Mesa Verde National Park
Exploring Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Ancestral Pueblo History
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwest Colorado, about 35 miles west of Durango. It is known for its well-preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, notably the huge Cliff Palace. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum has exhibits on the ancient Native American culture. Mesa Top Loop Road winds past archaeological sites and overlooks, including Sun Point Overlook with panoramic canyon views. Petroglyph Point Trail has several rock carvings.
This is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, click here to read the Wikipedia Article about this area.
- Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt created the park to preserve the iconic cliff dwellings. It remains the only cultural park in the National Park System.
- The Mesa Verde National Park is home to numerous ruins of villages and dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples. The lived in the dwellings at Mesa Verde from approximately 600 to 1300 AD.
- There are over 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people within the park.
- Descendants of Mesa Verde Ancestral Pueblo people spread out far and wide, and include the Hopi in Arizona and the T19 Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico: aos, Picuris, Sandia, Isleta, San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez, Cochiti, Pojoaque, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Zia, Laguna, Acoma and Zuni.
- The most famous Mesa Verde dwelling is the Cliff Palace. It dates back more than 700 years and was likely once painted with bright colors. It is constructed from sandstone, wooden beams and mortar.
- Mesa Verde was likely deserted by 1300. No one is quite sure why. Some researchers blame crop failures.
- The people of Mesa Verde were farmers who grew beans, corn and squash. They supplemented their diet by gathering other edible plants and hunting deer, squirrels, rabbits and other animals.
- Mesa Verde National Park covers 52,485 acres (or 81.4 square miles).
Where is Mesa Verde?
We had relocated from the Lake Powell, AZ area to Durango, CO and our first day trip (from Durango) was to Mesa Verde, a one way trip of 35 miles. The drive from Durango on route 160 is very pretty, continous ascent up to the Hesperus Ski Area and then you will descend into a valley where the small town of Mancos resides. At this point, you will be able to see the huge table-top mountain where Mesa Verde exists.
Mesa Verde Visitor Center
The Mesa Verde National Park entrance sign is 7.8 miles west past Mancos and you will exit right and then turn left to cross over route 160. As soon as you cross the highway, you will note the road forks, go left into the visitor's center or right to proceed up the mountain to the cliff dwelling sites. If you are looking for trail maps or park information, the visitor center will be able to provide you with that kind of information.
Since this was our first time visiting the park, we stopped and acquired maps & information about what was open & not open. You could acquire the same information online at the National Park Service Mesa Verde site.
Once we departed the visitor center and proceeded up the mountain, we drove along a series of switchbacks that provided views of the valleys to the east & west. You should consider taking advantage of the turnouts to get some pictures, as the views are very good. Our next goal was the Spruce Tree House area.
Our next hike was on the Spruce Canyon Trail - and once we saw how steep the Spruce Canyon Trail was, we wound up going just past the cliff dwelling ruins and then we turned back so we could explore the rest of the park. The views of the dwellings are better at the top of the trail, so take advantage.
Spruce Tree House (located above the Spruce Canyon Trail, image # 1 above) was the equivalent of an Puebloan block of flats when it was built in 1210, with 130 rooms home to 60 to 80 people. The dry climate and shelter from the rocks means that it is so well preserved that it is hard to imagine it was built so long ago. When Spruce Tree House is open you can climb inside one of the kivas. These underground chambers were the heart & soul of the community, used by the Puebloans for religious ceremonies and political meetings.
Our next stop was the Cliff Palace dwelling, closed to public access because of rock falling & trail issues. So all of our images were taken from various vantage points.
Perhaps the most notable Mesa Verde cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace is the largest of its kind in North America. The structure consists of sandstone and wooden beams held together by a homemade mortar consisting of soil, water, and ash. Small bits of stone were mixed into the mortar, reinforcing its strength.
Cliff Palace is entirely unique in its size and is actually considered a village in and of itself. The palace boasts 150 rooms, and it’s thought to have housed more than 100 residents in its 13th-century glory days. Rooms are roughly 6 by 8 feet, and it’s believed that larger groups of people as well as families would share the space. Some of the rooms were even originally adorned in bright, cheery colors, including pinks, reds, and yellows. The Anasazi people utilized smaller rooms to store crops, and the large, circular rooms, called kivas, hosted rituals and ceremonies.
Mesa Verde's Sun Temple is thought to have been an astronomical observatory. This is because Pueblonians used astronomical observations to plan their farming and religious ceremonies, drawing on both natural features in the landscape and masonry structures built for this purpose.
The temple is D-shaped, and its alignment is 10.7 degrees off true east–west. Its location and orientation indicate that its builders understood the cycles of both the sun and the moon. It is aligned to the major lunar standstill, which occurs once every 18.6 years, and the sunset during the winter solstice, which can be viewed setting over the temple from a platform at the south end of Cliff Palace, across Fewkes Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon is the Sun Temple fire pit, which is illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun during the winter solstice. Sun Temple is one of the largest exclusively ceremonial structures ever built by the Ancestral Puebloans.
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