Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Step into the past and experience the lives of one of America’s oldest cultures, the Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural. There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 5,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

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These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Unique in the park system, Mesa Verde is the first and only park created for the protection and preservation of archaeological resources and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Colorado. Conde Nast Traveler chose it as the top historic monument in the world, and National Geographic Traveler chose it as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime— the World’s 50 Greatest Destinations”, in a class with the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.

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Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

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The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde National Park was established 18 years later, in 1906.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the short hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House, the only major Mesa Verde site available for self-guided tours. The paved trail leads to the 114-room, eight-kiva structure—the one initially discovered by Wetherill. One popular feature is a reconstructed and roofed kiva visitors can access by ladder.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tickets to tour other popular larger structures—Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House—must be obtained in advance at the Far View Visitor Center (15 miles south of the park entrance). Tour groups are limited in size.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Immediately south of the Visitor Center, a farming complex dates to about 1050. Two large surface pueblos—Far View House and Pipe Shrine House— and smaller settlements make up the complex.

From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

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At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Park Headquarters is the outstanding Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. With scores of exhibits and five unique dioramas, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the area’s ancient people.

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Our brief visit whetted our appetite for more. In the words of another time traveler from the future…I’ll be back.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time

Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Ancestral Puebloans and their world

The sites of the Ancestral Puebloans are many and include Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. All combine to form The Circle of Ancients—a theme some have spent a lifetime exploring.

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About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops.

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About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud often with a pithouse or two in front. (Pithouses would later evolve into kivas.) From here on, these people are known as Puebloans, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”

By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry.

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Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls. These stone walls are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before giving rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1110, a wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home selected a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas River, opposite the present town of Aztec, New Mexico. They constructed a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places. About 85 years later, the residents of Aztec abandoned the region, and Aztec lay deserted.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex. Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about 1275, they also began to drift away and by 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements and probably more considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. The pueblos tell of a sophisticated knowledge of a sun-Earth relationship.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1300 the site was deserted and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Chaco’s heyday had come and gone by the end of the 12th century, many other communities continued to thrive until the late 13th century, such as those found in the canyon walls of Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes