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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

 

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

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Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado is cited by National Geographic as one of the top cultural spots in the United States. And there's a reason. Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, is home to one of the largest and best preserved Anasazi ruins in America. Cliff dwellings, elaborate stone communities built in sheltered alcoves, are the main attraction at this U.S. National Park. But they aren't the only. The ruins at Mesa Verde follow the Anasazi Indians from pithouse to pueblo and, in addition to weaving a story 700 years in the making, speak to a life both above and below the mesa top. So why take the kids? Mystery, ladders and intrigue.

Spread over 52,000 acres, Mesa Verde protects 4,000 known archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. Yet a trip to this U.S. national park need not be overwhelming. The vast majority of sites are concentrated in two distinct areas: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. If you plan your visit with care you'll avoid driving from end to end repeatedly. The Far View Visitor Center offers more than an update on park weather and roads. Unless you are staying at Morefield Campground, it is the only place to purchase tickets for ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours and learn about other programs and special events. Don't forget to pick up a Junior Ranger activity sheet, geared to kids aged 4 to 12, and engage the kids from start to finish. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and self-guided Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling are a great place to begin an adventure with kids. Not only do they provide an introduction to Anasazi life, they allow families to tour at their own pace. When planning the remainder of your visit consider the availability of ranger-guided tours as well as the age and interest of the tots, tweens and teens. Cliff Palace and Balcony House are the most popular ranger-guided cliff dwelling tours at Mesa Verde. Both are situated on Chapin Mesa and both require a good deal of climbing. The self-drive Mesa Top Loop Road, also on Chapin Mesa, follows the Anasazi from pithouse to pueblo. Wetherill Mesa is Mesa Verde in a nutshell. In addition to Long House, Mesa Verde's second largest cliff dwelling, this corner of the park boasts mesa top sites of note. And apart from getting there and getting away you don't need the car to get around.
Anasazi: Ancestral Pueblo People
Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Alfredo De Simone

 
The Anasazi, as the Ancestral Puebloans are commonly referred, were a prehistoric Indian culture. They inhabited the Four Corners region of the American Southwest for roughly 700 years to 1300 AD. The Anasazi lived in pithouses first and built cliff dwellings near the end of their history. They made pottery and were accomplished farmers. Yet because the Anasazi lived so long ago there are lots of things about this ancient people we don't know. Around 1300 AD the Anasazi abandoned Mesa Verde leaving behind all the things they couldn't carry. Why did they go? Climate change is one possible reason. Archaeologists, scientists that study ancient peoples and cultures, believe the temperature cooled around 900 AD making it too cold to raise crops as the years progressed. Conflict with other cultures is another possibility. Archaeologists suppose that other Native American peoples migrated to Mesa Verde increasing competition for fertile land. What do you think happened? Develop a hypothesis on your trip to Mesa Verde.
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