By Anastasia Mills Healy

Walk where thousands of ancient people lived more than a millennium ago; entire villages sheltered in the cliffside alcoves of a steep canyon. Perhaps spot wild horses roaming in the woods, on an 8,500-foot mountaintop. Where would you think this might be? Turkey? Australia? Africa? No: Colorado. 

The United States doesn’t immediately come to mind when people think about ancient world sites. After all, our country is only 243 years old. But that measurement reflects European history, when in fact the land that became America has been inhabited for 12,000 years.

Beginning in approximately 550 AD, Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly referred to as Anasazi) settled on what is now called Mesa Verde (“green table”). Mesa Verde National Park now covers 8,500 acres of federally designated wilderness on which there are 4,700 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings.

It’s moving to stand in the shelter of a canyon overhang imagining the active community life in the very same spot a thousand years ago. Hand-and-toehold trails connected the village to the mesa top where residents hunted and farmed corn, beans, and squash.

The earliest people dug pit houses with four timbers supporting a roof, crafted baskets, and used bows and arrows. Around 750 AD they began to build homes above ground, grouped in curving rows. By 1000 AD they were building stone structures, sometimes two or three stories high, and in units of as many as 50 rooms. In every dwelling area there’s a ceremonial structure called a kiva that is dug into the earth. Entered by ladder through a hole in the middle of its roof, kivas were probably used for religious and social functions.

Most of the cliff dwellings, ranging in size from one room to 150, were built in the last hundred or so years before the area was abandoned. Cliff Palace and Long House are the biggest, and both can be entered on a ranger-guided tour.

By 1300, the Ancestral Pueblo people had left Mesa Verde; theories include drought and depletion of natural resources. They moved to neighboring lands, and today, the Hopi of Arizona and the people of Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the Pueblos around the Rio Grande can trace their ancestry to the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited this magical place.


Nearby

The 176,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument has the highest-known density of archeological sites in the U.S.: 6,000. Within Canyon of the Ancients and built between 1200 and 1300 A.D., Hovenweep National Monument was home to 2,500 people.

Operated by the Ute Nation, Ute Mountain Tribal Park also has cliff dwellings, pictographs, and kivas to explore.

Communities surrounding Mesa Verde include Cortez, Durango, and Mancos, Colorado. There is so much to do here and visitors don’t plan enough time, so the local tourism hash tag rightly is #onedayjustisntenough.

Every outdoor activity you can imagine can be done in Colorado, from fishing to zip lining. Horseback riding, a mining tour, and a San Juan Forest sightseeing train are a few special regional experiences.

Logistics

Mesa Verde is in southwestern Colorado, a four-and-a-half hour drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico; one hour from the Four Corners; and a further three hours to the Grand Canyon. My family traveled here over April break as part of a Southwest adventure that began in Santa Fe and ended with some R&R in Scottsdale.

The top of the mesa is a full half hour drive up a winding mountain road from the visitor center and park entrance, so plan accordingly. It’s possible to drive around Mesa Verde yourself, using a visitor’s map, getting out to walk around sites, read interpretive signs, and hike trails. However, two of the most impressive sites can only be accessed by ranger-led tours: Cliff Palace and Long House. Reserve tours in advance.

Resources

Tourism Information 

Mesa Verde National Park www.nps.gov/meve or www.visitmesaverde.com

Far View Lodge is the only lodging within the park. Open April-October, it has 150 rooms and a restaurant lined with windows, designed to take advantage of its special setting.

In Cortez, Baymont Inn & Suites is a solid lodging choice; Lounge Lizard and Farm Bistro are great for dinner; and there’s a brewery and an ice cream place, depending your vice.