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.

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.

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

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 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.

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, 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

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

The Sixth Wonder of Alberta

A wide green valley, steep sandstone cliffs, strange rock formations called hoodoos, and rock art—all of these things make Writing-on-Stone a special place

You’re driving through the prairie and suddenly it drops away into a beautiful river valley. Alberta has many beautiful places to explore during the summer but there’s only one place that has rock paintings from the local indigenous population that can be dated back 2,000 years ago.

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

That very special place is the Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi Provincial Park and is located near the U.S. border in southeastern Alberta. It is a place of extreme cultural importance to the Blackfoot people and has the greatest concentration of Indigenous rock art anywhere on the plains. The rock art was likely created by the Blackfoot tribe whose territory traditionally includes the area. At least some of the art was likely being made by the Shoshone tribe which passed through the region.

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 have created rock art for millennia. 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 critical phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans. In fact, the arrival of horses, trade items, and even the first automobile in the region are creatively recorded.

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

With a combination of culturally significant landforms, rock art, archaeological heritage, and dramatic views, Áísínai’pi (“it is pictured/written”) is a sacred place for the Blackfoot people. In Blackfoot traditions, Sacred Beings dwell among the cliffs and hoodoos, and the voices of the ancestors can be heard among the canyons and cliffs. To this day the Blackfoot feel the energy of the Sacred Beings at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi and their oral histories and ongoing ceremonial use attest to the living traditions of the Blackfoot people.

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

Following more than a decade of advocacy by Indigenous groups and the provincial government, Writing-on Stone was recently (July 6) declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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

The nomination was prepared by the provincial government in partnership with the Blackfoot Confederacy and with ongoing support from the Government of Canada.

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

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to more petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) than any other place on the Great Plains in North America.

“Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is the site of many natural wonders and a testament to the remarkable ingenuity and creativity of the Blackfoot people,” Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, said in a news release. “It’s easy to see why the site is seen by many as an expression of the confluence of the spirit and human worlds. I hope all Albertans will take the time to explore this extraordinary part of the province and all it has to offer.”

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

“The designation of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site provides the Blackfoot Confederacy a basis for its future generations as to the strength and truth of our continuing relationship to this land and to our traditions, ceremonies, and cultural practices,” Martin Heavy Head, an elder with the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Society, said in a news release.

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

Writing-on-Stone is about 4,400 acres and offers unique hiking and birding opportunities, plus a modestly-sized campground. The province estimates about 60,000 people visit the site each year.

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

The 1.3-mile Hoodoo Trail winds through various landscapes—hoodoos, sandstone cliffs, and rock art, upland prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley, and coulees. Most rock art sites are only accessible by guided tour. Park interpreters lead tours into the Archeological Preserve daily from mid-May to early September. Tour schedules and ticket prices are available by contacting the park’s visitor center.

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

Writing-on-Stone is Alberta’s sixth world heritage site. The other five are Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (1981), Dinosaur Provincial Park (1979), Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1995), The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (1984, 1990), and the Wood Buffalo National Park (1983).

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

So if you’re a fan of exploration these are the six must see sites within Alberta.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes