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Mesa Verde National Park sits in the southwestern corner of Colorado, adjacent to the Four Corners region where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado all meet. First established in 1906 to preserver the archaeological sites built by Pre-Columbian Indians on the mesa tops, cliffs, and alcoves of the region, today the park contains more than 4,400 known sites across 52,000 acres. It's also the first and only national park designated specifically for the preservation of human culture in North America.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The park's central allure—its archaeological sites like Cliff Palace (pictured)—however, date as far back as 600 A.D., and were inhabited by an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people, referred to as Ancestral Puebloans. Due to the sites' fragile state, most tours of the ancestral complexes are led by park rangers.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The elevation of Mesa Verde, which is Spanish for green table, fluctuates between from about 6,100 to 8,400 feet. Dramatic north/south-running canyons dominate the park, along with staggering, panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and plateaus.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Cliff Palace, oft considered Mesa Verde's crown jewel, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The site boasts 150 rooms and 23 kivas—rooms used by the Ancestral Puebloans for religious ceremonies. The main alcove is 89 feet deep and 59 feet high, and approximately 288 feet long. Surprisingly, scientists estimate that entire palace was built in 20 years.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Archaeologists believe that some of the farmers who lived on the top of the mesa moved down into the alcoves around 1200 A.D., typically occupying the same sites constructed by their antecessors, the Basketmaker people, 600 years earlier.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The complex itself remains an architectural marvel, a mixture of open spaces, towers, ladders, storage rooms, living rooms, and wood-timber beams. The residents are believed to have departed in 1300—perhaps due to a long-term drought, internal strife, disease, a lack of resources... No one can say for certain.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Southeast of Cliff Palace resides Balcony House, easily one of the most visually stunning spots in Mesa Verde and one of the best-preserved sites in the park. Balcony House sits 600 feet above the expansive Soda Canyon.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The guided, small-group tour includes two ladder climbs, one 32 feet tall, the other 60 feet. Also expect some vertiginously exposed cliff ledges and crawls through narrow tunnels.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The two-story complex is 279 feet long, with 38 rooms and two kivas, divided into three plazas.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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North of both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, the self-led tour of Spruce Tree House is arguably one of the more user-friendly sites to explore, with an easy-grade paved path leading down to the complex. The third-largest cliff dwelling in the park was constructed between 1200 and 1276, and was occupied by around 100 people.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Built into a natural cave, the site measures 216 feet at its widest, and 89 feet at its deepest. The overhanging cliff roof is largely credited for the site's almost perfectly preserved state today.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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This six-foot ladder descends into a kiva that's been reconstructed by the National Park Service to help illustrate the lives and times of the Ancestral Puebloans at Spruce Tree House.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Long House, which sits within Wetherill Mesa east of the other major park attractions, can be seen from the tram road overlook, but that's no substitute for taking the ranger-led tour down to the complex.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The second-largest in the park, Long House boasts 21 kivas (like the two pictured here) and 150 rooms scattered across three stories, and is believed to have accommodated up to 200 people.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Some archaeologists, however, posit that the site might've been of ceremonial significance with only a few year-round in habitants.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Long House looks out across the expanse of both Rock Canyon and Wildhorse Mesa.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Some of the more remote complexes, like Fewkes Canyon's Fire Temple, are best seen from overlooks stationed along the park's main drives. As its name implies, this complex held religious significance linked to the sun-fire-serpent worship in the service of fertility and agriculture.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The roadside overlook of four-story Square Tower House demonstrates the Ancestral Puebloan's structural ingenuity, and is one of the few sites in the park with its original roof still intact.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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While day-tripping into Mesa Verde works, for the full experience (and a dearth of crowds), bed down at the park's famed Far View Lodge. The accommodations themselves might strike some as spartan, but the pristine views and the fabulous fine-dining Metate Room restaurant should not be missed. And the lack of TVs in the room will help you appreciate the silence that descends on the park each night.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
 
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