The Ruins Everybody Sees - Mesa Verde | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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Wetherill Discovery
Cliff walls in southern Colorado hide the ruins everyone thinks of when they hear ‘Anasazi‘. Richard Wetherill’s brother Al actually saw the Mesa Verde ruins first one day in 1887, but since it was late and he was tired, Al turned away and headed back to camp after catching a glimpse. It would be another year before Richard and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason would return to explore Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House and other cliff dwellings.


Square Tower House

Prehistoric Life
Humans lived on Mesa Verde long before they began building cliff dwellings out of stone. The home-grown residents may have acquired agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle from Arizona migrants, who brought seeds and knowledge sometime after 6000 B.C.

Dependence on agriculture instead of hunting and gathering wild food solidified after 500 B.C. Farmers began building wood-roofed pithouses for shelter near their crops, the start of Pueblo living. Because they now had food reliably sourced from farming, population took off, almost forcing people to cluster in communities. Great Kivas began to appear, likely used for community events and religious ceremonies. The bow and arrow replaced spear and atlatl for hunting. Pottery replaced baskets for storage, cooking and trade. This was the start of the Chacoan system centered to the south of Mesa Verde, and profoundly affecting it.

Cliff Palace

Reaction To Violence?
Southwestern cliff dwellings may have been a reaction to violence across the region, in the wake of drought, depleted game and other resources, and fighting over what was left between 1130 and 1300. The best-known Mesa Verde ruins all date from that time, and they’re all built in defensible cliff locations, away from supporting farmland. Balcony House and Long House had seep springs at the back of their alcoves, providing year-round water for residents in a protected setting.

You’ll Need A Tour
Today, the only way to see popular Mesa Verde ruins is on a ranger-led tour. You can hike unaccompanied in the backcountry, but you’ll share trails with many of this national park’s 500,000+ annual visitors during the summer season. You’ll also encounter daytime temperatures in the mid- to upper 80s. Visiting outside the summer season is your best bet to beat the crowds and heat. Since most ruins are closed between early to late October and early to late May, you have a brief September window to see them in relative solitude.

Cliff Palace Tour

There’s Gonna Be People…
You’ll also need to either accept the presence of people in photographs or find angles to make them disappear. During an October tour of Cliff Palace, I waited for my tour group to move out of pictures I wanted. This meant shooting mostly the north side and center of the ruin, since the tour group moved north to south and I needed to avoid being left behind. I also shot above the group, but this eliminated thr low foreground. I also captured shots including the tour group to tell the entire story, but had to be satisfied with shooting around the limitations.

Spruce Tree House was open when I was there in 2009, but is closed as of February 2016, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future due to rock falls.

Restored kiva interior, Spruce Tree House

If you’re looking for a more relaxed, solitary exploration and high-quality photography of Anasazi ruins, go elsewhere. Although it’s well worth a look, Mesa Verde won’t give them to you.

Shot Notes
I used Leica prime lenses from 21mm to 90mm on a Leica M8 camera and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L on a Canon EOS 5D mk II dSLR. I sometimes mounted an EF 24mm f/3.5 TS-E lens on the 5D mk II camera to eliminate converging vertical lines from tilting the camera. The wide zoom worked well for most pictures, taking care to avoid shooting people located both close and far in the same image.

The 16-35mm and other wide-angle lenses tend to distort shapes in the corners, so I avoided placing peoples’ heads there. While the 5D mk II has excellent high-ISO and auto white balance performance, the M8 gives unusably-noisy results above ISO 2500. I braced against walls and trees wherever I could and shot at ISO 1250 and below with the M8. I used flash to ‘pop up’ the foreground for impact in some pictures.

Desert View - Mesa Verde

Desert View – Mesa Verde

Lekson, Stephen, A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, 2009

McNitt, Frank, Anasazi: Pioneer Explorer of Southwestern Ruins, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1966

Mesa Verde National Park Guided Tours, accessed from

Peoples Of The Mesa Verde Region, accessed from