On my last morning in southwest Colorado, I went to the public library in Mancos to decide if I should spend my last hours in the state trying to track down polygamists at the Warren Jeffs compound just outside town or if should visit Mesa Verde National Park.
“The Jeffs people really keep to themselves,” said a friendly, bearded librarian named Lee.
“And I don’t imagine they’re very keen on giving interviews.”
Since I’d already met some much nicer polygamists anyway, it was settled; I was off to Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its ancient cliff dwellings that were once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans, sometimes called the Anasazi, who lived in the region from around 600 A.D. until about 1300 A.D.
On a brisk Wednesday morning in early January, I had Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish) almost all to myself. I turned up at the visitor’s center just after 10 a.m. and the park ranger said I was the first visitor the day. If you enter the park from Route 160, near Cortez, about a half-hour from Durango, it’s about a half-hour drive (up to 45 minutes if you’re a cautious driver) to see the cliff dwellings and pithouses.
But after catching a glimpse of the Balcony House, the Cliff Palace, the Square Tower House and some of the other cliff dwellings, I was glad that I made the effort to visit the park. There is something undeniably powerful about seeing these ancient dwellings, perched precariously in a stunning alpine setting that inspires you to want to learn more about Native American history.
Historians believe that the population of this area may have reached several thousand people in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and most of the cliff dwellings you can see today were built between 1190-1270. The largest is the Cliff Palace, which has about 150 rooms. The fact that the Ancestral Puebloans went through all the trouble of constructing these elaborate dwellings only to abandon the area only 100 years or so later, tells us that they were likely compelled to leave because of severe drought or the reality that they’d depleted all of Mesa Verde’s natural resources.
It’s difficult to prioritize one’s time in the Four Corners region on a short trip, as you have three national parks within three hours of Durango – Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches, plus Monument Valley, the Four Corners monument, not to mention all the ski resorts and other sites in the area. I’m not a huge fan of archaeological sites, but I wouldn’t leave this region without spending at least a couple hours visiting Mesa Verde because it will remind you that although we aren’t really the “young country” we’re made it out be.
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]