Road Trips

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: Learn the Story of the Anasazi's Cliff Dwellings

Filed Under: Colorado, National Parks

Peering into the alcoves from which Mesa Verde's puebloan cliff dwellings seem to seep upward is oddly reminiscent of peering into treasures encased within a Faberge Egg. Both are unexpected, intricate, oddly out of place and yet perfectly at home.

The story of the Anasazi, or "Ancient Ones," who inhabited these dwellings remains steeped in uncertainties and lends to the mystique that has made this ancient civilization so fascinating. The only things archaeologists know for certain is that the Anasazi originally inhabited the mesa top, and in A.D. 1200, began colonizing the alcoves and shelves of the mesa only to abruptly leave again in A.D. 1300. All that remains are artifacts and intricately built dwellings -- sort of a land-bound, and discovered, Atlantis. Visitors to Mesa Verde can explore the dwellings only via guided tour. Touring the Balcony House, the largest of the dwellings, requires a 100-ft. descent into the canyon, climbing over 70 feet of ladders and stairs, and crawling through a 12-ft. tunnel - but the rewards are stupendous!

Of course, Mesa Verde is more than mere cliff dwellings: of the 4,000 known archaeological sites in the park, only 600 are dwellings. Mesa-top pithouses and pueblos are also accessible to explore, and the park's museum has a cultural collection of over 2 million historical objects. Hiking trails abound: Point Lookout Trail takes hikers up the looming Point Lookout Sandstone Formation, and the Spruce Canyon Loop lets visitors experience the canyon bottom.

Geological History
Sixty-five million years ago, a vast inland sea covered this entire region. Over time, sandstone, mud, shale and limestone were deposited. Streams from the surrounding areas also deposited into this region, and helped create many of the shale and sandstone formations, including the Point Lookout Sandstone Formation. As the years passed, the rocks eroded into niches and alcoves that eventually became the famed cliff dwellings.

Park Activities
Mesa Verde is best known for the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi that are perched so precariously in alcoves of rock walls. The Cliff Palace Loop Drive takes visitors past mesa-top sites and overlooks that face the cliff dwellings. A guided tour of the Cliff Palace or Balcony House dwellings is available for visitors hoping to get up close and personal with the ancient structures, though the tours are somewhat strenuous and recommended for people in good physical condition.

Where to Stay
Mesa Verde is already home to the famous cliff dwellings, so why not make it your dwelling, too? Spending a night at Morefield Campground will allow visitors easy access to spectacular hikes around the valleys and mountains. A mouthwatering pancake feast greets guests each morning in the full-service village, where they will also encounter a gas station, RV dumping station, laundry, gift shop, hot showers and grocery store. Open late April through mid-October. 

Nearby Sights/Side Trips
Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings never cease to amaze visitors, and it's possible to learn even more about the fascinating world of the Anasazi people at the Anasazi Heritage Center. This Museum of Ancestral Puebloan Culture features exhibits on the archaeology, history and culture of the Anasazi, as well a collection of over 3 million artifacts garnered from digs in the region. The museum even allows visitors to weave on a pueblo-style loom and grind corn into meal using ancient tools like the metate

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