Mesa Verde National Park is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the southwestern corner of the state of Colorado. The park is world-renowned for the incredibly well-preserved cliff dwellings it protects. Indeed, they are some of the most interesting archaeological sites in North America. Mesa Verde is also notable for its desert landscape of tall mesas and steep canyons.
The name of the park is Spanish for “green table”, referring to the vegetation found at the tops of the plateaus in this area. The Ancestral Puebloans chose Mesa Verde as their settlement 1,400 years ago, establishing small pithouses (large holes in the ground with a wooden roof overhead) on the mesa tops. Back then they were more nomadic, and hunted game with spears and were skilled basketmakers. Over time they began to farm the mesa tops, learned how to create pottery, and fashioned bows and arrows instead of spears.
As the population grew, the Ancestral Puebloans moved from pithouses to pole-and-adobe houses built above ground. The pithouses became kivas (ceremonial rooms) as the mesa top villages became larger and more complex. Stone masonry replaced the poles and mud of earlier houses, as villages rose two or three stories high, became more compact, and had many rooms. During this time, pottery replaced baskets as a more desired craft.
Around 1200 CE, the Ancestral Puebloans began to move under overhangs found in the cliffs of the canyons. Here, they built cities with multi-storied structures that housed 100-400 people. However, the Ancestral Puebloans only used these incredible constructions for less than 100 years. By 1300 CE, they had left the area for reasons unknown, traveling south into New Mexico and Arizona.
About 100 million years ago, Mesa Verde and the surrounding area were covered by a shallow sea, and sand deposits cemented into the sandstone layers that make up much of the park’s geology. As the sea withdrew to the south, uplift in the area created the high plateau that is Mesa Verde. Over time, small streams have cut channels into the plateau, creating steep canyons which separate the individual mesas. Traveling south, the mesa extends like fingers into the desert.
From the park entrance in Montezuma Valley, the elevation climbs steeply to the rim of the flat mesa top. Elevations in the park range from about 6,100 feet (1,860 meters) to about 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) above sea level.
There is a lot of wildlife in the park. Mule deer are a common sight, as are wild turkeys since the park service reintroduced them. You might also see squirrels, skunks, or an occasional black bear around the campground. Other mammals seen in the park include coyote, gray fox, mountain lion, black bear, elk, marmot, porcupines, and wild horses. There is also a wide variety of birds in the park (Mesa Verde even has a bird checklist). In the canyons you could find warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, jays, hawks, chickadees, titmice, and other species. Hawks, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons can be seen on the rim of the mesa along the Montezuma Valley.
Mesa Verde is in the Upper Sonoran Life Zone, which is characterized by semi-arid climate, moderately high altitude, and pinyon-juniper forests. Big sagebrush, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine are quite common. Gambel oak is in abundance around the Morefield Campground.
Watch for poison ivy, particularly around Morefield Campground and in the canyons. If you’ve never seen poison ivy in the wild, the park’s brochure for the Petroglyph Point trail—see below under “Do”—helpfully points out a place along the trail where it grows perennially, so that you can see what it’s like. Look but don’t touch!