Mesa Verde National Park

Step House is unusual among the pueblos at Mesa Verde as the site was used in 600 AD and again around 1220 AD. Courtesy of the National Park Service (Mesa Verde)

Around 1200 AD, some people began to move back into the cliff-side alcoves. Anthropologists and archeologists do not know exactly why this population shift occurred, but Mesa Verde is famous for the cliff dwellings built by this last group of Ancestral Puebloans. 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. Livings rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, space enough for two or three persons. 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.

A few generations later, around 1300, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned Mesa Verde for points south. 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.

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 from Labor Day to Memorial Day.

A large, 150-room dwelling, Cliff Palace may have been an administrative site for the Ancestral Puebloans Courtesy of the National Park Service (Mesa Verde)

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. 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 world famous and 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.

Wetherill Mesa is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and is reached by a spur road leading from the Far View area. Long House, the largest cliff dwelling one can visit on Wetherill Mesa, requires a ticket for a ranger-guided tour, and is accessible by tram from the Wetherill Mesa parking area. 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 Puebloan 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.