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Ever see the picture of Cliff Palace in the American Southwest and wonder, where in the world is that? Mesa Verde National Park is where the majority of easy to access cliff dwellings are located and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These stunning homes were built in cliff alcoves, which were dug out by natural springs, in the sides of canyons of Mesa Verde near present day Cortez (Colorado). The builders of these amazing towns are the ancestors of the current day Pueblo People that live further south in current day New Mexico and Arizona. The ruins at Mesa Verde are considered to part of the Ancestral Pueblo People heritage.
In the past, the term Anasazi was used to describe the inhabitants of these ruins. This is no longer a proper term because Anasazi is actually a Navajo word that means “ancient enemies.” Current day Pueblo peoples find the term Anasazi offensive.
The Pueblo people are a collection of different farming tribes that mainly grow corn, squash, pumpkins, beans and raise turkeys. They have been a sedentary farming community since about 750 AD. The different current day Pueblo tribes may look the same with similar architecture, religion and customs but are very different. An example is the difference between the languages spoken at different Pueblos, which is as different as Chinese is to French. Spanish colonizers coined the term Pueblo Indians to describe these tribes in the 17th century because of the villages they lived in.
The cliff dwellings were the last urban settlements on the mesa built by the Ancestral Pueblo People. There were people working and living on the mesa as early as the 8th millennium BC. The first forms of semi permanent housing appeared on Mesa Verde at around 100 AD, during what anthropologists call the Late Basket Maker Period. These homes were semi sunken pit houses that an extended family would have lived in. There are Pueblo I, Pueblo II and Pueblo III sites scattered all over Mesa Verde and the surrounding regions.
Pueblo I villages were much larger and complex than late Basket Maker. One major difference is the appearance of the kiva, which is an underground structure used by current day Pueblo People for religious practices and ceremonies. Pit houses were still used at this time, although the first above ground structures that appeared were made from crude masonry and were primarily used for storage.
Pueblo II gave birth to places like the great Chaco Canyon in present day New Mexico. These cities were much more complicated and had amazing solar and lunar calendars. The cities' streets, rooms, walls and courtyards were even built to line up with major solar and lunar events. Also, great kivas were built in most cities. There is even evidence that Pueblo II communities had contact with places as far away as southern Mexico and maybe even with the ancient city of Tikal.
What Mesa Verde National Park is known for are the famous cliff dwellings, which are a Pueblo III settlement. Pueblo III sites are known for having much more condensed urban centers, walls around the cities and up to 3 story high towers. Many people think the towers were meant for religious ceremonies, not for military needs, because many towers are connected directly, by underground passages, to neighboring kivas. Another interesting part is that towns were built around water sources, while during all previous times water sources were never guarded or settled on. This settlement change happened at Pueblo III settlements throughout the entire four corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
Suddenly within one generation, starting around 1250 and ending by 1300, the entire Mesa Verde region was completely abandoned. Any Pueblo III settlement north of New Mexico or Arizona was abandoned and relocated further south. No one knows the exact reason why, but there is evidence that several events came together. First was a drought, second recent research shows people were going much further to collect firewood and third there is evidence of inter Pueblo warring. All these factors added together may have made people believe that the higher powers no longer supported their settlements in the north.
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After the resettlement many different nomadic groups moved into the area including the present day Utes, Apaches, Navajos and Comanches. These groups avoided the ancient cities because they thought witches and ghosts haunted them. In the 1760s the first Spanish explorers reached the mesa and named it Mesa Verde, which means, “green table.” They never ventured close enough to learn about the amazing ancient cities.
Prospectors and trappers started to discover the ruins in the 1870s and as more settlers arrived in the area more people started to talk about the lost cities on the mesa. In 1873 John Moss made his discoveries public and the following year led a photographer to the ruins to take photos. Several federally sponsored expeditions ventured up the canyons to survey the ruins in the late 1870s. Although in the final report they pushed for preservation and protection, nothing was done for several decades.
Meanwhile, ranchers began to settle the area. One of the more famous ranching families that did early digs at Mesa Verde was the Wetherill family. The Wetherills had good relations with the nearby Ute tribe, which at that time controlled most of the land that the ruins were on. The Wetherills started to slowly refocus their ranch to exploit the potential for tourism and took tourists to see the ruins. They also organized early digs, started a library on the ruins and donated most of their artifacts to a local museum. In their efforts to dig they did lots of damage, although many present day archaeologists consider the Wetherills very good caretakers of the ruins and not just pothunters looking for a quick dollar, like many of the other settlers in the area. As late as the 1920s a regular after church activity was to go pot hunting at one of the ruins in the region.
The first real archaeologist to use scientific methods was Gustaf Nordenskiold in 1891, a Swede-Finn that moved to the region for health reasons. He brought Mesa Verde to the attention of the world by publishing a book on the ruins. Even though he almost got himself lynched when it came to the attention of locals that he was exporting lots of artifacts back to Finland. To this day you can still see the pots he collected in museums scattered all over Europe and primarily in Helsinki.
In an effort to preserve the ruins, the Mesa Verde National Park was created on June 29th 1906. The national park was easy to create, as most of the land taken by the federal government was originally part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. In the summer of 2002 there were several massive fires that burned lots of the park. The entire park is now reopened to the public.
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The park is open year round but the activities and the ruins that can be seen change with the time of the year. Anything listed below is open during that time of year and hours are added if relevant:
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Motorcyclists and Individuals on Non-Commercial Buses
The entrance to the park is located on Highway 160 in the southwest corner of Colorado. The easiest way to get there is to driver from Durango (Colorado), about 1.5 hours, or Cortez (Colorado), 1 hour. The only way to access the park is by car and from the entrance it is another 45-minute drive up the twisty mesa road.
There are several places to eat in the park although most of them are not open year round. There are two restaurants located near the visitor center. Once in the back roads, the only options for eating is to bring your own sack lunch or the Ute Indian Taco Stand.
When the federal government built the new road in the park, part of it actually entered the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation by accident. You will see a large billboard for the casino, then a small trailer that is an Indian Taco stand. This is by far some of the best food for the best value on the mesa and most tourists miss it. This is also a rare chance to try some of the local reservation food. An Indian taco is normal taco stuff on top of Indian fry bread. The stand is located just off the far south side of the perimeter road. There are outdoor picnic benches to eat on and shade.
During the winter most of the facilities are shut down. Double check on the Mesa Verde National Park website for food options. If nothing is open make sure to bring a sack lunch because Cortez and Mancos are pretty far away to go for a quick bite to eat.
Due to the hot and dry climate any traveler should drink plenty of water. If going on a long hike remember to bring lots of water with you, especially if you go on the petro-glyph trail.
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