In an area of the southwest USA that’s crammed with National Parks, Mesa Verde is the odd one out. Why? Because the environment being preserved here isn’t a natural one dating back millions of years, but a man-made one which only dates back a few hundred years. Located on a mesa – a high ‘table’ or plateau of land – this area was home to a group of Native American people called the Ancestral Puebloans. They moved here around 600 AD and set up pit houses and farms on top of the plateau. But within a few hundred years they’d moved down into the cliffs themselves, building houses and even whole villages into the solid sandstone rocks. Over 4000 different archaeological sites have been found spread over the 80 square mile park, some of them amazingly well-preserved. Unique in the US, it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a National Park.
With just a few hours to see the park, we had to pick the sights we most wanted to see. But first we had to get up there. The Mesa Verde plateau is around 8000 feet high, so from the main highway the road winds its way upwards and upwards for 20 miles, through switchback turns and past sheer drops. From the top there were spectacular views of four states – the park is near to the Four Corners area, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona all meet at one spot.
The Mesa Verde site is split into sections, with the Chaplin Mesa area having the greatest concentration of archaeological sites. We took the Mesa Top Loop first, following a six-mile driving route that takes you through some of the early sites. They start off with primitive pit-houses then move on to more elaborate mud-brick adobe buildings. But the most impressive are the cliff houses. These were built around 1200 AD and the theory is that as the mesa got drier as the climate got warmer, the Puebloans moved further down into the canyons to be nearer the water. As the area’s so high and exposed it also helped shelter them from cold winter winds and gave protection from wildfires.
You can do a self guided tour of the Spruce Tree House, which is one of the best-preserved cliff houses. It starts from the museum on Chaplin Mesa, where get your first glimpse of it tucked beneath an overhang on the other side of a canyon. After following a steep path into the gorge you emerge among the buildings. This was the equivalent of a block of flats when it was built in 1210, home to between 60 and 80 people all packed in close together. It’s hard to imagine that it was built so long ago, but the dry climate and the shelter given by the rocks above helped preserve it from damage by the elements over the years.
Most of the site is roped off to protect it, but you can climb down inside one of the kivas. These are circular underground chambers where religious ceremonies were performed that were the centre of the community. To visit the other cliff houses you need to take a guided tour. This includes the Cliff Palace, the biggest with 300 people in 217 rooms and 23 kivas. The most adventurous tour though is at Balcony House, where you have to climb a 32-foot-high wooden ladder and crawl through a tunnel to get there.
After building a whole civilisation in Mesa Verde, around 1300 the Puebloans just upped and left. No one’s sure why, but it’s thought a combination of drought, deforestation and overhunting meant there was nothing left for them. The site was abandoned and lost for the next 700 years until cowboys looking for their lost cattle came across some of the cliff houses. After that word got out an explorers raided the site for pottery and jewellery left behind by the Pueobloans. So in 1906 Mesa Verde was made a National Park by President Roosevelt to preserve this amazing insight into the 800-year-old world of the Puebloans.
Mesa Verde National Park is in Colorado, one-hour east of Cortez or 1.5 hours west of Durango. You need a car to get around the park. Entry costs $10 per car ($15 between 27 May–5 September 2016) or it’s free if you have a National Parks Pass. You need to book ranger-guided tours in advance at the visitor’s centre – the new centre is right by the turning off Highway 160 and easy to miss.