Mesa Verde is a high plateau with more than twenty canyons that drain into the Mancos River. Alcoves, created by alternate freezing and thawing of trapped water, are the location for the many cliff dwellings that have been preserved for hundreds of years. On the mesatop, other structures help explain the culture of the ancient people who once roamed the area.
History of Mesa Verde National Park
The first known documentation of Mesa Verde was in a geological report of Professor J.S. Newberry in 1859; however, he makes no mention of the cliff dwellings. It wasn’t until 1874 cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde area were documented.
The discovery of most of the ruins in the Mesa Verde National Park is attributed to the Wetherill brotherCredit: Photo by Cheryl Weldons in 1889. They claim to have explored the ruins of 182 dwellings. The previous year, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charles Mason had discovered and entered one of the more famous dwellings, Cliff Palace; although Richard’s brother, Al had seen the Cliff Palace in 1887; he didn’t enter it and was not given credit for its discovery.
The first scientist to explore the ruins was Baron Gustaf Nordenskiold of the Academy Science of Sweden. He collected about 600 items and sent them to Sweden where they are on display in the National Museum of Helsinki, Finland.
The Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve the sites built by “Pre-Colombian Indians.” In 1908 the major sites began to be excavated and repaired so the public could view them.
The park contains 600 cliff dwellings, though not all are accessible for public tours; some require a park ranger guided tour. Most of the dwellings contain 1-5 rooms each; some thought to be single room storage units. The most well-known of the cliff dwellings include:
Cliff Palace – comprised of at least 200 rooms and 23 kivas (ceremonial chambers) and probably housed 200-250 people. It is the largest dwelling area in the Mesa Verde National Park and is thought to be a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
Long House – the second largest cliff dwelling in the park, it contains at least 150 rooms and 21 kivas; touring this site involves climbing three ladders.
Balcony House – the most challenging to tour of all the cliff dwellings The Balcony House tour requires people to descend a 100-foot-long staircase into the canyon; climb a 32-foot tall ladder, crawl through a 12-foot long tunnel, and then climb an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps.
Step House – This dwelling has clear evidence of two separate occupations in the same site; a modified basketmaker site, dating to A.D. 626; and a masonry pueblo dating to Classic Pueblo times (A.D. 1226).
Spruce Tree House – the third largest cliff dwelling in the park; it contains about 130 rooms and eight kivas. It was probably home to about 80 people.
In addition to the cliff dwellings there are numerous mesa top ruins to explore. These sites include Cedar Tree Tower and the Sun Temple.
Other Sites in the Four Corners Area
There are over 4,000 known archeological sites in the Mesa Verde Park alone; most of which have not been excavated. Nearby in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, there are an estimated 20,000 ruins of the Anasazi peoples. Because of its remoteness, this park gets a limited number of visitors compared to the almost one million annual visitors to its neighbor.
Where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet (the four corners) there are numerous signs of the Anasazi culture. Across the border from Southwestern Colorado more ruins can be found in the following parks:
Canyon de Chelley – in Northeast Arizona there are cliff dwellings and signs of inhabitation by the Hopi and Navajo Tribes who both claim to be descendents of the Anasazi who originally built their homes in the alcoves of the cliffs. While this is a National Park, portions of it continue to be inhabited by the Navajo Tribe; and in order to explore the canyon floor and walls in those areas visitors must be accompanied by a Navajo guide.
Chaco Canyon – Northwest New Mexico –The most well-known site is the Pueblo Bonita which was also discovered and excavated by Richard Wetherill.
Grand Gulch - Southeast Utah - this primitive area is accessible only by pack animal or on foot.
Grab the camera and put on some hiking boots. The Four Corners area won’t disappoint. The scenery is beautiful and the insights to an ancient culture are awe inspiring.
NPS.gov/archive/meve (accessed April 25, 2010)
The copyright of the article “Historic Cliff Dwellings dot the Landscape of Mesa Verde National Park” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.