Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
We left the Mighty Five Parks in Utah, heading out for our return trip to Virginia. We took the southern route back, and there were several things we wanted to see along the way. But, at the beginning of our trip, soon after we entered Colorado, we noticed another National Park not far from our route. So, we stopped in the town of Cortez to inquire at the Visitors Center about Mesa Verde. On the map, it is a relatively small park, especially compared to the huge Canyonlands Park we had just left. When I said that to the volunteer, she raised her eyebrows at me and said, “Well, to see even the best part of the park will take you four hours.” Wow. She was right. We spent just about that much time in this park and could have spent more.
Because this is such a fascinating park, I am going to give you more facts, all lifted from the official brochure you receive at the visitors center.
Mesa Verde is Spanish for “Green Table.” Ancestral Pueblo people settled in this area in A.D. 500. They farmed, hunted wild animals and gathered edible plants. They also made tools from stone, wood, and bone, and built pit houses for homes. Pit houses were often clustered as small villages on the mesa tops. In the second photo below, you can see that they designed a system to keep their fires burning inside the pit. Placing a stone in front of the opening below created a draft to pull air through and out a hole on the surface above.
In about A.D. 750, the Pueblos began building houses above ground using poles and mud. By A.D. 1000 their skills had advanced to stone masonry. Walls of thick stone often rose two to three stories high and were joined as units of 50 rooms or more. Some of these homes were built in cliff alcoves that had once served their ancestors as sheltered areas. The cliff dwellings are what made Mesa Verde famous.
Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late 1190s to late 1270s. They range from one-room houses to community centers of about 150 rooms. Builders fit the structure into the available space. Notice the gorgeous stone around the cliff dwellings. It’s a part of the beauty of the space, much as our land accentuates our property.
As we looked with binoculars across the canyon to the cliffs, we wondered how the Pueblos moved from one house to another, or from their home on the cliff to their gardens above. It was a hard life. They lived in the cliff dwellings for fewer than 100 years, and by 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. They joined other Ancestral Pueblo who moved south into what is now New Mexico and Arizona.
Local ranchers first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1880s. Archaeologists have studied, excavated, analyzed and restored pit houses and cliff dwellings. The history reveals people adept at building, and skillful at making a living on difficult land. The evolution of their skills is evident in the various structures seen in the park.