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A remarkable city of stone

The legacy of the Anasazi civilization is the cliff dwellings found in Mesa Verde National Park


In school we were  taught about the Incas of Peru, the Aztecs and Mayas of Mexico and the brutality of the Spanish Conquistadors. What we didn’t learn about was the remarkable Anasazi civilization of the Four Corners area, the place where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet on the map. History shows that civilizations begin, flourish, decline and even disappear. The Anasazi were no exception, building a civilization only to see their influence decline and their culture assimilate into other Mesoamerican tribes. The legacy of their civilization is the beautiful stone cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Colorado. 

The Hopi Indians, descendants of the Anasazi, call them Hisatsinom, meaning people of long ago. The Navajo call them the ancient ones and refer to the ancestral pueblo people or “ancient people who are not us.” Modern tribes like the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna and Rio Grande are the descents of the Anasazi Civilization. This ancestral puebloan civilization existed for 700 years and reached its zenith between AD 900 to AD 1300. During that period, the Anasazi or cliff dwellers progressed from a nomadic hunting/gathering society to a sedentary communal society dependent on agriculture and living in permanent stone villages or pueblos. All of this was accomplished when Europe was still in the Dark Ages.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde [Green Table] is an architectural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado, is home to nearly 3,900 Anasazi archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Other sites include mesa-top pueblos, terraces, towers, reservoirs and pithouses. Many of the stone houses or cliff dwellings were built in a natural sandstone alcove located under the Chapin and Wetherill Mesas.  Some of the most famous houses are Spruce Tree House, Square Tower House, Balcony House, Long House, Step House, Sun Temple and the most famous, Cliff Palace. 

The Cliff Palace 

The word civilization usually defines a society that has complex social organization, moral standards, intellectual accomplishments and a distinctive culture. The Cliff Palace was home to 200 people and had 150 rooms, 23 kivas (churches or community centers) and a central plaza. It is here the Anasazi perfected their masonry skills, built elaborate houses and multiple kivas, connecting tunnels and a four story tower. Inside the tower are geometric or pattern-designed pictographs.

The Cliff Palace is a architectural wonder. As the Anasazi agricultural and engineering skills evolved and food became plentiful, time was found to concentrate on making black-and-white pottery and turquoise jewelry as well as for trading, astronomy and religion.  The Cliff Palace represents only the last 75 to 100 years of Anasazi evolutionary progress, all accomplished without the use of the wheel, a pulley system, metal tools or pack animals.

The great migration

The Anasazi Civilization did not last. The reasons were a collection of circumstances, including too many people for too few resources, gamed hunted to extinction, soils depleted and many years of drought and disease. Over a 150-year period known as the Great Migration, the Anasazi abandoned the Four Corners area, including Mesa Verde.  It was time to move on.

Directions for RVers

Mesa Verde National Park is located 11 miles east of Cortez, Colorado, on Highway 160.  After entering the park, stop at the Visitor Center at Far View, 15 miles from the park entrance. It is here you must purchase tickets to Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House, which are only open in the summer months.  Spruce Tree House, with its 114 rooms and eight kivas, and the archaeological museum are open all year and free. RVers can stay at the Mesa Verde KOA, the Sundance RV Park in Cortez or the La Mesa RV Park across from the entrance to the national park. Morefield Campground is located  inside the park but has limited amenities.

For a greater understanding of the Anasazi civilization, visit the Anasazi Heritage Center 10 miles (16 km) north of Cortez near Dolores. There are 3.5 million artifacts in the museum along with the Escalante-Dominguez Pueblo Ruins. The Anasazi Heritage Center also serves as the entrance to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

On first viewing the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, I was left with a sense of amazement, unable to turn and look away. It would appear the residents have just walked away, leaving the city empty. It is not hard, however, to visualize hundreds of people going about their daily lives in this beautiful stone city. The Cliff Palace is the epitome of the Anasazi civilization. Late in the afternoon when tourists have left for the day and it becomes quiet, Cliff Palace seems to fade into the canyon walls and fall asleep.

An American Pulitzer-winning novelist, Willa Cather, on first viewing Anasazi cliff dwellings, said it best: “I saw an empty city of stone . . . asleep.”

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