Cortez, CO – Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado near the town of Cortez. Mesa Verde is also a World Heritage Site. It protects some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States. Created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, 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 US. 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.
The People of Mesa Verde
Starting c. 7500 BCE, Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians known as the Foothills Mountain Complex. The variety of projectile points found in the region indicates they were influenced by surrounding areas, including the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Later, Archaic people established semi-permanent rock shelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BCE, the Basketmaker culture emerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 CE the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture.
The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including Rio Chama, Pajarito Plateau, and Santa Fe.
A severe drought from 1130 to 1180 led to rapid depopulation in many parts of the San Juan Basin, particularly at Chaco Canyon. As the extensive Chacoan system collapsed, people increasingly migrated to Mesa Verde, causing major population growth in the area. This led to much larger settlements of six to eight hundred people, which reduced mobility for Mesa Verdeans, who had in the past frequently relocated their dwellings and fields as part of their agriculture strategy. In order to sustain these larger populations, they dedicated more and more of their labor to farming. Population increases also led to expanded tree felling that reduced habitat for many wild plant and animal species that the Mesa Verdeans had relied on, further deepening their dependency on domesticated crops that were susceptible to drought-related failure.
The Chacoan system brought large quantities of imported goods to Mesa Verde during the late 11th and early 12th centuries, including pottery, shells, and turquoise, but by the late 12th century, as the system collapsed, the amount of goods imported by the mesa quickly declined, and Mesa Verde became isolated from the surrounding region. For approximately six hundred years, most Mesa Verdean farmers had lived in small, mesa-top homesteads of one or two families. They were typically located near their fields and walking distance to sources of water. This practice continued into the mid- to late 12th century, but by the start of the 13th century they began living in canyon locations that were close to water sources and within walking distance of their fields.
Mesa Verdean villages thrived during the mid-Pueblo III Era, when architects constructed massive, multi-story buildings, and artisans adorned pottery with increasingly elaborate designs. Structures built during this period have been described as “among the world’s greatest archaeological treasures”. Pueblo III masonry buildings were typically occupied for approximately fifty years, more than double the usable lifespan of the Pueblo II structures. Others were continuously inhabited for two hundred years or more. Architectural innovations such as towers and multi-walled structures also appear during the Pueblo III Era. Mesa Verde’s population remained fairly stable during the 12th century drought. At the start of the 13th century, approximately 22,000 people lived there. The area saw moderate population increases during the following decades, and dramatic ones from 1225 to 1260. Most of the people in the region lived in the plains west of the mesa at locations such as Yellow Jacket Pueblo, near Cortez, Colorado. Others colonized canyon rims and slopes in multi-family structures that grew to unprecedented size as populations swelled. By 1260, the majority of Mesa Verdeans lived in large pueblos that housed several families and more than one hundred people.
The 13th century saw 69 years of below average rainfall in the Mesa Verde region, and after 1270 the area suffered from especially cold temperatures. Dendrochronology (dating technique) indicates that the last tree felled for construction on the mesa was cut in 1281. There was a major decline in ceramic imports to the region during this time, but local production remained steady. Despite challenging conditions, the Puebloans continued to farm the area until a severely dry period from 1276 to 1299 ended seven hundred years of continuous human occupation at Mesa Verde. Archaeologists refer to this period as the “Great Drought”. The last inhabitants of the mesa left the area c. 1285.
Open 8:00 a.m. to sunset, the Cliff Palace Loop Road takes you past Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and overlooks to other cliff dwellings. Wetherill Mesa Road is home to Long House. You may enter Long House, Balcony House or Cliff Palace by ranger-guided tour only. Tours include ladder climbing and even a tunnel to crawl through! Purchase tickets for the one-hour tours at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center before driving to the sites.
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park. Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. If you visit Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Pueblo people shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called “chinking.” Chinking stones filled the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people decorated with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white — the first things to erode with time.
With 40 rooms, Balcony House is considered a medium size cliff dwelling. Only 10 sites in the park have more. Evidence of how room and passageway construction in the alcove evolved through time can easily be seen in Balcony House. Today, the tunnel, passageways, and modern 32-foot entrance ladder are what make it the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour in the park.
Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling (Cliff Palace and Long House are larger), was constructed between A.D. 1211 and 1278 by the ancestors of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. The dwelling contains about 130 rooms and 8 kivas, or ceremonial chambers, built into a natural alcove measuring 216 feet at greatest width and 89 feet at its greatest depth. It is thought to have been home for about 60 to 80 people.
The Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling was first discovered in 1888, when two local ranchers chanced upon it while searching for stray cattle. A large tree, which they identified as a Douglas Spruce (later called Douglas Fir), was found growing from the front of the dwelling to the mesa top. It is said that the men first entered the dwelling by climbing down this tree, which was later cut down by another early explorer.
Far View Sites
Far View was one of the most densely populated parts of the mesa from A.D. 900 to about A.D. 1300. Nearly 50 villages have been identified within a half square mile area, and were home to hundreds of people. Today, several excavated and stabilized sites are linked by a trail system within a short walking distance. These surface sites include Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House, and Far View Tower.
The Ancestral Puebloan people were living at Far View at least 200 years before they began building the more famous Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Excavation also reveals that many people chose to remain in their mesa top community well after many of their neighbors moved into the cliff alcoves.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
The museum is located on Chapin Mesa, 20 miles from the park entrance. The museum displays dioramas illustrating Ancestral Pueblo life. There are also many exhibits of prehistoric artifacts, a chronology of Ancestral Pueblo culture, and other items related to the park. A 25-minute orientation film is shown on the hour and half-hour. This film offers an excellent overview of the history of Mesa Verde. The museum is well worth a visit, they have done an excellent job of presenting and explaining the artifacts and the people who lived at Mesa Verde. The Chapin Mesa area also includes a bookstore, water, restrooms, snack bar, gift shop, and post office. Spruce Tree House, the third-largest and best preserved cliff dwelling, can be viewed from overlooks nearby. This is also the trailhead for the Petroglyph Point and Spruce Canyon Trails.
The trail to Petroglyph Point, which Mike has written about in a separate post featuring our Favorite Four Corners Trails begins from the Spruce Tree House trail, and continues below the edge of the plateau to a petroglyph panel, makes a climb to the top of the mesa and returns via the rim to the museum. This trail provides views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and is the only trail in the park to view petroglyphs. The petroglyph panel is the largest in Mesa Verde. The trail also passes several ruins.
We visited Mesa Verde National Park while we were staying at the Sundance RV Park in Cortez, Colorado. While staying in Cortez, we also visited: Hovenweep National Monuent, Yucca House National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, the Anasazi Heritage Center, and the Four Corners Monument.