10 Impressive Facts About Mesa Verde National Park, a Natural Archeological Wonder

Cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

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Located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most well-preserved archaeological sites in the United States. The national park, established in 1906, is home to the ruins of about 600 cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan people.

Originally constructed from natural materials like sandstone, wooden beams, and mud mortar, the dwellings helped make up a vast network of communities and villages in the sheltered alcoves of the Mesa Verde canyon walls.

While Mesa Verde National Park is mainly known for its unique and ancient structures, it also helps protect hundreds of plant and animal species that thrive in the wild landscape. The name itself “Mesa Verde,” is Spanish for “green table,” referencing the network of juniper trees and other foliage spread throughout the area.

Explore the natural and archaeological treasures of Mesa Verde National Park with these 10 impressive facts.

Mesa Verde Contains Over 4,000 Archaeological Sites

Mesa Verde National Park was established primarily to preserve the various archeological sites originally built by the Ancestral Puebloans.

So far, archaeologists have discovered over 4,7000 important archaeological sites, including more than 600 cliff dwellings, which continue to be protected and preserved by initiatives like the Archeological Site Conservation Program and the Stabilization and Structural Engineering Program.

The Cliff Dwellings Are Some of the Most Well-Preserved in North America

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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A structure known as the Cliff Palace is maintained as the centerpiece of Mesa Verde and remains one of the American Southwest’s best existing examples of late prehistoric cliff dwellings.

According to the National Park Service, Cliff Palace once contained 150 rooms and had a population of about 100 people (75% of the total cliff dwellings inside Mesa Verde had between one and five rooms each). As such, Cliff Palace is believed to have been a place of high social, administrative, and ceremonial use during its heyday.

Mesa Verde Occupies Over 52,000 Acres of the Colorado Plateau

Characterized by desert climates, deep canyons, and ancient rock formations, the Colorado Plateau is one of the largest plateaus in North America at 240,000 square miles.

Mesa Verde National Park represents just a small—yet significant—portion of the Colorado Plateau, occupying just over 81 square miles.

The Mesa Verde region is inclined to the south at a 7-degree angle, eroded by wind and water to create a series of smaller canyons and flat-topped mountains with elevations ranging from about 6,000 feet to 8,572 feet.

The Park Became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978

Touted for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlement landscape, the park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

The graphic link connecting modern life with the Indigenous peoples who built dwellings between the 6th and 12th centuries serves as an “archaeological laboratory” for building our understanding of the Ancestral Puebloan people. According to UNESCO, the park’s staff regularly consults with local representatives from at least 26 Native American tribes who are culturally affiliated with Mesa Verde and consider the land to be their ancestral home.

Mesa Verde Is Certified as an International Dark Sky Park

Milky Way above Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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Another significant part of preserving Mesa Verde is protecting its night sky. The park was established as the world’s 100th International Dark Sky Park in 2021 in recognition of the remarkable quality of the night sky and opportunities for visitors to experience astronomy-based interpretive programs.

Park visitors can experience nearly the same quality of darkness that the Ancestral Pueblo people did a millennium ago, with hardly any light pollution.

Its Geographic Isolation Provides for a Wide Variety of Animal Habitats  

While the park’s archaeological wonders are certainly its most recognizable feature, Mesa Verde also serves as an important environmental territory for a number of animal species.

There are at least 74 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 16 species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, six species of fish, and more than 1,000 species of insects who call the park home for at least part of the year.

The Park Also Holds Over 640 Plant Species

Wildflowers at Mesa Verde National Park

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Despite the park's arid climate and high elevations, Mesa Verde supports over 640 different species of plants, including 556 species of vascular plants, 75 species of fungi, 21 species of moss, and 151 species of lichen.

A few of these species are rare and endemic, occurring only within the boundaries of the park and nowhere else on Earth. One of these endemic plants is the Chapin Mesa milkvetch, a white-colored wildflower that’s part of the pea family and grows to about 30 inches in height.

The Park Features Important Breeding Areas for the Threatened Mexican Spotted Owl

A Mexican spotted owl or Strix occidentalis lucida

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One animal that resides in the park, the Mexican spotted owl, is listed as a threatened species by the United States and Mexican governments.

As one of the largest owl subspecies in North America averaging 42 to 45 inches in wingspan, the Mexican spotted owl is geographically isolated from its northern and California counterparts. To safeguard these animals, Mesa Verde has set aside two protected activity centers and three breeding core areas totaling 5,312 acres.

Scientists Aren’t Exactly Sure Why the Ancestral Pueblo People Left

Largely known as a nomadic people, it is estimated that the Ancestral Pueblo people arrived in Mesa Verde around 550 AD.

Over a few generations, they went from living in pit houses in the ground to building advanced, multi-level dwellings in alcoves in the cliffs using sandstone, wood, and mud. Farming crops like beans, corn, and squash and hunting for deer, rabbits, and squirrels, they were able to transition to a more settled form of life there for over 600 years.

Sometime around the year 1300, however, the Ancestral Pueblo people completely abandoned Mesa Verde, moving instead to points further south in Arizona and New Mexico. While the exact reason why they left remains a mystery, it may have been connected to droughts, crop failures, and the depletion of soil quality and prey animal populations.

Tree Ring Dating Helped Answer Questions About Life in Mesa Verde

Dendrochronology, or the science of tree ring dating, has been used to supplement archeological research at the park since 1923.

Scientists use Old Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir trees and their remnant subfossil logs near the park to develop chronologies dating from the year 722 AD all the way to 2011, with evidence showing severe seasonal drought conditions during the late 13th century while the area was beginning to depopulate.

View Article Sources
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  5. "Animals." National Park Service.

  6. "Plants." National Park Service.

  7. "Typical Plants Along the Roads and Trails of Mesa Verde National Park." National Park Service.

  8. "Mexican Spotted Owl." National Park Service.

  9. "Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park." National Park Service.

  10. "Tree Ring Dating at Mesa Verde National Park." National Park Service.

  11. Stahle, D.W., et al. "Bridging the Gap with Subfossil Douglas-Fir at Mesa Verde, Colorado." Tree Ring Research, vol. 71, no. 2, 2015, pp. 53-66., doi:10.3959/1536-1098-71.2.53