Mesa Verde is a different type of National Park. Most of United States’ National Parks feature pristine slices of the natural world; Mesa Verde highlights the country’s distant cultural heritage. Created in 1906, Mesa Verde National Park was established to protect the ruins of the Ancient Puebloan’s dwellings. UNESCO concurs with the area’s archeological significance; in 1978 Mesa Verde was designated as a World Heritage Site.
Situated near Four Corners in the southwest extreme of Colorado, Mesa Verde is remote. Still, ample numbers of tourists make the effort to reach this Grand Circle destination. In 2010, 559,712 visits were recorded at the National Park. Mesa Verde’s tourist count ranks 30th out of the 58 United States National Parks.
Mesa Verde’s ancient cliff dwellings are the attraction. Around 1200, towards the end of their time in Mesa Verde, the residents built dwellings and storage structures in shallow caves of the region’s cliffs. Today, the remnants of these rock buildings remain preserved by the geology. The cliff dwelling ruins are an extraordinarily intact record of the life of the ancient people.
In modern times we refer to the society that created these dwellings as the Anasazi or, more preferably, the Ancient Puebloans. In reality no one knows what the people who created Mesa Verde’s cliff structures used for themselves. The terms “Anasazi” and “Ancient Puebloans” are exonyms, a name given to a people by outsiders. When the area’s resources were depleted and the Ancient Puebloan population disbursed near 1300 AD the name used by the cliff dwellers was lost.
Some of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwelling complexes are extensive. The Cliff Palace, the largest and best known of the ruins, has 150 identified rooms and 23 communal kivas. Numerous smaller compounds are scattered about the area. Every accessible cliff alcove that could support building has ruins or so it appears. The Ancient Puebloans needed to be fearless climbers to reach the locations where they constructed dwellings.
Access to the cliff dwellings both in the days of the Ancient Puebloans and in the present is sketchy. Ranger led tours take visitors into the pueblo ruins down steep ladders and stairs and through narrow slots in the rock of the cliff face. Besides the Cliff Palace, we visited the smaller Balcony and Spruce Tree Houses. Visiting the Spruce Tree House is easiest; a short unescorted walk from the museum takes visitors to the dwelling. Entering Balcony house is harder. Tourists must make long climb up a wooden ladder to enter the complex of ruins. A very tight shimmy through a narrow tunnel is required to exit. I had to turn my shoulders towards vertical to squeeze through. Plus sized visitors could easily find themselves plugging the exit.
Mesa Verde is not typical of United States’ National Parks. Rather than the usual spectacle of pristine landscape this National Park provides a glimpse into United State’s pre-Columbian past. In the end, what Mesa Verde offers is rare. The cliffs have protected the ancient’s dwellings from the elements. Remaining today is an extensive view of the ruins of a community established and abandoned well before the arrival of the Spanish. Indeed, at Mesa Verde, history is the appeal.
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