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Mesa Verde National Park Area

Explore the villages built by Colorado’s cliff dwellers

Mesa Verde National Park is the first national park of its kind, established more than a century ago to preserve some of the world’s most significant archaeological finds. Its Spanish name translates to “green table” and, indeed, the park is a bountiful spread of cultural and natural resources.

1,400 Years of History in the Making

Today, there are 26 Native American tribes that can link their ancestry to the ancient Pueblo people who first lived in Mesa Verde National Park some 1,400 years ago. These so-called “cliff dwellers” were aptly named because the communities they established were fashioned by using nature to their advantage. Their homes were built underneath the overhanging cliffs of the park canyon. Sandstone was used to create the bricks, while mud and water formed the mortar between them. The dwellings ranged in size from one-room houses to those of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. In a testament to the expertise of the builders, the structures remained largely intact over the centuries.

European explorers from neighboring New Mexico may have been among the first to discover the Pueblo cliff dwellings as early as 1765. By 1886, there would be calls to make the area a national park. President Theodore Roosevelt made it official, signing a bill on June 29, 1906, creating Mesa Verde National Park and preserving the archaeological history of the region.

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NPS

History and Nature Rolled Into One

The ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park are the top draw for the visitors who come each year. Four of the cliff dwellings are open to the public. While Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House are available only through ranger-guided tours, visitors can explore Wetherill Mesa (Step House) on their own.

Be sure to stop in the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, where you’ll get a good overview of the culture of Pueblo people. The museum houses exhibits highlighting archaeological discoveries made near the cliff dwellings, including hand-made tools, pottery and more. A book store and gift shop are on-site.

Four miles north of the museum is a self-guided walking tour that includes Far View House and four other villages. There are scenic drives to enjoy, including Mesa Top Loop Road. Located on Chapin Mesa, this is a 6-mile, 45-minute drive with spectacular canyon views, including those of Square Tower House and Cliff Palace. Along the drive are short, paved walking trails, providing opportunities to stretch your legs. If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, opt for a ranger-guided tour.

For hiking or biking adventures, try Prater Ridge Trail or Wetherill Mesa. Petroglyph Trail is just like it sounds. There is art along the way waiting to be discovered and deciphered. Spruce Canyon showcases the lushness that underscores the name of Mesa Verde. In the evenings, there is also the ever-popular Twilight Photography Tour of Cliff Palace. Be sure to check times and schedules.

Nature lovers will enjoy the wildlife at Mesa Verde. The Audubon Society lists the park as an important breeding habitat for several bird species. Visitors will not have to look far to spot a mule deer or a wild turkey. Early risers or those who choose to wait for dusk may catch a glimpse of a black bear, coyote, porcupine, fox, elk, mountain lion, marmot and several species of owls. Park officials instruct visitors to remember two rules of thumb: Do not feed the animals and keep your distance from them.

If you’re eager to take a break, duck into one of Mesa Verde’s restaurants and cafés. There is also a convenience store and gift shop.

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Robert Jensen

Neighboring Towns

Mesa Verde is surrounded by rustic reminders of the Old West, with nearby towns offering adventure and history uniquely their own. The gold rush of the 1800s—and the railroad—led to the development of Durango, now home to a number of galleries and museums with Native American jewelry, artifacts and art. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Anasazi Heritage Center, Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center and the newly designated Chimney Rock National Monument are all within easy reach.

Mancos enjoys a view of the La Plata Mountains on one side and Mesa Verde on the other. The town’s Jackson Gulch Reservoir is great for fishing, and its downtown area has several buildings listed on both the National and State Historic Registers. Mancos has a thriving artisan community specializing in one-of-a-kind pieces showcased in an art co-op and downtown gallery. Look forward to boating or kayaking on the Mancos River. Landlubbers can opt for a seat and a favorite beverage at The Columbine, one of Colorado’s oldest bars.

Cortez is where visitors will find a multimillion dollar recreation center with a fitness area, swimming pool, water slide, racquetball courts, gym, climbing wall, hot tub and fully equipped changing areas with showers. Cortez is home to the Colorado Welcome Center for southwest Colorado, offering lots of information on neighboring services and activities. Traditional Native American dances are held during the summer at the Cortez Cultural Center, which features displays about the Ancestral Puebloans and their modern-day descendants.

For More Information

Mesa Verde National Park

970-529-4465

www.nps.gov/meve

 

Colorado Tourism Office

800-265-6723

www.colorado.com