Mesa Verde Park, 700 years old, one of only 20 World Heritage Sites in the entire United States, stands as the largest archaeological preserve in the country on top of a beautiful mesa covered in sagebrush and pinon-juniper forest. Recent visitors to southwestern Colorado’s one-of-a-kind Mesa Verde Park took to Trip Advisor to describe their experience as:
“A very unique National Park!”
“Very interesting national park with lots to see and do.”
“Definitely worth a visit!”
“Do NOT miss Mesa Verde!! Especially the petroglyphs!!”
“Breathtaking & Educational Experience.”
“Amazing to see but requires planning.”
What’s the History of Mesa Verde National Park?
Back in 1888, ranchers, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, were on the prowl for stray cattle. While riding along the top of the mesa, they spotted the ruins which looked something like “a magnificent city.” In time, those ruins would come to be known as Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace is now thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America and it was Wetherill that gave the ruin its current name.
That’s Mesa Verde’s simple history. Truth is, Mesa Verde has had a tumultuous start since its discovery. One of the people who stayed with the Wetherill family to explore the cliff-dwellings arranged to return found artifacts to his home country. No surprise, people took issue with this and it sparked the first lawsuit which would eventually result in the Antiquities Act of 1906. Even before the existence of the National Park Service itself, Mesa Verde Park was officially established by an Act of Congress. And Mesa Verde Park was the first archaeological area in the entire world to be recognized and protected in this way.
Today, you don’t have to have to go in search of stray cattle today to see this remarkable World Heritage Site. In fact, you don’t even have to have cattle. In 2016, more than a half million people visited Mesa Verde Park. The Park occupies 52,485 acres near the four conjoined corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. With more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. “Mesa Verde” is Spanish for “green table” and is best known for Cliff Palace. Where do you start in a Park with more than 4,300 sites? You can start to explore the Park on your own or you can enlist the expertise of the only lodging and NPS-approved guided tours inside Mesa Verde provided by Gateway Reservations.
What is the “700 Years Tour”?
As you probably guessed, Mesa Verde National Park reflects more than 700 years of history. Some of the earliest pit houses are believed to have been built around 600AD. The Mesa Verde tour is coined the “700 Years Tour” because it focuses on the more classic, and dare I say impressive, cliff dwellings of the 13th century. The mesa tops aren’t the only place they’ve built their homes. They even dared to reside in the canyon walls! This marks the climax of the Pueblo culture in Mesa Verde known as the Classic Pueblo Period (A.D. 1100-1300). Some 600 cliff dwellings built of sandstone and mud mortar have been recorded within Mesa Verde National Park – including the famous multi-story Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Square Tower House. The cliff dwelling sites vary in size from small storage structures to large villages of 50 to 200 rooms.
Other archaeological sites, such as pit-house settlements and masonry-walled villages are distributed over the mesas. Non-habitation sites include: farming terraces, check dams, field houses, reservoirs and ditches, shrines and ceremonial features, as well as rock art.
There are numerous ways to see the Park and can help arrange a half-day tour (morning or afternoon) or reserve a space with local suppliers who offer full-day tours. Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours, and Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours all have experienced, expert guides and can ensure an exceptional experience of the Park.
Our expert tour guides will guide you through some of the first indications of human habitation and show you the development of this ancient civilization where you can glean insight into the fascinating history of pre-cliff dwellers (and perhaps even their mysterious disappearance!). You can hike, drive or ride comfortable motor coaches to archaeological sites of Triple Cities, Square Tower Overlook, Sun Point, Sun Temple, and the infamous Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace’s complexity will astound you with over 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round sunken rooms). It is believed to have had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the Park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. If you visit Cliff Palace, you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which many experts speculate had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
There’s still time in the season to take a tour of this exceptional, remarkably well-preserved prehistoric settlement and still time to contact Gateway Reservations to arrange for lodging and guided tours.