Archaeological Restoration in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14296A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Help Mesa Verde National Park archaeologists restore an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling
  • Tour spectacular archaeological sites in Mesa Verde, some not available to the general public


  • All food, park entrance fees, and camping fees
  • Tools, training, and instruction for our restoration project


DatesSep 7–13, 2014
StaffLawrence Wiseman

Trip Overview

The Trip

Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado between Cortez and Durango. Our restoration work will begin on Monday, September 8. Please arrive no later than Sunday, September 7 by 3 p.m. when the outing officially begins with introductions, a briefing, and meeting our host archaeologist. For those who can arrive by Sunday morning, we will have the day to tour several excellent sites, beginning by 10 a.m. Snacks will be available Sunday noon and full meals will begin that evening.

Our base camp will be adjacent to Morefield Campground, the Park’s main camping area. This is a scenic campground with bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables, and an abundance of wildlife in the area -- mule deer, coyotes, elk, black bear. Showers are available at the camp store nearby.

Restoration work includes a variety of tasks, such as mixing mortar, repointing cracks between wall stones, and cleaning and resetting stones.  Most of what we do is not physically demanding and our archaeologist hosts will show us exactly how to do it.

We will take Friday off to hike or tour the area. Depending upon the archaeologists’ schedules, we most likely will visit sites not usually open to the public, such as Mug House on Wetherill Mesa. If time allows, you may visit Cliff Palace or Balcony House, two of the more famous cliff dwellings in all of the Southwest.

The Project

This year we will be working on one of the cliff dwellings. The past four years, our projects have involved repointing kivas, rooms, and outside walls at various mesa top ruins: Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, and Cedar Tree Tower. It is very likely there will be a variety of work to do including repointing, mortar mixing, and cleaning and replacing stones in walls. An update on the actual project site will be sent to participants as soon as the archaeologists determine where they want us to work. 


A typical day starts early with coffee at 6 a.m. followed by breakfast. After breakfast, we pack lunches that we will eat later at the work site. The workday begins around 8 a.m. and ends usually by 4 p.m. when we return to camp to prepare dinner.

On Saturday, September 13, there will be no organized activity after breakfast other than breaking camp. You can expect to be on the road to your next adventure or heading home by 9 a.m. Some volunteers spend the rest of the day in the Park, visiting sites they did not see during the week.



Getting There

There are airports in both Cortez, CO (about 15 miles west of the Mesa Verde entrance) and Durango, CO (about 40 miles east), but no larger cities are nearby.  If you fly into either of these locations, take Hwy. 160 to the Mesa Verde exit.  Other alternative small airports include Moab, UT (140 miles west) and Grand Junction, CO (170 miles north).  Larger airports are in Denver, CO and Albuquerque, NM.  Many volunteers the past four years have found Durango to be a good and a convenient destination by air.

If you are driving, there is much scenic country in the southwest corner of Colorado, including Hovenweep National Monument to the west, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the north, and Great Sand Dunes National Park to the east.  In nearby southern Utah, you will find Natural Bridges National Monument as well as Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

When you arrive at the entry station, indicate to the ranger that you are part of the Sierra Club Archaeological Service team and they will direct you to the appropriate camping area.

Accommodations and Food


We will be camped in the Mesa Verde seasonal employees camping area (the Navajo Loop) near the ranger residences. These are quality, individual campsites with water on tap for cooking, cleaning, and washing. There are picnic tables, fire pits, toilets, and garbage service.  If you are driving, you may bring whatever camping gear you want to establish a comfortable or even luxury camp for yourself. If you wish to bring a camper or travel trailer, please make prior arrangements with the group leader.

If you are flying in, you might want to consider ridesharing from a local airport and stopping to pick up a camp chair. Please remember this is high desert at 7,000 feet elevation. The weather will probably be good, but heat, cold, rain, wind, and thunder storms can occur at any time so bring good quality camping equipment as well as durable, packable rain gear.


Meals will be served family style and we will have vegetarian-friendly options for those who wish them.  We prepare food on two propane two-burner stoves, as well as a propane grill, and serve out of a large commissary supply box -- but you must bring your own personal eating bowls or plates, cups, and cutlery.

If you have any special dietary limitations or restrictions, please discuss them with the leader. Before the trip, a food survey will be sent to all participants. 

Trip Difficulty

The location and accommodations in the camp make the tenting and food preparation portion of the trip easy.

The desert can be hot or cold, windy or calm, dry or wet at this time of the year.  In fact, all of these conditions can arise in a single day!  You can best prepare for every possibility by bringing a wide variety of clothing and by drinking adequate quantities of water during the trip.  We purposely schedule this outing after the busy summer tourist season (also after the wet summer monsoon season) and before the colder fall weather arrives.  Typically the weather is sunny and mild with light winds during the day, and cool at night.  There is always a chance of a late-summer rain storm, so be prepared with good quality, waterproof tents, sleeping bags, and rain gear.

The archaeologists will direct our efforts and participants should select work they are comfortable doing.  Most of the work involves pushing mortar into the gaps between structural stones with your fingers or small trowels and thus is not physically difficult.  This process allows participants time to really get a feel for what it was like to live and work in these structures a thousand years ago.  It also allows time to interact and talk with others working in the same area, and to learn from the archaeologists.

The work is not demanding, but you will have a much better time if you are in good physical condition and can readily handle four days of outdoor work on your feet.  Although no prior experience with mortar and ruins restoration is required, preference will be given to those who have done this or similar work before.  The leader will be happy to talk with you about the nature of the work.  We will provide restoration and safety training prior to working on the project.  Also, experienced participants from prior outings will be present to help you, and the Mesa Verde archaeologists have worked with us and trained us for four years.  They are experienced collaborators with our groups.

Each participant will be asked to assist with preparation of several group meals.  For each meal, a leader will direct the work so no special cooking talent is required. Duties will include locating food, cutting and chopping, cooking and serving, cleaning up, and reboxing food for safe storage from animals.

Equipment and Clothing

The equipment list below spells out everything you will need for this location at this time of year. Essentially this is luxury car camping, so feel free to bring whatever equipment, special snacks, food, drink, and clothing you need to be comfortable.

You must bring your own cup, bowl or plate, dishes, water bottles (at least two one-liter bottles), and cutlery for meals, as well as a container or sealable plastic bag for your lunch.

All tools will be supplied by the National Park Service, but many people like to bring their own compass, binoculars, GPS, and digital camera to record the work.  Although vinyl and latex gloves will be supplied, you should bring a pair of your own leather work gloves.  They are  good for carrying rocks and for possible weeding around structures before we begin mortar work.

All the cooking equipment for group meals will be provided.  

  • Tent (water-proof, three-season is a good choice, with rain fly and bug screen)
  • Tent hammer (much better than a rock) and strong stakes
  • Sleeping bag (bring an extra sheet or insert in case it gets warm or too cold)
  • Sleeping pad/pillow (air mattresses sleep cold; closed cell foam is much better)
  • Headlamp (very important for breakfast duty and late-night bathroom visits)
  • Bowl, plate, thermal cup, cutlery, water bottles (at least two one-liter, nonbreakable bottles)
  • Knife, first-aid supplies
  • Reusable plastic container for lunch

Personal gear:

  • Daypack (large enough for two liters of water, lunch, and personal hiking and rain gear)
  • Boots
  • Comfortable camp shoes
  • Long-sleeved, light-colored cotton or poly shirts (at least two)
  • Long-legged pants (jeans or other work pants are fine)
  • Leather work gloves
  • Camp clothes (T-shirts, shorts, etc.)
  • Socks and underwear
  • Wide-brim sun hat and perhaps a baseball cap
  • Sunglasses and a pair of safety glasses for work (or regular eyeglasses)
  • Sunscreen, lip conditioner with sun block, hand cream (mortar work makes for dry hands)
  • Toiletries, hand sanitizer, towel
  • Insect repellant (usually not required, but conditions vary from year to year)
  • Rain gear (tops and bottoms to be carried in daypack)

Optional gear:

  • Camp chair (very important! the trip leaders will have a few extra)
  • Reading materials (the trip leaders will have a variety of books on Mesa Verde and the region)
  • Jacket or warm shirt for the cool evenings and mornings
  • Pen and paper
  • Maps for day hikes (you can obtain these locally)
  • Camera
  • Hiking poles (for possible Sunday hike and Friday exploration)
  • Binoculars
  • Compass



If you do some reading and research before coming, you will have a better time. You can find many excellent books on Mesa Verde at your local library, but here are a few we have found to be helpful/interesting.

  • Fiero, Kathleen, Dirt, Water, Stone: A Century of Preserving Mesa Verde.
  • Howard, William G., Douglas J. Hamilton, and Kathleen L. Howard, Photographing Mesa Verde: Nordenskiold and Now.
  • Lekson, Stephen H., A History of the Ancient Southwest.
  • Noble, David Grant, ed., The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Pueblo Archaeology.
  • Nordenskiold, G., The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde (reprinted by Mesa Verde Museum Association.
  • Plog, Stephen, Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest, 2nd ed.
  • Sagstetter, Beth and Bill, The Cliff Dwellings Speak: Exploring the Ancient Ruins of the Greater American Southwest.



Mesa Verde is one of the best known and most extensive Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in this country. Some of these ruins are substantial and it remains an ongoing challenge to maintain them. Because many of these sites are completely exposed to the elements (wind, rain, freezing and thawing, vegetation, insects, rodents), the mud mortar within the masonry joints eventually erodes and must be replaced to guarantee the integrity of the architecture.

Our ongoing Sierra Club Service project at Mesa Verde is a true hands-on experience that seldom is extended to members of the general public. It provides a rare opportunity for volunteers to participate in a significant archaeological conservation effort. As a participant in this endeavor, you will be contributing to the preservation of some of the best examples of Mesa Verde-style architecture in the entire Southwest!

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



Larry Wiseman has been exploring Canyonlands and the Southwest for 35 years, including 11 Sierra Club archaeological service outings and a Cataract Canyon tamarisk removal trip. He has run a couple of marathons and nine half marathons to stay in physical shape, attended a 10-day meditation retreat to stay in mental shape, and taught two Rock Art courses. A retired Professor and Chair of Biology, his ongoing post-retirement project is finding and photographing rock art birds -- especially owls -- in the Southwest and Central Rocky Mountains. He and his wife split the year between Williamsburg, Virginia, and Fort Collins, Colorado, where he continues to teach Cell Biology.

Assistant Leader:

Nancy Wiseman has been visiting, hiking, and camping in Utah and Colorado for more than 30 years, including recent service trips in Canyonlands and Mesa Verde National Parks. She and her husband continue to look for rock art owls in the desert and mountains of the Southwest. A licensed professional counselor with her own business in Williamsburg, Virginia, she spends time each year at her second home in northern Colorado as well as with her daughter, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, in southern Wyoming.

Assistant Leader:

Dan Schmidt has been backpacking and volunteering for service trips in the Four Corners area since 1995. He has been on all the Mesa Verde trips. He is a retired foundry metallurgical and quality engineer. In his retirement, he sings with an 80-voice choral ensemble that performs great works of choral literature. He is also an amateur Native American Flute player, often adding a special sensibility to our week in the beautiful Southwest.

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