $20.00 for up four people traveling in one car.
  • The highlight of our tour, the ranger-led tour of Balcony House (or Cliff Palace when it reopens), is the exact same tour led by the exact same guide that all park visitors can join. (Tickets do sell out and must be purchased in person at a cost of only $5.00 per person. Be sure to inquire about availability at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center as soon as you enter the park!)

If, however, you have more than a day and enjoy guided tours (or dislike reading), the 700 Years Tour may be just the ticket to enhance your visit to Mesa Verde National Park. As the tour is currently only offered at 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM and begins at the Far View Lodge, consider joining the tour soon after your arrival at the park. The tour will give you a good baseline of information of the Anasazi people (and you'll be able to skip reading much of the information in the park). We'd also recommend being on the lookout for discounts - there was a discount advertised on the 700 Years Tour website for afternoon tours during our visit.



Camping in Mesa Verde National Park

If you plan to spend some time in Mesa Verde National Park in your tent or RV, be sure to check out our review of the only campground located within the boundaries of the park. Titled Review: Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde National Park, you'll find some photos of the campground along with an overview of the amenities as well as our favorite full hook-up RV sites.

Touring Historical Sites

When you have the option of joining a guided tour or touring a historical site on your own, which do you typically prefer and why?




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Mesa Verde National Park's 700 Years Tour (by Aramark)











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