History & Nature

A Brief History

President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 but the real magic and mystery of Mesa Verde began long before that. The inhabitants of the arid Southwest were nomadic hunters and gatherers. A shift in their culture led them to settle and begin agricultural development and the building of permanent structures. From this lifestyle something else occurred, which is only speculative, and shifted the culture once again. Then one day it appears the entire civilization in the area just left.

The first notable structures are estimated to have been built at early as 500 AD. Primarily pit-houses, these are the first signs of permanent habitation in the area. The traditional nomadic lifestyle of the native people shifted toward agriculture. Corn and beans were the primary crops, and beans continue to be harvested in the arid Southwest today. Being farmers, they lived on the top of the mesas close to their crops. Pit-houses slowly evolved into above ground structures built with stick poles and mud. From the development of mud houses came the art of pottery with intricate geometric designs painted on the outside.

Around 1100 – 1200 AD the people living on the mesa tops began moving down into the canyons and building the cliff dwellings still standing today. These were not just dwellings, they are intricate and functional community areas, homes, places of ceremony, and served to process and store crops. Many structures had multiple floors and all were built to be cooled and warmed by the sun and shade. This period was the height of the Ancestral Puebloan period.

Sometime in the 13th century they migrated out of the area leaving nothing but a ghost town of cliff dwellings, 600 in all, scattered around what is now Mesa Verde National Park. No one knows for sure why they left or where they went. Speculation includes population overgrowth, a long period of drought, hunted out wild game, depleted soil, or maybe a combination of everything. The questions remain: why did not a single one of them stay and why did they never return?

Nature at Mesa Verde

Located in the canyon country of Southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde is a semi-arid desert environment. Thousands of years ago the waters rushing down from the glaciers and snowfields of the surrounding mountains carved out the canyons where the cliff dwellings were built. The varying elevations and canyons provide a diverse number of plant communities. Ranging from shrub areas with sage and rabbitbrush. Other areas play host to a pinyon-juniper forest containing trees dated over 1,000 years old. At the highest elevations in the park one can find Gambel oak, Douglas Fir, and Ponderosa Pine trees. Forest fires in the park’s recent history have severely diminished these more forested areas. Native wildflowers can also be found throughout the park.

Wildlife lives relatively protected throughout Mesa Verde. Typical to Southwest Colorado you can see deer, black bear, and other residential mammals. Desert birds and reptiles are also abundant. Some rare animals that live well in the park include Peregrine Falcons and Mexican spotted own.

Mesa Verde Information

  • Special Tours for Photographers
    Special Tours for Photographers
    Mesa Verde Park Staff is offering two special tours for Summer 2017! There will be four special sunrise tours of Balcony House and Twilight Tours of Cliff Palace everyday May 26 – Sept 9. These tours will offer a unique oppoerunity to capture these spectacular cliff...
  • Petroglyph Point Trail Hike
    Petroglyph Point Trail Hike
    The Petroglyph Point Trail is a lovely excursion for the active bunch to do while visiting Mesa Verde. The 2.4 mile trail is a good activity to do during the heat of the day. The majority of the trail and most strenuous part is shaded, ending...
  • Step House on Wetherill Mesa
    Step House on Wetherill Mesa
    This self-guided tour of Step House on Wetherill Mesa is quick and accessible from the trail, 3/4 mile in length that loops the dwelling. We recommend doing this either at the beginning or end of the day due to the high sun exposure of the trail...

Park Alerts

  • Spruce Tree House Temporarily Closed
    Spruce Tree House Temporarily Closed
    Spruce Tree House, an iconic self-guided cliff dwelling in the heart of Chapin Mesa, is unfortunately CLOSED for the unforeseeable future due to concerns about rock fall. It can still be viewed from the Museum overlook....
History & Nature July 18, 2014