Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering eighty-two square miles in southwest Colorado. President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation in 1906 designating this area as a National Park. It is packed with archaeological sites and beautiful desert wilderness.
Mesa Verde (Green Table) has a large canyon rim around deep crevices that form narrow valleys. They say there was a thriving civilization there from the 700s to the 1200s A.D. The inhabitants farmed on the tops of the rim and hunted in the forested valleys below. (Those folks must have been in good physical shape.) Of note, a local pamphlet said it was a matriarchal culture but didn’t explain how they came to this conclusion.
Today, you can take Ranger-led interpretive tours as well as select from a wide range of hiking trails. I hiked the Petroglyph Trail, a three-mile loop. The trail attempted to share the natural environment of the Mesa Verde and instruct about how it was used by the early people residing there. I walked narrow passages between tall rock walls and emerged to awesome views of the canyon.
A petroglyph is an image carved into the face of a rock. When I finally reached the petroglyphs at the end of the trail, I was relieved. I had been beginning to worry there may be no petroglyphs despite the trail’s name.
This trail featured a cluster of clearly discernible figures carved onto the rock above a narrow path. I knew I would not have stood on the open ledge to chip the design into the sandstone until the interior color of the rock showed through. So seeing any carved images was impressive to me.
When I reached the petroglyph, I caught up with two women (ages 77 and 80) from California. I was glad I met with them because about fifty feet further up the trail, we got to climb around the side of a ledge using hand holds and toe holds. This was fairly easy, but I would have been nervous going over that exposed ledge without them. It was somehow comforting to know that if I slipped, someone was there to report my fall.
After that stretch, we were rewarded with the best view of the surrounding canyon and its colorful wildflowers.
“Around A.D. 1200, some of the people living on Mesa Verde moved down into the alcoves, often occupying the same ones that had been inhabited by their ancestors, the Basketmaker people, 600 years earlier. . . . The construction of Cliff Palace was a herculean effort, most of which occurred in a very short time, only about twenty years. . . . To create a level floor, the builders of Cliff Palace erected a retaining wall along the front of the alcove and backfilled behind the wall, making a flat working surface and solid foundation for rooms. Some 150 rooms-living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces-were eventually created.” Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p.
“By A.D. 1300 nearly everyone had left Mesa Verde, and in fact the entire Four Corners area that had been the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. They departed for a number of possible reasons. A long-term drought at the end of the 1200s had been documented. Without water, crops would shrivel and people would be thirsty. Essential resources such as fertile soils, wood, and wildlife might have been exhausted after centuries of harvest and use. Warfare, disease, and internal disputes have also been offered as explanations. . . . but people did not “vanish.” By all evidence, they went south to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona, to Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. To some of them, Cliff Palace remains a special place.” Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 15.
Fun Fact: In 2021, Mesa Verde National Park was designated one of the world’s best places from which to view a starry night sky.
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