Natural Features & Ecosystems

Looking at canyons and green mesas from high above.

Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table), occupies just over 52,000 acres of the Colorado Plateau. The correct geological term for the area is cuesta. Cuestas are similar to mesas, but instead of being relatively flat, they gently dip in one direction. Mesa Verde is inclined slightly to the south at about a seven degree angle and has been highly dissected by wind and water erosion into a series of canyons and “mesas.” Elevations range from about 6,000 feet in the canyon bottoms near the southern park boundary to 8,572 feet at Park Point, about ten miles north.


Natural Communities
Mesa Verde lies in the transition zone between the arid scrublands to the south and the forested montane environment of the Rocky Mountains to the north. The climate is semi-arid, with an average annual precipitation of 18.4 inches. The park supports four major plant communities. At the lowest elevation is the shrub-steppe community that includes sagebrush valleys. Then as you gain elevation, you move through pinyon-juniper forests, to mountain shrub communities, and finally to areas of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine. Each environment has characteristics that favor certain plants while limiting others. For instance, prickly pear cactus can be found on dry, sunny, rocky soils, whereas Douglas-fir is found in shaded, moist areas with deeper soils. Numerous seep springs created from the juncture of Cliff House sandstone and Menefee shale provide microclimatic conditions for more moisture loving plant species such as mosses and ferns.

The Geology of Mesa Verde
The geological history of Mesa Verde National Park is as diverse as the cultural history of the region. The Ancestral Pueblo people recognized this diversity and used the geology of the area, such as seep springs and alcoves, to create a sustainable and advanced lifestyle. Learn about the Geology of Mesa Verde and the geologic features found within the park, many of which supported and still supports life on the mesa.
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Mesa Verde is much more than a cultural park. It protects an extraordinary landscape: a high desert island in the sky home to a diverse and unique community of life found nowhere else on earth.

Last updated: May 21, 2024

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 8
Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330



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