Vien R. Guenther
Mesa Verde National Park - Montezuma County, Colorado
Updated: Jan 8
Colorado contains four incredibly beautiful and diverse national parks - Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and Mesa Verde National Park. Three national parks are all about nature, featuring unique landscapes and mountains of Colorado. However, Mesa Verde National Park is about cultural heritage of America. This park contains some of the most unique dwellings in the world, built by the Ancestral Puebloan people. There are more than 4,000 Archaeological sites in the park and 600 of these are cliff dwellings.
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma County in southwestern Colorado.
The park was established in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt to protect and preserve the ancient ruins on top of the mesa, and the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, also known as the Anazasi. The area was the home for over 700 years (600 to 1300 CE) of the Puebloans.
TO GET TO THE PARK
If you are coming from Denver International Airport, driving to Mesa Verde National Park will take about seven hours. That is without stopping of course, but who drives that long without stopping? Especially when there is plenty to see along the way. You can make a little detour to Great Sand Dunes National Park and stay the night before continuing on to Mesa Verde National Park if you have time.
For those of us living in Colorado, it is of course easier to get there. When we visited this park we stayed at a KOA in the town of Cortez. It's like camping in comfort, sleeping in a cabin and not in a tent, but still having the feeling of being outdoors. Plus, we had a fantastic view of the mountain while we ate our dinner.
From the town it is just about 10 miles, or 13 minutes drive to Mesa Verde National Park. You can stay the night in the park. There are lodges and campsites that you can stay if you want to experience true camping surrounded by nature instead of people and traffic.
- EXPLORING THE PARK -
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES ON TOP OF THE MESA
On the mesa itself, there are archaeological sites that can be visited: Badger House Community, Cedar Tree Tower, Far View Sites Complex, Sun Temple. This we visited on our own, driving from site to site. Visiting these archaeological sites, you will get a glimpse of how Puebloan dwellings evolved, from building underground to building above the ground in multi-storied structures.
CLIFF DWELLINGS FROM THE VIEWPOINTS
The canyons on the mesa were created by erosion from receding ancient oceans. Looking at the canyons of Mesa Verde, who would have thought that there lie hidden ancient settlements? How they made use of these uninhabitable surroundings makes you think about the peoples' resilience and adaptability. Within these canyons, there are over 600 cliff dwellings made of adobe and built within the shallow caves and overhangs of the canyon walls. The dwellings here are some of the best preserved on the North American Continent. It was an amazing discovery. From the viewpoints you can hardly see some of them since they are far away, but some are close enough that you can see the structures in detail.
For most visitors, viewing the cliff dwellings at viewpoints is enough of an adventure. Understandable since hiking at 7,000 feet elevation is not for everybody, trails are steep with steps and ladders to consider. But hiking down to the cliff dwellings is a different experience altogether. You get to see up close the fascinating architecture of these settlements and wonder at the ingenuity of the people who built them.
HIKING DOWN TO THE CLIFF DWELLINGS
In visiting the cliff dwellings we opted for a guided tour at one of them, to get a glimpse about the history of the dwellings and the settlers as well. In the park, there are five cliff dwellings that can be visited – Balcony House, Cliff Palace, Long House, Spruce Tree House, Step House. We only toured a few, but it was enough to be awed by them.
Looking at the dwellings underneath the canopy you will wonder why they chose to build there. After living on top of the mesa for 600 years why did the Ancient Puebloans begin living beneath the overhanging cliffs, sometime during the late 1190's? They farmed on the mesa, but they lived in the canyon’s alcoves, building and constructing for nearly a century, until they abandoned the settlement. The question is why?
THE ANCESTRAL PUEBLOAN PEOPLE
Ancestral Puebloan Indians inhabited the southwestern portion of Colorado for more than a millennium, before A.D. 1 until about A.D. 1280. They were the descendants of nomadic people; they were hunters and gatherers. Later on they adopted an agricultural subsistence and gradually developed a sedentary culture and built homes. Then they became farmers, cultivating maize (corn), beans and squash, subsisting on wild plants. They raised domesticated turkeys as well as hunted wild game. The population peaked with an estimated 20,000 sometime during the early or middle A.D. 1200's.
The challenging environment in southwestern Colorado, fluctuating weather conditions, depleting wild game and periods of drought (particularly the severe drought in A.D. 1276), impacted the settlement in Mesa Verde. Violence escalated as the settlers competed for resources and by early A.D. 1280’s, survivors migrated south or southeast and never came back, leaving behind the dwellings that we can see today. Their descendants reside in some twenty pueblo settlements in northeastern Arizona and northern Mexico today.
Ancient Puebloans left behind some evidence of how their society survived in Mesa Verde, what they ate and what kinds of tools they used.
METATE & MANO
Metate, a kind of mealing or grinding stone, is a larger stationary bottom stone, while Mano, Spanish for “hand”, is a hand-held and much smaller stone used to grind grains against the larger stone, the Metate. Both tools were used as a mill for grinding seeds and beans during the ancient times. Metate and Mano have different shapes, sizes and materials, but most are made from Vesicular basalt, granite, sandstone, conglomerates and other local stones.
A Kiva is a sacred underground chamber used by Native American Pueblo males for religious rituals and spiritual ceremonies (such as smoking and drinking?). The ceremonies were associated with their Kachina ("spirit father") beliefs. Kivas have been built in many different sizes; some were built above ground. Their functions and architecture were adapted to suit their cultural changes and religious and social practices.
Kivas are usually round, with a roof built out of wooden logs; their walls were built with adobe (a mixture of water, dirt and straw), and stones. Kivas are entered through a roof hatchway by means of a wooden ladder, with poles that extend above the flat roof and hand rails of sorts. We got to see what it looks like inside of one.