Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado off Highway 160, 9 miles east of Cortez and 35 miles west of Durango. It is the lone national park in Colorado that we visited during our Grand Circle Tour.
Rising sharply between the Mancos and Montezuma valleys, the broad escarpment of Mesa Verde, a Spanish term for green table, beckons with a promise of adventure and mystery. The mesa’s cliffs soar 2,000 feet above grassy plains. Along its piñon-juniper ridges and in its deep canyons are hundreds of surface pueblos, cliff dwellings, stone towers, and pithouses attesting to a time when a prehistoric Indian people called this great mesa home.
They were the Anasazi, who abandoned Mesa Verde more than 700 years ago, but to present-day Indian people of the Four Corners region, the Anasazi have never left. They believe the spirits of their ancestors still inhabit the mesa.
The Anasazi left no written record, and details of the things vital in their daily lives have long since vanished.
“Archaeologists have been able to reconstruct much of the workaday life at Mesa Verde from things left behind. But the intangibles that held life together remain obscure,” wrote archaeologist and area resident Florence Lister in Mesa Verde: The First 100 Years, a collection of essays, photographs, and articles edited by the Mesa Verde Museum Association. “Because the Ancestral Puebloans had no written language to document their world views, we know nothing of their oral traditions, their songs, their dances, their sacred ceremonies, or the devastating circumstances that drove them away.”
Since archaeologists do not know what the Mesa Verdeans called themselves, they have adopted Anasazi—the Ancient Ones—the name given to them by the Navajos, who claim an ancestral link. More recently, the National Park Service has adopted the term Ancestoral Puebloans.
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 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 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.”
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.
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.
Fifteen miles south of the park entrance, Far View Visitor Center provides information and displays designed as an introduction to the Anasazi civilization.
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.
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.
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.
Only one of the major Mesa Verde sites is available for self-guided tours. Spruce Tree House is at the bottom of a canyon behind the park’s museum. A five-minute walk down a paved trail leads to this 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.
Tickets to tour other popular larger structures—Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House—must be obtained in advance at the visitor’s center. Tour groups are limited in size.
Our brief visit whetted our appetite for more. In the words of another time traveler from the future…I’ll be back.
Did You Know?
Park Point, the highest elevation in the park (8,427 feet), has a 360 degree panoramic view that is considered one of the grandest in the country.
To be continued tomorrow…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding