SERIES – PHOTOS OF A FAMILY ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE
With over 600 cliff dwellings and archeological sites contained within it’s boundaries, Mesa Verde National Park is a treasure trove of an ancient people’s history in the American Southwest. However, the vast majority of Mesa Verde’s amazing archeological sites are not open to the public, or are extremely limited in opportunity to explore.
One such archeological site is the Oak Tree House cliff dwelling. Closed to outside explorers most of the year, Mesa Verde National Park sometimes opens the trails for a rare glimpse inside this ancient cliff dwelling. And that is where we we begin today’s family road trip adventure. Get ready for a very special tour of Oak Tree House!
On The Trail to Oak Tree House Cliff Dwelling
Lead by very knowledgeable Mesa Verde Park Rangers, an Oak Tree House tour is well worth the nominal per-person fee charged. Tours are usually limited to no more than 12 intrepid explorers at a time, making each tour a very intimate and exciting experience.
For the vast majority of Mesa Verde visitors, this is as close as one gets to the Oak Tree House cliff dwelling – a telephoto camera shot from the opposite side of the canyon. For those who are successful in reserving a spot in a ranger lead tour, this is the beginning of a most unique, very limited, and oh-so-special, adventure in Mesa Verde National Park.
Though relatively short at about one mile, the fairly strenuous trail to Oak Tree House leads hikers beneath the canyon ledge, hugging canyon walls and skirting steep drop-offs. Along the way, hikers descend down two ladders and traverse narrow steps carved into sandstone walls.
The trail itself is part of the Oak Tree House experience. Witness ancient hand-holds carved into nearby sandstone walls, remnants of an ancient people who also traversed these trails. Look up above, where Mummy House is perched high up on a impossibly narrow cliff ledge. Watch for a trailside water reservoir that was once a source of water for the community.
Leave modern society behind as the trail traverses further beneath the ledge. Stand at the cliff’s edge for an incredible, amazing, beneath-the-rim view of Cliff Canyon, with Cliff Palace and Sunset House off in the nearby distance. Ponder walking these very trails a thousand years ago. How long would it take to visit your neighbors on the other side of the cliff?
Inside the Ruins of Oak Tree House
Then, just like that, the Oak Tree House cliff dwelling seemingly appears out of no where. Built upon two ledges, this ancient engineering marvel once consisted of close to 60 rooms, and is one of the largest cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.
Today we are fortunate to step inside this ancient dwelling. Oak Tree House is well preserved, considering how old and how exposed to the elements it is. Yet, it is still quite fragile, as one might expect of a cliff dwelling nearly a thousand years old!
Archeologists believe that Oak Tree House was constructed during the late 1190’s to early 1200’s. Wow. Imagine the effort it must have taken for these ancient engineers to transport from the plateau far above to this alcove, the necessary supplies to build their community.
Gaze directly into an ancient kiva, one of six found at Oak Tree House. Contemplate why the kiva included what appears to be a grain grinding room, something not often seen at the bottom of such ceremonial structures.
Imagine the effort required every single day simply to provide food and water for those who lived at Oak Tree House. Most food was probably grown or hunted on the plateaus high above, and were then transported back down to the cliff dwelling via the same trails we see today.
Today, no food or drink (besides water) is allowed within the Oak Tree House cliff dwelling. Food crumbs left behind can attract rodents and other small critters to this extremely fragile site, putting it at risk of further damage.
The ancient people who lived in this cliff-side alcove utilized every nook and cranny available to them. Alcove floor space was maximized with retaining walls. The ledges above the alcove were built upon as well, further maximizing living spaces in Oak Tree House.
Imagine living in this ancient community beneath the cliff. Examine the structures left behind. Most were build of sandstone, held together by adobe mortar, evidence of ancient adobe plaster upon the walls still seen today. How were logs such as this timber once used to hold up a roof, brought to Oak Tree House?
Everywhere one turns are glimpses into a previous life. From the charred black soot high above the alcove walls, giving evidence of smokey fires that once burned here, to the shards of pottery still strewn about along the trails beneath your feet, evidence of life long gone from these cliffs still surrounds those who enter Oak Tree House.
A nearby midden provides a treasure trove of a fragmented ancient life, and a modern day glimpse into an abandoned community. Hold in your hands the remnants of a life left behind, of a civilization now found only in history books. Examine a piece of white pottery decorated with black designs. Is there a significance to the design? Oh so many questions remain about this ancient life in ruins beneath the cliffs!
Booking An Oak Tree House Tour
Access to Oak Tree House is only available via a Mesa Verde park ranger-lead tour. Due to the fragile nature of the site, a very limited number of tours are offered in any given year, and are typically limited to 12 people. If you plan to visit Mesa Verde National Park, and would like to tour Oak Tree House, book your reservation as early as possible. They fill up quickly!
Oak Tree House tour reservations are made through Recreation.Gov, not the National Park Service. If you want to experience Oak Tree House as we did, or any other Mesa Verde Back Country hike, reserve your spot early as many tours fill up far in advance.
Have You Toured Oak Tree House?
Oak Tree House was just the beginning of our adventure packed day in Mesa Verde National Park. Though we knew immediately that Oak Tree House was special, we didn’t realize the full extent of the amazing opportunity we had to explore this incredible archeological site until much later in the day.
How about you? Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? Were you able to get off the beaten path and explore a cliff dwelling not often open to the public? Did you see Oak Tree House up close? Do share your Mesa Verde experience!
Stay tuned for more about our day in Mesa Verde National Park!
Catch the rest of the Series – Photos of A Family Road Trip Adventure:
- Road Tripping in Colorado and Utah – Photos of a Family Adventure
- Exploring Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado.
- A Fascinating Experience at Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM
- Welcome to The Iconic Four Corners Monument, USA!
- Mesa Verde National Park – Snapshots of an Amazing, Enlightening Experience
- Inside Animus Forks – A Colorado Mining Ghost Town Experience
- A Day of Experiences In Canyons of The Ancients & Hovenweep Nat’l Monuments
- Hiking Into The Devil’s Garden – Arches National Park
- 5 Favorite Moments – A Photo Journey Through Arches National Park
- Exploring Sego Canyon’s Ancient Rock Art & Historic Ghost Town
All images by C.Biederman.