Spanning over 80 square miles (207 square km) of mesas, cliffs, and canyons in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park protects the largest, densest collection of Native American archaeological sites in the United States. Over 5,000 sites have been discovered to date, and among them are the approximately 600 cliff dwellings that have made this park famous.
These impressive structures were built by Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the area from around 1400 to 700 years ago. For those 700 years the people farmed the mesas, hunted in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, constructed buildings for homes, food storage, and rituals, and developed their culture through innovation.
The first Ancestral Puebloans in this area were nomads who found the area ideal for settlement. They built villages of simple pit houses on the mesa tops, close to the land they used for farming corn and hunting with spears and atlatls. Called “Basketmakers,” they were adept at weaving baskets for storing and transporting goods. Before long, however, they began to use pottery. They also began to grow beans and switched to more efficient bows and arrows for hunting.
As time went on the Modified Basketmakers and then Developmental Puebloans began to construct above-ground structures using poles and mud.
Pit houses evolved into ritual kivas, and the people began constructing towers. Pottery was developed into a variety of forms and uses, and decorative elements became more pronounced.
As their skill with masonry improved, the people continued to develop more elaborate structures to house their growing population. Buildings with numerous rooms, constructed from sandstone blocks and mud mortar, became common.
Around 800 years ago they began to construct cliff dwellings in sheltered alcoves. It’s not clear why most of them moved from the mesa tops to the cliff recesses, but ease of defense, better shelter, and religious reasons may have all played a role.
Over the next 100 years the Ancient Puebloans constructed a large number of massive cliff dwellings. A few of the more notable include Square Tower House…
…and Cliff Palace…
Suddenly, around 700 years ago, the people abandoned the homes they had spent so long developing. Evidence shows that the area was subjected to prolonged drought and crop failure, and this likely forced the Ancestral Puebloans to seek greener pastures.
Today a vast array of ruins from this ancient civilization remain to be discovered. A visitor to Mesa Verde could easily spend days or even weeks exploring the large number of structures and all the other artifacts they hold. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum also offers an invaluable resource that provides context for all that can be seen.
Mesa Verde is the only US national park that preserves primarily cultural features rather than natural features. In spite of that, this park still offers a nice array of natural features as well. The scenic canyons, distant snow-covered peaks, and forests of pinyons, junipers, pines, and oaks harbor a variety of interesting plants, animals, and geology…just in case you manage to get bored by the extensive archaeological features.