Mesa Verde National Park is located in Southwest Colorado near the town of Cortez. This National Park was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to protect and preserve the historical cliff-dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. In 1978, it was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization also known as UNESCO.
According to Wikipedia, the park occupies 52,485 acres near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. With more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace,thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. (pictured above)
We visited Mesa Verde National Park near the end of June in 2015 during a road trip from Durham, NC to Grand Canyon National Park. As my Native American ancestry goes back to this area of Southwest Colorado, I decided to look into visiting and read up on a bit of the people that used to live here. Staying in the city of Cortez, we were able to drive into the park during the early morning hours for a bus tour. We had purchased tickets for the tour online with ARAMARK prior to our trip, as I had read that these tours sell out ahead of the scheduled tour date and time. This tour led us to several different areas of the park with a tour guide, who was very informative. For the short amount of time we had allowed ourselves, it was worth the $45 fee. The 700 Years Tour brought us to Cliff Palace, which we were able to walk down into and climb a couple of ladders back to the top of the mesa afterwards. This part of the tour was led by a National Parks ranger. Each of these ranger led tours into Cliff Palace were timed out so there weren't a large number of people in the cliff dwelling at any particular time. This really gave everyone the ability to listen to the ranger's talk about the people and the dwellings, or give them the opportunity to walk around to get a feel for how immense the Cliff Palace is from inside. Due to the elevation (around 7,000 feet), it was quite a physical challenge during the two ladder climbs to the top. It's definitely worth the effort!! Just try to take your time and make sure to drink plenty of water! As a note, the hike down into Cliff Palace was also an adventure. The steps down were steep at times and the passage ways tight in certain places. This excursion can test the limits of those who may be afraid of heights or enclosed areas. The picture below shows the climb back to the top, which is through the opening in the rock to the right of the cliff dwelling. If you look closely, you can see a person emerging to the top of the mesa.
We also stopped at the Sun Temple (pictured above), as well as other areas of the park. This tour did not include stops at any of the other cliff dwellings, such as Spruce Tree House or Step House. There are so many things to see and do inside Mesa Verde National Park that it would take more than one day to really see everything. We will definitely be making a trip back to see the rest of the cliff dwellings and to stop inside the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
If you want to check out the park's webcam, click on this link. It is a view of Spruce Tree House from the Chief Ranger's office.
History of the Area
After looking online for information, I learned that the people who lived there are often called the “Anasazi,” a Navajo word that has been translated as “the ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors.” They occupied this area around 500 A.D. and many archaeologists refer to them as "The Basketmakers" due to the finely woven baskets they created. During this time they moved from the surrounding areas of Mesa Verde to the center. After this move, they started to develop pottery and the bow and arrow. This allowed them to perfect their hunting skills and game animals, such as deer, became over hunted and other animal life flourished, such as the domesticated turkey.
They lived in simple pit houses with a hearth, fire hole and room for storage. Entered through the roof by way of a ladder the fact that the house was partly underground helped keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They also created gathering places called "great kivas" that were also located partially underground. These round structures are thought to have been used for public gatherings during which members of the community socialized, performed ceremonies, or discussed issues important to the group and would be about 1,000 square feet in size.
According to researchers, the population of this area increased around 750 A.D. It is believed that due to climate change, the majority of the people living in the cliff dwellings left between 850 and 930 A.D. for New Mexico. After 930 A.D. the Puebloans returned to Mesa Verde, but had built "great houses" that were also used for community gatherings. These were built above ground and contained multistory rooms.
The population continued to rise after 930 A.D and spiked in the 13th century. It was around this time that they started to create the "cliff dwellings." The largest cliff-dwelling site is a place called “Cliff Palace.” It contains about 150 rooms and nearly two dozen kivas that were used, presumably, as a gathering place for rituals. Again, the Puebloans left the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings at the end of the 13th century. The reason is not know and is speculated to be due to climate change or competition for resources due to the population growth. There were also signs of a battle as “Excavators found 23 complete or fairly complete human bodies, as well as scattered bones from at least 11 other individuals, indicating that at least 34 people died at or near the end of the village occupation,” the researchers write, noting that “none of these bodies was formally buried, and at least eight exhibit direct evidence of violent death.”