We recently visited Mesa Verde National Park, which is in the Four Corners Region of the United States but most of the park is in Colorado. It is the largest archaeological preserve in the US. Created in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, there are more than 600 cliff dwellings within the park’s boundaries. We purposely waited a few years so my youngest would be old enough to climb around to all the archaeological sites. It was awesome and my kids loved it!
We toured Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling in the United States. It was built by Native Americans archaeologists believe from 1190-1260 AD. Discovered in 1888 by 2 cowboys looking for cattle, Cliff Palace is the most visited site in Mesa Verde National Park. The building was partially collapsed but archaeologists have since restored it.
Balcony House is another cliff dwelling we visited. This one is only accessible via tall ladders (hence the waiting for my son to be old enough to climb). It has 40 rooms and is considered a medium sized cliff dwelling. Like Cliff Palace, Balcony House was in ruins until restored and preserved by the National Park Service in the early part of the 1900’s. The ladder climb leading in and out of this dwelling was the highlight for my kids!
Standing in these structures, one is awed by how these early peoples lived. The climate is dry. Little rain falls. The cliffs are accessible only by climbing up and down. One wrong move and you fall over the cliff. But inside the structure, it is cool and protected from the elements. Archaeologists do not know why the cliff dwellings were abandoned or exactly when but at some point the peoples moved on probably around 1300. They kept no written records. Maybe drought or other weather conditions contributed as well as an increased population.
After the cowboys publicized their discovery of the cliff dwellings tourists began to arrive. These “curio seekers” took away artifacts and destroyed some the of the ruins in order to sell ancient antiquities. This violation led to the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906 that made it a crime to remove artifacts from archaeological sites. Many archaeologists believe much was lost during this 15 year period that could have been used to understand more of the people here. In fact, many of the artifacts from Mesa Verde are in Europe, in museums, or in private collections from those who sought to make a profit at the expense of the sites.
Long House, another cliff dwelling which we did not visit, can also be toured as well as Spruce Tree House. Tickets can be purchased for ranger-led hikes to other cliff dwellings as well. Pithouses are located right off the roads as well as views of other inaccessible cliff dwellings. Most of the major sites have kivas, which are ceremonial pits inside the dwellings. The drive is fantastic as it’s mountain terrain with wide views of the surrounding landscape.
We camped inside the park at Morefield Campground, just 4 miles from the Park’s entrance. We hiked around and saw tons of deer walking through. Some hiking trails are available, including one that leads to petroglyphs.
We had a wonderful time and would highly recommend the park. Educational for the kids. Fun all around. Outdoors. Enjoying Nature. Marveling at God’s glory. And what man does with God’s gifts.