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Least-visited in Mesa Verde: a New Angle on Square Tower House

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Wetherill Mesa is the quieter side of Mesa Verde National Park, but a few other cliff houses see even less visitation, even though they are some of the most visible structures in the park, like Square Tower House. Find out in this post about the most special tours in the park, which started only in the 2010s.

Square Tower House is an impressive three-storied structure located beneath a slightly overhanging cliff. Built in the mid-1200s, it is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde and retained its stature as the tallest man-made structure in America until the mid-1800s. The alcove above Square Tower House is not as deep as those that overhang over the other major cliff houses, and this may be why the builders had to expend the structure upwards.

Because of its height, Square Tower House is one of the most iconic cliff dwellings in the park, and is visible from an overlook reached by a short trail that starts past Navajo Canyon View at the beginning of Mesa Top Loop. Since it is south-facing, the structure is lighted most of the day, but the mid-morning to mid-afternoon light is flat, whereas late-afternoon light creates strong cross-shadows that help define the walls. In the summer, the cliff shades the structure at sunset, but in the winter, the last rays of the sun touch it.

In the entire park, to protect archeological sites and artifacts, hiking is allowed only on designated trails, and visitors may not enter cliff dwellings unless accompanied by a park ranger. Square Tower House was open to the public in the 1930s, but had been off-limits until 2011, when the NPS started a new “special backcountry tour” program.

Although mentioned on the park’s website, backcountry tours are not advertised at the visitor center, and tickets cannot be purchased there. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance on recreation.gov, for a fee of $25/person. Tour groups are limited to 10 visitors, and for each structure included in the program, there are only a few tours offered each week from late May to mid-October, which explain why they can sell out months in advance. In 2018, besides Square Tower House, backcountry tours visited Oak Tree House (another structure visible from an overlook on Mesa Top Loop), Mug House (on Wetherill Mesa, photo below), and the remote Spring House (8 miles RT).

With the tour groups much smaller than regular tours that may include as many as 50 participants and tours and lasting longer, you really get to interact with the rangers if you wish. On our tour, there were two of them, plus a volunteer. One of the rangers was a Native American. I was wondering what he was carrying in a well-padded, thin and long case, until at the end of the tour he pulled out a beautiful wooden flute and played a melody to honor ancestors and thank them for allowing us to visit their home.

Besides taking you to see rarely visited structures, backcountry tours are more adventurous. On the regular tours, you often walk on a paved path. On the Square Tower House tour, we scaled two cliffs using ladders, and on the Mug House, there was a bit of scrambling over rocks.

The tour started at 8 AM, maybe because the tour time is fixed year-round and the early start avoids the heat of the day in summer, but on the last tour of the year, on Oct 13, it was quite chilly, and the structure remained in the shade all the time. That was actually favorable for photography, as reflected light created enough gradations of shade, particularly if one photographed towards the part of the canyon in the sun, using what is the equivalent of cross-lighting.

There was also plenty of time to examine smaller architectural details of the structure, such as an original kiva roof, and while it was a challenge to photograph, especially if excluding modern metal support, it was very cool to see that a construct made of mud laid over wooden beams had traversed so many centuries.

Besides making it possible to appreciate the height of the tower by looking at it from its base, the tour revealed a structure called the Crow’s Nest improbably perched high in a cliff crevice, that can not be seen from the overlook.

Everything adds up to make for a great experience, and I think those are the most special tours available in Mesa Verde National Park.

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