If you were one of the unfortunate Ancestral Pueblo people who happened to have a fear of heights, well, you probably didn't get out much. The cliff dwellings at what's now known as Mesa Verde National Park certainly would've made you wish for a less lofty home. Now, these sprawling structures in the sky attract adventure seekers and history lovers from around the world.
Sandstone blocks and wooden beams make up these gravity-defying structures, which are built right into the steep and spectacular cliffs of southwest Colorado, tucked away in rocky alcoves underneath jagged clifftops. Mortar made from ash, soil and water fills in the gaps. And though their hues have long since disappeared, some rooms were painted brilliant colors like yellow, red, pink and white for further touches of beauty.
To preserve these structures, the park was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Mesa Verde was the seventh park to be added to the country's roster, a year after Wind Cave National Park and four years prior to Glacier National Park. It's the only national park formed to protect a historic cultural site as opposed to a natural space.
In designating the site as a national park, Roosevelt aimed to preserve the heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo communities that thrived here for seven centuries, from around 550 to 1300 C.E.
To this day, no one's certain why an entire community abandoned their hard-earned homes – nearly 600 of them in all. The 150-room Cliff Palace, a 26-foot (8-meter) behemoth, is the structure most associated with the park – it's likely the biggest cliff dwelling on the continent, tucked into an alcove far above the ground. In total, the park contains more than 5,000 archaeological sites, making it the biggest preserve of its kind in the country. What's more, there may be thousands of sites still undiscovered.
Due to its historical importance, as well as the mind-boggling trove of architectural and perishable materials in the alcoves, Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 24 in the United States.
Visitors can roam some areas unattended; for others, like tours of specific buildings and tunnels, you must register for ranger-led tours.
Colorado University Boulder assistant professor Scott Ortman says the cliff dwellings were the homes of Ancestral Pueblo families and often the central gathering places of larger communities. For example, at Sun Point View in the park you can see many contemporaneous settlements in adjacent canyons that were part of a single community.
"It is important to emphasize that, while the settlements in the alcoves are much better preserved, the vast majority of ancient settlements in the park occur on the mesa tops and talus slopes outside of the alcoves," Ortman says via email. In other words, the cliff structures were in the minority in this community. "Most of the structures you see in the alcoves today date from the final century of occupation, but earlier structures were likely periodically razed and rebuilt, and this is why the archaeological record of the alcoves is somewhat biased toward the final period."