Mesa Verde National Park

Natural History

Geography: An inland sea periodically covered the Mesa Verde area from about 100 million years ago to about 70 million years ago, depositing sediments that formed layers of shale and sandstone. Among these deposits were shallow-water fine-grained sands, which are now Cliff House Sandstone. This is the rock that forms deep flat ledges, or alcoves, which made the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi possible.

Repeated minor lifts and erosion carved the canyons into the mesa that continues today. During the last million years red dust blew in from the southwest and covered the mesa with fertile soul. Water and wind erosion, along with freezing and thawing, are what cut the alcoves into the Cliff House Sandstone.

Mesa Verde is situated in a transition zone between high desert and the mountains. Oak brush, Utah serviceberry, and mountain mahogany cover higher northern elevations. The southern mesa is a forest of gray-green juniper and pinyon pine. Side canyons are home to sagebrush, yucca, and prickly pear.

Birds: Over 200 species of birds inhabit the park. Many are year-round residents, while others, like the turkey vulture and hummingbird, visit only during the summer. The wild Miriam's turkey is plentiful in the park, and flocks of these gregarious birds may wander through the campground at Morefield. These birds were originally caught by the Anasazi and raised for their feathers.

Animals: The most common animals in the park are the rock squirrel, cottontail rabbit, and chipmunk. Mule deer, coyotes, skunk, and foxes are also fairly common, and apt to stroll past a stationary car or hiker. Black bear, mountain lions, elk, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes are rarely seen, but do inhabit the park.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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