There are plenty of excellent national parks to visit in the western states with Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park being high on that list. The park has been in existence for over a century now since it was established back in the summer of 1906.
It’s approximately 52,000 acres in size and when translated, Mesa Verde means green table. This is in reference to the tables of rock that can be found overlooking the beautiful Montezuma Valley.
(photo credit: kenlund)
This park’s cliffs dwellings and rocks are well preserved and there are several canyons which slice the mesa into several narrow tablelands. The region is quite historical and archaeologists have discovered close to 5,000 archaeological sites here that date back as far as the middle of the 6th century. The archaeological sites that have been found include cliff side villages and multileveled cliff dwellings which tell the story of the prehistoric inhabitants of the area, known as the Anasazi.
These days, the present Pueblo tribes that are located in the Southwest regard themselves as descendants of these ancient people. In the middle of the 8th century, the Puebloans lived in the dwellings on top of the mesa or created nearby villages. In the 13th century, they moved to the recesses of the cliffs for better shelter and some of these can still be seen today.
In the late 1880s, a couple of cowboys were in the area tracking down stray cattle during a snowstorm. When they stopped at the edge of a canyon they discovered a huge cliff dwelling on the other side of it. The men explored the series of rooms and inside they came across ancient pottery, stone tools, and other interesting artifacts that had been left there 6 centuries earlier.
Nobody’s really sure why the tribes left the area and it’s believed that they lived in these cliff dwellings for approximately 80 years before moving on. However, archaeologists believe they may have abandoned the cliffs and villages due to warfare and because their population grew too large over the years. This led to battles between the villages as food was getting scarce due to drought. By the time the 1300s arrived, the Puebloans had gone from the plateau and never returned.
There are plenty of historic sites to visit in the park as well as lots of hiking opportunities. You’ll find a visitor center as well as the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum along with the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling. The best time to visit is between the spring and fall since several of the park’s services are closed down during the winters.
You’ll see some colorful wildflowers in bloom between April and September and while some things are closed in the winter you can still enjoy cross-country skiing in Morefield as well as on the Cliff Palace Loop.
Exploring the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park is one of the highlights, but make sure you wear a pair of sturdy shoes or boots. Also be prepared for some pretty strenuous climbs if you’d like to get a close-up look at these ancient rock homes. One of the best places to camp is the Morefield Campground, which is just a few miles inside the park.
There are about 400 campsites with each of them having a bench, grill, and table. It’s ideal for trailers, RVs, and tents. You’ll also find base camping in Mesa Verde where you can rent a site which includes a canvas tent, carpet flooring, a lantern, and two cots. Many of the best hikes are situated close to the campground and offer amazing views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.