Historic wooden building in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (left) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico (right) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.
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World Heritage Sites in the United States

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde, Colorado
 
Long House Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde. Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the White HouseLong House Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the White House

On June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man," the first national park of its kind. Seventy-two years later in 1978 Mesa Verde was inscribed on the World Heritage List as an outstanding example of the culture of the Ancestral Puebloan people.

The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best preserved in the North American Continent. Sometime during the late A.D. 1190s, Ancestral Pueblo peoples began living in structures they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. These structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms. While still farming the mesa tops, they continued to reside in the alcoves, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended. Thus, in a span of a generation or two, the people who built these cliff dwellings left their home and moved away.

Today, with over 52,000 acres, Mesa Verde National Park preserves and protects nearly 5,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings and over 3 million associated objects in the park’s research collection. A spectacular example of Native American life and culture prior to the arrival of Europeans, Mesa Verde’s mission is to provide opportunities for the public to experience, understand, enjoy, and gain a sense of stewardship for Mesa Verde National Park, and to conduct, encourage, and facilitate archeological and ethnographic research focused on prehistoric and historic occupations at the Mesa itself, and to link these research results to the regional histories of the northern San Juan Basin and the greater Southwest.

Driving into the park, Montezuma Valley, Park Point, and Geologic overlooks provide 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 from Labor Day to Memorial Day. In winter, the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is the starting point for ranger-led and self-guided tours.

On Chapin Mesa, visitors will 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. Remember that visiting Cliff Palace and Balcony House requires a ranger-guided tour; purchase your tickets as you enter the park at the Visitor Center. On Chapin Mesa, the historic Mesa Verde Administrative District includes the first buildings constructed at Mesa Verde by the National Park Service. Built in the 1920's, they reflect the local cultural traditions, and contribute to the district's designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Most of the best-known and most 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 cliff dwellings contain approximately ten rooms, but all three of these sites are much larger, with numerous rooms and kivas. Some of these larger cliff dwellings are thought to have been administrative centers, with spaces set aside for public purposes as well as living spaces. These sites are very busy from June through early August. For a quieter visit, schedule your trip to Mesa Verde for late summer and fall, or include Wetherill Mesa in your summer itinerary.

Balcony House dwellings at Mesa Verde. Photo courtesy of the National Park ServiceThe Balcony House is one of the many
complexes that can be visited within the park
National Park Service

The Ancestral Pueblo people occupied and built upon the flat tops of the mesas throughout their time at Mesa Verde, and found them especially useful for farming, hunting, and gathering wild foods. Mesa-top sites to visit on Chapin Mesa include Cedar Tree Tower, used between A.D. 1000 and 1300 when towers and kivas often were built together—perhaps for religious reasons or as part of a communications system. Nearby, the Farming Terrace Trail allows visitors to learn about water retention and other ancient farming techniques. In the Far View area, you’ll find trails to several excavated sites dating from between A.D. 900 and 1300, including Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House, and Far View Tower. These sites are part of an estimated 50 villages in the Far View area. Along Mesa Top Loop Road, the mesa-top Sun Temple, which contemporary Pueblo Indians describe as a ceremonial space, is accessible by self-guided tour. On Wetherill Mesa, walk the mesa-top Badger House Community, which dates from c. A.D. 600 to c. A.D. 1200, and explore several short trails to overlooks.

Wetherill Mesa is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and is reached by an 11 mile drive from the Far View area. Note this road is not suitable for vehicles over 25' long. Wetherill Mesa offers a quieter, less structured experience than Chapin Mesa. Once in the parking area, you'll explore Wetherill Mesa on foot or with a combination of bicycle-riding and hiking. Bring your own bicycles if possible, but inquire ahead as to the availability of rental bikes at Wetherill Mesa. Long House, the largest cliff dwelling on Wetherill Mesa, is about three miles from the Wetherill Mesa parking area. You may ride a bicycle to the trailhead, or hike. The foot trail to Long House is about one mile round trip. Step House, located about .5 mile from the parking area, is unusual because visitors can clearly see both dwellings from the A.D. 600s and a pueblo from the 1220s, when the alcove 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.

Visitors should stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center (at the park entrance) for information and orientation and to purchase tickets to visit Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House or Step House on Wetherill Mesa. These are three of the most impressive sites. Other highlights include exploring the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, taking a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, and driving the Mesa Top Loop Road (six-mile loop). Visitors can also hike to the Far View Sites Complex. Some historic cliff dwellings offer opportunities for self-guided tours, but others are restricted and can only be visited with a ranger. Overnight guests can plan to stay at the Far View Lodge or the Morefield Campground.

What the Spanish called Mesa Verde, “green table,” many Ancestral Pueblo people once called home. Although the ancient inhabitants of the mesa are gone, visitors will marvel at the spectacular cliff dwellings and artifacts that tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at making a living from a challenging land. Ancestral Pueblo people developed a vigorous civilization, whose accomplishments in community living and the arts rank among the finest expressions of human culture in North America. Today, their descendants include the 24 modern pueblos and tribes located in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas, who trace their roots to the cliffs of Mesa Verde.

Plan your visit

Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site and unit of the National Park System, is located 10 miles east of Cortez, CO. The Mesa Verde Administrative District is a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file text and photos. Mesa Verde National Park is open daily year-round, with visitor services changing throughout the year. For more information, visit the National Park Service Mesa Verde National Park website or call at 970-529-4465.

Mesa Verde National Park is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary.

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