Mesa Verde National Park

Written by on April 13, 2015 in CO History & Heritage - Comments Off on Mesa Verde National Park

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 A.D. 600 to 1300. Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These are some of the best preserved Pueblo Dwellings in the country.

On December 18, 1888, Two cowboys, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, started up a steep canyon to the top of a high, green mesa in southwest Colorado. They were hunting for cattle that had strayed from their ranch in the Mancos Valley. On top of the Mesa, partially blinded by heavily falling snow, the men dismounted and scanned the mesa and nearby canyons. Both were shocked by what they saw. Tucked under an overhanging rock was a cliff castle. The men descended into the canyon and began to explore the ghostly ruins. They dug up pottery and stone axes and were quite excited until they stumbled upon the skeletons. The men remembered rumors they had heard from the Ute Indians that a sacred “house of the old ones” was hidden in the mesa, and that any who found it would die. Their blood ran cold as they realized they had found this sacred site. Rather than disturb the spirits of the dead, they left the skeletons and pottery exactly where they found them and departed quickly.

The two cowboys had stumbled upon the ancient ruins of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the southwest from 600 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Mesa Verde, which means green table in Spanish, has numerous cliff dwellings, some equally as awe-inspiring as the castle Wetherill and Mason discovered. Today the ruins they found is known as Cliff Palace, and is one of the largest man-made ancient dwellings in the world, raised before modern building techniques were even developed. In size and scope, Cliff Palace and the other cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde rival the pyramids of Egypt. In fact, Mesa Verde National Park has more than 4,800 archeological sites and nearly 600 cliff dwellings — including the famed Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House and Long House.

The earliest known dwellers to this land came in 550 A.D. They dug pits in the ground, which they roofed and called home. Around 700 A.D., the architecture changed and the structures turned into pole houses that were built above ground. Eventually, the ancestral Peubloans moved down into the alcoves and built the huge adobe cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous.

In a land that receives less than 18 inches of rain per year, water is a precious commodity. Luckily, Mesa Verde has a feature which makes life possible there. The top of Mesa Verde is porous. Rain water is sucked into the soil and percolates down through the soft stone until it hits a much harder layer of rock about 1/3 of the way down the mesa’s walls. The water flows across the top of the this harder stone until it seeps out of the edges of the Mesa. These seeps wells provided the ancients with steady sources of water throughout the year. In addition, the Pueblo people cleared the mesa top for fields of corn, beans and squash, and built huge earthen basins to catch the summer rain water to help irrigate their crops.

Around 1300 A.D. these ancient Pueblo people disappeared. Archeologists speculate that drought, depleted resources or social pressure (or a combination of all three) forced this successful civilization to move south, possibly to the northern Rio Grande in New Mexico at Zuni or to the Hopi in Arizona. What haunts archeologists today is the question of why they left so many of their household goods and food behind … as if they intended to return one day, but never did. Why did they leave so abruptly? Why didn’t they return? We may never know the answers … we can only wander through these amazing dwellings and wonder!
Just driving into the park is a wonderful experience. You can stop at four great overlooks on the North side of the mesa that offer sweeping views of the valley far below and the distant mountains, including Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Mesa Verde is divided into three main areas for viewing: the Cliff Palace Loop, the Mesa Top Loop and Wetherill Mesa. Cliff Palace and Balcony House on the Cliff Palace loop require the purchase of tickets for a guided tour. Both require a certain amount of strenous activity, climbing up ladders and hiking down step staircases. If you are afraid of heights or a touch claustrophic, avoid these tours. If not, you’ll love the close up view of these amazing ruins and the historical discussion by park guides. Soda Canyon Overlook Trail on Cliff Palace Loop is also a great way to view the ruins.

The Mesa Top Loop is not strenous, with only short, flat hikes to the various pit houses and villages. However, this loop has the most amazing views of the park. The overlook to Square Tower House is truly stunning, and the vast vista provided by Sun Point View is beyond belief … six or so pueblo ruins are revealed just across the canyon, including a stunning view of Cliff Palace.

Finally, Wetherill Mesa is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The tram stops at a dozen great locations including a great overlook of Kodak House. Tickets can be purchased for a tour of Long House, and Step House is a self-guided tour that is well worth the effots.

Both the Visitor’s Center and the Chapin Mesa Museum are worth stopping by. Both contain amazing historical displays of many Native American cultures of the Southwest. Just below the Chapin Mesa Museum is Spruce Tree House – a self-guided tour and relatively easy hike if taken in stages. Remember that the altitude is around 6,500 feet, so you may find yourself short of breathe if you come from lower altitudes. In addition, the Far View Terrace serves great food, including a make-your-own sandwish and salad bar, as well as burgers and Navajo tacos, to name just a few options. Far View Lodge, open from April until late October, is a good place to stay so you can take your time and really explore the park.

Other attractions in the are include:
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Hovenweep National Monument
Four Corners Monument

Mesa Verde National Park
PO Box 8
Mesa Verde, CO 81330-0008
By Phone:
Headquarters – 970-529-4465
Visitor Information – 970-529-4465

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