Land of the Cliff Dwellers – Mesa Verde National Park, CO
I originally thought about calling this post “1000 pictures of awe-inspiring and absolutely mind-blowing Ancient Puebloan dwellings”, but figured both the title and the number of shots might be somewhat, shall we say, too much? The truth is 1000 pictures probably wouldn’t do it justice. Mesa Verde is enormous and contains so much well-preserved history it’s not hard to understand why it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But let me go back and start from the beginning. We were looking for something quiet and unusual to do on the big holiday week-end. Mesa Verde looked interesting and we decided to pick an RV park just by the entrance to explore the area. We definitely made the right choice!
Mesa Verde occupies 52,000 acres (~210 km2) of rugged high-country mesa marked by dramatic canyons, cliffs, ridges and caves. It’s a slow and winding 20-mile drive from the park entrance to the cliff dwellings, and this time of year daytime temperatures heat rapidly so it’s worth being close to get the most of it.
And well worth it, it certainly is! The unique geology of Mesa Verde (the “green table”) attracted the first settlers, known as Basketmakers over 1,400 years ago. Fertile farming on the mesa-tops allowed the population to prosper and around A.D. 550 they started to build pithouses from poles and mud. By 1000 the population had mastered stone masonry which sparked the development of skillful and extensive sandstone dwellings in the protective recesses of the cliffs. Between 1100-1270 (Classic Pueblo Period) these cliff dwellings grew and prospered with the population reaching several thousand. Then, almost as suddenly the population left and by 1300 only the ghosts of the structures were left to tell their stories.
There are ~600 of these ghost cliff dwellings remaining at Mesa Verde within more than 4000 archeological sites. The dwellings are both extensive and superbly preserved with sites such as Cliff Palace (the largest known on the North American Continent), Spruce Tree House (one of the best preserved, with an a Kiva you can crawl into…cool!), Balcony House (the most adventurous visit) and many more. There are mixes of tours and self-guided trails, a museum, bookstore, cafe, lodge, evening programs and drives that take you through all ~750 years and 4 phases of the Ancient Puebloans in the area.
Phew! It’s enough to make your head spin.
Mesa Verde a true gem and a “must visit” for anyone passing through Southwestern Colorado. My advise is take a few days for the stay with a couple of hikes and at least one of the tours. For archeology nuts go full-out and do the whole thing. Just be sure to give yourself several cameras and a week or three to take it all in…this is mind-blowing stuff, after all…