Rides & Destinations: Mesa Verde National Park
By Joe Berk.
What: Mesa Verde National Park, P.O. Box 8, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, 81330, (970) 529-4465.
How to Get There: Mesa Verde National Park is an 11-hour ride from Los Angeles. Pick up I-40 East in Barstow and stay on it to Flagstaff. Take US 89 North (a glorious ride) to US 160 East. From anywhere else in the U.S., you’ll want to find your way to the southwestern corner of Colorado near the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Best Kept Secret: The Farm Bistro restaurant in nearby Cortez, Colorado (their veggie burger is the best I’ve ever had). Cortez has many good hotels and restaurants.
Avoid: The winter months. It’s cold up there! Visit mid-spring to mid-fall.
Structures tucked beneath a cliff overhang.
Nestled in southwest Colorado’s Montezuma Valley, Mesa Verde rises to a majestic 8,500 feet. You can see New Mexico from up there, and while the ride and the scenery are magnificent, the real attractions are the Pueblo archaeological ruins. Native Americans inhabited Mesa Verde from 550 to 1300 A.D., spending most of that period living and farming on top of the mesa. During the last 100 years of that span, the ancestral inhabitants then built and lived in cliff dwellings below the top of the mesa. And then, within two generations, the Pueblo Native Americans abandoned Mesa Verde, leaving behind approximately 600 cliff dwellings and 4,700 archeological sites. Those who know say there are more yet to be discovered.
The first Mesa Verde explorations occurred in the 1700s, when Spanish explorer Don Juan María de Rivera encountered the area. Nearly a century later, geologist Dr. John Newberry led an expedition here. Local miner John Moss next led photographer William Jackson into Mesa Verde, more people followed, and still more ruins were discovered. Local rancher Richard Wetherill actively explored the region, collecting artifacts for the Colorado Historical Society. In the early 1890s, Swedish archaeologist Baron Gustaf Nordenskiöld commandeered more antiquities for a museum in Sweden, where they still reside.
Interest in designating Mesa Verde as a national park and protecting its antiquities increased in the early 1900s. After voting down five successive bills for National Park designation, Congress finally approved the sixth and Theodore Roosevelt signed it in 1906. That same year, Congress passed the 1906 Antiquities Act, making it a federal crime to loot or damage any object of historical interest on federal land. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt sent in the Civilian Conservation Corps to further develop the area. In the late 1950s and 1960s the Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project was one of the biggest archaeological explorations in U.S. history, and in 1972 the Wetherill Mesa area was opened to the public. 1978 brought UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. In 2006, all Native American human remains and related burial site artifacts were reburied in an undisclosed park location under the supervision of Hopi Native Americans.
The ride into Mesa Verde National Park is dramatic, with a long twisting climb to the park’s two major areas: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. There are over 40 miles of roads through Mesa Verde National Park, with numerous scenic turnouts on the ride up. Once on top of Mesa Verde, separate roads meander through both the Chapin and Wetherill Mesas. From vantage points along these roads you can see and photograph amazingly well-preserved ancient structures tucked beneath overhangs in the cliff walls. There are tours guided by U.S. Park Rangers down into these areas, and tickets are available at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center. You should be in good shape for the tours, as there are many steps along the stairs down to and back up from the structures. The best place to stay for a visit is in nearby Cortez. – Joe Berk
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