Unearthing the Ghosts of History in Mesa Verde National Park
While exploring the geographical features of the Rockiesthe snow-capped peaks, barren mesas, and canyons ribbed by water and timeit's easy to miss the subtler language of their human history; centuries before Columbus's arrival, Native American cultures thrived in these mountains. Like the Inca's lost city of Machu Picchu or Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple, southwestern Colorado's Mesa Verde, 35 miles west of Durango, is an archaeological marvel seemingly born out of the wilderness that surrounds it. Clinging to the sandstone cliffs of a vast mesa 1,600 feet above the surrounding desert valley, the captivating remnants of hollowed stone houses and towers are among the region's most spectacular sites.
Rising up to five stories with more than 200 rooms, the settlements at Mesa Verde were once the thriving home of the Anasazi tribe, their name originating from the Navajo for "the ancient ones" or "the ancient enemy." From 1190 to 1300, the ancestors of the modern-day Pueblo tribes constructed a collection of remarkable cliff dwellings along the inhospitable canyon walls. But by the 14th century, the Anasazi mysteriously abandoned the site, leaving behind weapons, pottery, clothing, tools, and a archaeological enigma that still persists. The most widely accepted theory proposes that they were forced to leave after deforestation stripped the mesa of its trees, but this does not explain why homes were left as if villagers would soon be returning.
The crumbling, yet hauntingly preserved ruins were rediscovered nearly six centuries after they were abandoned, and in 1906 the area became the first national park designed specifically to protect manmade structures. Today, Mesa Verde National Park (970-529-4465, www.gorp.away.com/gorp/resource/us_national_park/co_mesa.htm) also stands as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Among the most popular of the 4,000 archaeological sites at Mesa Verde are Cliff Palace and Balcony House at the base of Chapin Mesa, while Step House and Long House on Wetherill Mesa are more remote but equally intriguing destinations.
Hiking throughout the piñon and juniper-decorated mesas and canyons of Mesa Verde National Park is limited to the designated trails; backcountry hiking and camping are not permitted. However, even regulated trails can prove challenging, especially given the steep, slick surfaces and the summer sun. For those looking to explore Mesa Verde by bike, travel is restricted to paved roads that do not have bike lanes. For off-road trips through the area, nearby Ute Mountain Tribal Park (800-847-5485, www.utemountainute.com/tribalpark.htm) offers one- to four-day guided mountain-biking trips. But perhaps the best way to see Mesa Verde is on cross-country skis. In the winter season when the area typically receives upwards of 80 inches of snow (and a dearth of tourists), skiers can take advantage of the many unplowed roads and trails through the park.
While Mesa Verde can often feel over-crowded during the high season, there are options for those looking to get off the beaten pre-Columbian track. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (800-422-8975, www.crowcanyon.org), located just a few miles outside of Mesa Verde, offers daily tours as well as weeklong programs in which participants work alongside trained archaeologists. The center's experts also lead daily excursions to rarely seen Anasazi sites.
Situated off Route 666 northwest of Mesa Verde National Park in the Dove Creek area is Lowry Ruins, a small but unique Ancestral Pueblo dwelling. Three stories high and built in three stages over 30 years in the 11th century, the pueblo contains 40 rooms and is believed to have been abandoned in 1150 AD. Twenty miles east, Hovenweep National Monument (970-562-4282, www.nps.gov/hove) straddles the Colorado-Utah state line, and is one of the least-visited National Park Service units in Colorado. With almost-guaranteed quiet and solitude, the park features no-frills camping, interpretive trails, and six main ruin sites. Then, just 40 miles east toward Cortez is the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (www.co.blm.gov/canm). This 164,000-acre park was established in June 2000 to protect more than 6,000 archaeological sites throughout its remote canyons. Restricted backcountry camping is allowed, as is biking on a limited number of established roads and trails.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication