After driving an impressive 21 miles from the park’s entrance I had reached Spruce Tree House, the best preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. During the summer months Spruce House is a self-guided tour, although there is a ranger stationed there to answer any questions. Minus the entrance fee to the park, Spruce House is free to visit, unlike its counterparts Cliff Palace and Balcony House ($4 USD fee for each tour). Spruce Tree House is the third largest of the 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde.
I took the ½ mile (1km) zig-zag trail down the hillside from the museum and found myself at the entrance of Spruce House. As it was early in the morning there was less foot traffic in the cliff dwelling which made for better photo taking.
The alcove measures in at 216 feet long (66 m) by 89 feet deep (27 m) and houses 120 rooms along with 8 kivas. Although unknown for sure, archaeologists believe the kivas were used for gathering places for the 60 to 90 people who lived in Spruce Tree House. It was shocking to me to think that so many people could live in such a small area but I am sure people from the future will be surprised by the amount of people who live in tiny apartments in New York City, all on top of each other.
Spruce Tree House had a pamphlet with numbered stops along with short blurbs about the spot you were looking at. The most interesting to me was stop number 6, where I got to climb down a ladder into a kiva.
As I stood inside the kiva I got a real sense of what it could have been like for the ancient Pueblos. The roof had since been recreated based on roofs that were still intact at Square Tower House and Long House, other cliff dwellings inside the park.
It was hard to imagine not being smoked out when a fire would have been burning but the Pueblos had quite a sophisticated air filtration process. As explained in the pamphlet, fresh air would come in through the ventilator as the smoke would rise through the kiva’s roof, through the entrance hole the Pueblos would enter the kiva.
There were ruminates of fires burned elsewhere other than the kivas as spots on the ceilings had a dark charred soot left behind. Fires were used for cooking, light and heating. Although no blueprint was left behind archaeologists have pieced together what was left behind to gain an understanding of what the rooms were used for as well as what the Pueblos’ diet was.
Another interesting observation were the doors throughout Spruce Tree House. They were not the rectangle shape that we are accustomed to, but a T shape. It was believed that they built them in a T shape as to allow more room for the person carrying a large load through the doorway. A pretty genius idea if you ask me and I am sure anyone would agree if you have tried to move an overstuffed sofa through a current rectangle shaped doorway. It takes some shimming.
The Pueblos who lived at Spruce Tree House moved out between the 1280 to 1300 AD. There is no explanation as to why they left, again speculation of a drought and/or an uprising between the different groups who inhabited the cliff dwellings. For the most part the Pueblos move on to northern Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, however acknowledge Spruce Tree House as the home of their ancestors.
As I still had time before my ranger led tour of Balcony House I decided to take the Mesa Top Loop drive where there are examples of pit houses, dating back to 600 AD which are the first settlements in the Mese Verde valley before the Pueblos moved their homes into the cliff dwellings. Although they did not leave the pit houses completely behind as it is believed that pit houses inspired the kivas.
It was interesting trying to spot the cliff dwellings among the cliff walls and forest. Most of them that you are looking at are across a canyon, but you can still see quite a bit of detail. A stop to see Cliff Palace is a must do while there and is stunning as to be expected.