Mesa Verde National Park
PO Box 8
Mesa Verde, CO 81330-0008
Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, about 35 miles from Durango, has thousands of sites that were once inhabited by the Anasazi. Prehistoric dwellings like Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace show how these ancient Native Americans developed a highly advanced civilization 800 years ago.
Entrance fees: $10/vehicle for seven days
Visitor center: Far View Visitor Center is open from mid-April through mid-October.
Other services: Museum, park lodge, and one campground
Accommodations: Morefield Campground (800-449-2288) is open from late April to mid-October; reservations are accepted. Far View Lodge (800-449-2288) is open from mid-April through late October.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park encompasses more than 4,000 prehistoric sites that were used by the people the Navajo call the Anasazi, or "Ancient Ones," who developed an advanced culture and suddenly disappeared hundreds of years ago. The structures and ruins include mesa-top pit houses and pueblos, as well as the ghostly, multistoried cliff villages for which the park is famous. The setting for these deserted ancient villages is what the early Spaniards called the "green tableland," or Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde rises more than 2,000 feet above the surrounding Montezuma Valley. Because of its dry climate, the cliff dwellings are very well preserved. The park is a superb example of both an archaeological preserve and a splendid natural landscape. The top of the mesa is covered with forests of ponderosa, Douglas fir, Gambel's oak, and two-needled pinyon juniper. Scattered herds of mule deer are often seen among the high meadows at sunrise or sunset, as well as wild turkeys, red foxes, and coyotes. Wildflowers -- columbine, Indian paintbrush, and bluebells -- are abundant in the spring, and the fall colors -- especially the russet red of the Gambel oak -- are magnificent.
Although the "Ancient Ones" are long gone, you can still feel their spirits as you walk through these silent buildings that have stood for centuries in their rock alcoves far above the ground. The structures are startlingly intact, as if they are waiting for the return of their builders, who left suddenly about 700 years ago.
The dwellings the Anasazi left behind give modern visitors much to explore and experience. On the next page, learn about the sights you'll see when visiting Mesa Verde National Park.
Sightseeing at Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park encompasses more than 4,000 prehistoric sites that were used by the Anasazi. Because of the dry climate, the cliff dwellings are very well preserved. They are located in sandstone canyons that slice the mesa into narrow tablelands.
The Anasazi built these dwellings in natural alcoves formed by water that had percolated down through the sandstone. When seeping water reached a denser layer of shale, it flowed horizontally through the canyon wall, eroding the cliff into deep, rounded shelters.
Several of the major cliff ruins are open to visitors, who reach them by trails, walkways, and steps that lead down from the mesa top. The silent stone and the mystery of the Anasazi create an experience most people never forget. Novelist Willa Cather experienced the ruins as "more like sculpture than anything else."
Mesa Verde National Park Photo Opportunities
The majestic and ancient dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park are perfect backdrops for landscape photography. Here are some suggestions:
- Cliff Palace: With as many as 200 rooms, this is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Sightseers may visit Cliff Palace only by a ranger-guided tour.
- Spruce Tree House: Spruce Tree House, with 130 rooms and eight kivas, is open for self-guided tours from spring through fall.
- Balcony House: Balcony House, on the Cliff Palace Loop Road, offers two overlooks from which to view dwellings in the canyon below. As with Cliff Palace, visitors who want to see this dwelling up close must do so on a ranger-guided tour.
- Long House: On Wetherill Mesa, Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in the park. A hiking trail leads visitors to overlook spots from which to view this dwelling and several other sites in the area.
Exploring Spruce Tree House Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde's best preserved ruin, is a fine example of Anasazi construction techniques and skillful stonework. You can reach the site by a short paved trail that crosses the canyon floor through a stand of Gambel oak trees, from which the Anasazi harvested nuts.
Believed to have housed 80 people, Spruce Tree House is about 200 feet long and contains eight kivas, three of which have reconstructed roofs. You can climb into one of the kivas through a smoke hole to get a sense of what the dark chamber might have been like during an ancient religious ritual. The dwelling was named by early explorers, who climbed down a tall tree -- which they mistakenly thought was a spruce -- to reach it.
Other equally remarkable and ghostly cliff dwellings in the park include Cliff Palace, the largest pre-Columbian dwelling in North America, and Balcony House. Perched high up in a cliff alcove, Balcony House was easily defended. Visitors to this site face the adventure of climbing up a 32-foot ladder and crawling through a tunnel on their hands and knees.
Mesa Verde has a long history of habitation, going back nearly 2,500 years. On the next page, read more about this area's ancient inhabitants and how more modern explorers discovered their abandoned dwellings.
The History of Mesa Verde
Archaeologists have determined that the people who abandoned the buildings at Mesa Verde were not the first to live in the region. Nearly 2,500 years ago, nomadic hunters and gathers wandered into what is now the southwestern corner of Colorado. There, in the canyons and gullies of a high mesa, they established what was to become an advanced culture that prospered for more than a millennium.
The first people of Mesa Verde lived in caves. Later they dug pit houses into the ground and covered them with logs and mud. These were farmers who grew corn and beans, and they became basket weavers of consummate skill.
By about the eighth century A.D., they were building houses above ground with poles and mud. These apartment buildings, or pueblos, were built on the mesa's top and had as many as 50 rooms, usually arranged in the shape of a crescent. By now, the people had given up baskets and begun making pottery, some of which still survives. Decorated with black and white geometric designs, these pots are remarkable for their artistic expression.
Around A.D.1200, the mesa people moved down into recesses in the cliffs that formed the walls of canyons cut into the mesa. The reasons for the move are unknown today, but archaeologists speculate that the people may have been threatened by tribes of newcomers.
There, they built sturdy, compact apartment buildings with as many as four stories and 50 rooms -- the Cliff Palace had 150 to 200 rooms. Many of the buildings had courtyards with kivas dug into them. These underground chambers, which are reminiscent of their ancestors' first dwellings on the mesa's top, were used for religious ceremonies.
Although their culture was surprisingly advanced, with complex trade networks supplying such goods as turquoise and shells from as far away as the Pacific Coast, life was harsh for the people of the cliff dwellings, and few lived beyond the age of 35.
In the 13th century, the cliff-dwelling people began to leave their homes. By the end of the century, all of them were gone, never to return. Why did they go? Archaeologists once thought they were overtaken by enemies, but there is no evidence of warfare.
Today, many believe that the Anasazis' farming methods may have been so productive that the population grew too swiftly, reaching as many as 5,000 people on Mesa Verde alone. Gradually, this huge population would have taken its toll on the environment. Game would have been hunted out, the soil would have become depleted, and the surrounding woodlands would have been cut away. Years of drought and poor crops would have been the final blow.
Two cowboys discovered the ruins in 1888. Tracking wandering cattle through a snowstorm on top of the mesa, they stopped on the edge of a steep canyon. Through the snow they could see the faint outline of the walls and towers of what looked like a huge palace of stone on the far side of the canyon.
Excited about their discovery, they made a makeshift ladder and climbed down to the deserted cliff city, exploring its ghostly network of deserted rooms, where they found such artifacts as tools and pottery. Their condition was so good that some of the items were still usable. They named the dwelling Cliff Palace, and archaeologists later determined that no one had stood in the rooms explored by the cowboys for nearly six centuries.
Modern visitors to Mesa Verde can share in the wonder of discovery felt by those early explorers. The cliff dwellings inspire awe in visitors today, just as they did hundreds of years ago.
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