Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral 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 4,000 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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park, 10 miles east of Cortez off U.S. Highway 160. More than 4,000 archaeological sites have been preserved, including hundreds of homes and villages that date back to the 12th century.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park, a designation granted by UNESCO to preserve and protect the cultural and national heritage of certain international sites. Mesa Verde has also been selected the number one historic monument in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, and was chosen by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime—The World’s Greatest Destinations.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. To truly appreciate the park and to visit several of the cliff dwellings, plan to spend a minimum of two days at the park. 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.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 was designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 18 years later, in 1906.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 (closed to the public), Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spruce Tree House is the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, but falling rocks from a sandstone overhang have kept the more than 700-year-old structure closed since October 2015.

Due to the complexity of the project and the significance of Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, there is a four-phase sequential approach planned.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In early 2017, the park service contracted with a geotechnical firm to conduct Phases One and Two. This assessment will result in recommendations for treatment that, if necessary, will use modern engineering technology to ensure that the alcove is stable and safe for public visitation.

Currently, Spruce Tree House can be seen from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mesa Verde is open year-round, but actual schedules vary with the season. The campground and some sites are closed during the winter. The current entry fee to visit Mesa Verde National Park is $15-25 (fee is good for 7 days); all federal lands passes are accepted.

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

7 UNESCO Heritage Sites for RV Travel

Discover these seven UNESCO heritage sites on your next RV road trip

Since its inception, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified and preserved dozens of natural and cultural sites around the world. From historical buildings to natural marvels, each heritage site is spectacular in its own right.

Many UNESCO sites are staples for world travelers including the Taj Mahal in India, the wilds of the Serengeti of East Africa, and the pyramids of Egypt. But many heritage sites in the US and Canada can be visited by the RV traveler. Be sure to add these seven UNESCO heritage sites in North America to your bucket list.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A great concentration of ancestral Pueblo Indian dwellings, built from the 6th to the 12th century, can be found on the Mesa Verde plateau in southwestern Colorado at an altitude of more than 8,500 feet. Some 4,400 sites have been recorded including villages built on the Mesa top.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 600 cliff dwellings built of sandstone and mud mortar have been recorded including the famous multi-storey Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Square Tower House. The cliff dwelling sites range in size from small storage structures to large villages of 50 to 200 rooms.

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Alberta and British Columbia

Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Renowned for their scenic splendor, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are comprised of Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia.

Mount Robson Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems, and deeply carved canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty attracting millions of visitors annually.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carved by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is the most spectacular gorge in the world. Its horizontal strata retrace the geological history of the past 2 billion years.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is among the earth’s greatest on-going geological spectacles. Its vastness is stunning, and the evidence it reveals about the earth’s history is invaluable. The 0.9-mile deep gorge ranges in width from 0.3 mile to 18.6 miles. It twists and turns 276.5 miles and was formed during 6 million years of geologic activity and erosion by the Colorado River on the upraised earth’s crust.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Clingmans Dome, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This karst landscape in New Mexico comprises over 80 recognized caves. They are outstanding not only for their size but also for the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their mineral formations.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The more than 100 limestone caves are outstanding and notable because of their size, mode of origin, and the abundance, diversity, and beauty of the speleothems (decorative rock formations). On-going geologic processes continue to form rare and unique speleothems that include helictites forming underwater, calcite and gypsum speleothems.

San Antonio Missions, Texas

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Antonio Missions are a group of five frontier mission complexes situated along a 7.7-mile stretch of the San Antonio River. It includes architectural and archaeological structures, residencies, churches and granaries, as well as water distribution systems.

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The complexes were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century and illustrate the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend the northern frontier of New Spain.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples created rock art. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs