Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
Every National Park we have visited in our meandering is worthy of another visit and Mesa Verde is no exception. This park is unique for its geology, ancestral Puebloan culture, and ancient architecture. To show Mesa Verde’s entire splendor, I will write 3 posts to keep the length to something folks can read quickly.
The best way to experience Mesa Verde is to visit in person. The Park’s Far View Inn is pricey but worth it for a few days. As with all park lodges, make reservations in advance. Motels are available in nearby Cortez and Durango for the budget-minded.
Mesa Verde Park represents the geological formations found within 200 miles of the 4-corners of NM, AZ, UT and CO. That is high flat-topped mesas with steep sides and rugged canyons. Farther south and west the mesas and canyons are barren with sparse vegetation, The Colorado uplands support more abundant plant life. Visitors need to note the Park’s elevation is 6,200 ft. with the mesa tops above 8,500 ft. The drive up to the main visitor areas offers spectacular views of the rugged countryside.
It is a running joke among the native people that the whites “discovered” the cliff dwellings in 1888, just like Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492. The point being, the local Ute tribes considered this area sacred ground of the ancients, keeping it secret; the area was not lost.
The Ancestral Puebloans lived in this area from around 500 AD, and contrary to popular belief, did not “disappear mysteriously” around 1300 AD. The Puebloan people farmed the mesa tops to enjoy a more moderate climate. The population grew and prospered, trading good with tribes as far as California, Mexico, and the Mississippi. The mesa provided for their needs; wild game, fertile ground for their crops, and a moderate climate. Around 1000 AD, the people began building the cliff dwellings. It has been assumed for safety from marauding tribes, but physical evidence doesn’t support the assumption.
At its peak, the Mesa Verde community consisted of about 30,000 people, which is large for a native population residing in a confined area. The steep walls and rugged canyons limited them to the mesa tops. The period of prosperity and growth lasted about 300 years. The growth strained their ability to raise enough farm products to sustain the population. The ancestral people learned a farm lesson; continuous planting in the same area depletes the soil and reduces crop productivity. Two factors worked against the Mesa Verde community, they over-hunted the animals in the area and they over-farmed, depleting the soils ability to produce sufficient crops. As younger groups sought more food, they moved south and east from the original settlement on the mesa. The ancestral people freely abandoned the mesa because it no longer provided for them; no mystery involved.
I can’t leave without sharing pictures surrounding Mesa Verde. I’ll discuss the architecture and utility of the cliff dwelling in the next article. The Ancestral Puebloans left a rich legacy of buildings and society to rival any European city. If London, England, had 3-story stone buildings in 1100AD, they were remnants of Roman buildings. And we call this culture primitive.
|View West from Mesa Verde|
|View north from Mesa Verde|
|West Canyon Overlook|
|Durango "apartment" in 1880 AD|
|Mesa Verde "apartment" in 1100 AD|