Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park

A full moon rises into a blue and starry sky over an ancient stone masonry village built into a cliff alcove in a forested canyon.
Moonrise over Spruce Tree House


A Sacred Place

For over 700 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people built thriving communities on the mesas and in the cliffs of Mesa Verde. Today, the park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a spectacular window into the past. This World Heritage Site and International Dark Sky Park is home to over a thousand species, including several that live nowhere else on earth.

Ancestral Pueblo people first arrived in the area of Mesa Verde National Park around 550 CE. Skilled basketweavers and later potters, they were a nomadic people in transition to a more settled way of life. At Mesa Verde, they farmed crops such as beans, corn, and squash and supplemented their diet by gathering wild plants and hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game. At first, they lived in pithouses, usually dug into the ground on the mesatops, but sometimes also located in alcoves in the cliffs. Later, as their population grew, they built larger houses of adobe, called pueblos. By 1000, they were building multi-story houses of shaped stone. Between 1100 and 1300, the population at Mesa Verde reached several thousand people, with most concentrated in compact villages of many rooms. Ancestral Pueblo people left behind footprints of their homes, villages, and cultural objects across the Four Corners area.

In the late 1100s, some people began to move back into the cliff-side alcoves. Mostly constructed from the late 1190s to late 1270s, these cliff dwellings range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms, such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Builders fit the structures to the available space, constructing their villages from sandstone blocks and mud mortar. Living rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, space enough for two or three people. Smaller rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were likely used for storage. Most villages included undergound kivas, thought to have been used as ceremonial chambers.

In the 1200s, massive changes reverberated across the Pueblo world. Many people on and around Mesa Verde moved into larger and better-protected communities. While many residents of Mesa Verde moved from the mesa tops into cliff dwellings, others began to migrate away from the region entirely. Archeological evidence points to a series of prolonged droughts, diminishing resources, and social upheaval as factors that may have contributed to these changes. By the end of the 13th century, the once bustling Mesa Verde region was almost completely depopulated. By the 1280s, the sounds of construction that had filled the air moved southward toward the Pueblos of today—on the Hopi mesas of Arizona and along the Rio Grande and its tributaries in New Mexico.

While no one today knows why, the people may have migrated away because of droughts and crop failures or the depletion of heavily used soils, forests, and animals. Perhaps they experienced social and political problems and wished to look for new opportunities elsewhere. When they left Mesa Verde, they traveled south into Arizona and New Mexico, settling among their kin who were already there.

Visiting Mesa Verde

Visitors should stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, at the park entrance, for information and orientation. Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House are three of the most impressive sites to see. Other highlights include exploring the Chapin Mesa Museum, driving the Mesa Top Loop Road and listening to the audio tour narrated by Park Ranger TJ Atsye (Laguna Pueblo). Visitors can also hike to the Far View Sites Complex. Overnight guests can plan to stay at the Far View Lodge or the Morefield Campground.

Most of the ancestral sites open to the public are along the Chapin Mesa or Wetherill Mesa. As one drives into the park, Montezuma Valley, Park Point, and Geologic overlooks to get a good sense of the Mesa Verde landscape. During the summer months, visitors should plan to spend some time at both Chapin Mesa and at Wetherill Mesa. Wetherill Mesa is closed during the winter season.

On Chapin Mesa, you’ll find Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, the Far View sites and a self-guided auto tour along Mesa Top Loop Road with numerous mesa-top sites and views of the cliff dwellings. The historic Mesa Verde Administrative District has been designated a National Historic Landmark and offers food service and restrooms.

Most of the best-known and most heavily visited Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are found on Chapin Mesa. Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House are among the largest and most impressive cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, but they are atypical of alcove sites in general. Most contain approximately ten rooms, but all three of these sites are much larger, with numerous rooms and kivas.

Wetherill Mesa is open seasonally (see current hours of operation) and is reached by a spur road leading from the Far View area. Long House, the largest cliff dwelling on Wetherill Mesa, requires a ticket for a ranger-guided tour. Step House, also located in an alcove on Wetherill Mesa, is unusual because the visitors can clearly see both dwellings from the 600s and a pueblo from the 1220s, when it was re-occupied by Ancestral Pueblo people. Wetherill Mesa is always less busy than Chapin Mesa, but there are fewer services available. Although there is a snack bar at Wetherill Mesa, visitors should come prepared with snacks, water, and sun protection.

Mesa Verde National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located off US Route 160, 10 miles east of Cortez, CO. The Mesa Verde Administrative District, part of Mesa Verde National Park, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Mesa Verde National Park is designated a World Heritage Site. For more information, visit the National Park Service Mesa Verde National Park website.

A project through the Save America's Treasures Grant Program, which helps preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections, funded work to conserve multiple cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in 1999.

Sites within the park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey and Historic American Engineering Record. Mesa Verde National Park is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 12, 2024