Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 26, 2012

Colorado: Halls of the Ancient Ones

In southwestern Colorado is a place that is one of the world’s prehistoric architectural wonders, set in (and deeply influenced by) a rugged landscape: Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon9784 (640x480)

“Mesa” indicates it’s a “table” of high land, cut by numerous canyons. The elevation ranges from 6,000 to 8,500 feet. Its semi-arid climate seems to us a harsh environment in which to live, but it was home to a thriving population for hundreds of years.

Mesa Verde is endlessly picturesque. From the high points, visitors look northward to the mountains of central Colorado, and southward into New Mexico. Even on a moderately hazy day, we could see distant Shiprock to the southwest, 35 miles away on the high plains of New Mexico.

Humans have occupied the extensive mesa top, its canyons and juniper forests for scores of generations. About 1,400 years ago, they began the transition from hunting and gathering to subsistence farming. They also began, as settled humans must, building. Initially, they adopted an approach that’s seen in a variety of forms all over the globe: pit houses, which are excavated pits covered by timber roofs. With some variation, native populations occupied iterations of this architecture for hundreds of years, and then began building “pueblo” style architecture of stone on the mesas. CLICK HERE for more information about those settlements.

In about 1100 CE, ancient Puebloans altered their communal life and ingeniously adopted their pueblo architecture, incorporating their settlements into a feature prevalent in the landscape: overhanging cliffs, undercut by erosion. Examine the upper left of that photo above and look carefully in the shadow of the cliff. You’ll see a large cliff dwelling. Here’s a closer look:

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon9790 (640x480)

Those resourceful, successful people are commonly referred to as the Anasazi, from a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.” Today, they’re more correctly referred to as “Ancestral Puebloans,” to reflect the fact that they were the progenitors of many current southwestern natives. Contemporary Puebloan tribes still occupy towns that derive their architecture from the forms the ancient Puebloans evolved nearly a thousand years ago. Their culture of communal architecture and farming evolved over a wide area in what’s now Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. There were large populations not only on Mesa Verde, but in numerous other locations that require many visits to the Southwest even to sample. 35 miles south of Mesa Verde in a straight line is the massive complex in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, comprising numerous large stone-and-timber communes.

The next photo shows an example: Casa Rinconada in the foreground, Pueblo Bonito at the base of the cliff, and another ruin on the far horizon (along an Anasazi road that led north to Mesa Verde):

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2964 (640x625)

Mesa Verde is vast. The National Park covers 81 square miles. There are 5,000 archaeological sites — 600 of them cliff dwellings. The terrain includes extensive canyons, pinon forest and high grassland. It easily consumes a day to see the highlights, and it would take several days of hiking and exploring to see the place even moderately well.

When you go, take your hiking shoes and get onto some of the trails in the canyons and along the mesa. Expect some up and down walking to get to the cliff dwellings. You need a ticket for the ranger-led tours of the primary cliff dwellings, which you can secure at the visitor’s center. Less mobile visitors can see significant numbers of the sites and views on a driving tour of the park. Here are some modern humans investigating the past:

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace Brad Nixon 9801 (640x480)

Remember that despite the fact that you’re walking on the National Park Service’s excellent trails, it’s still high, arid country, not friendly to clueless wanderers who forget to bring water, dress appropriately or cover their delicate skins with sunscreen.

Thanks to preserved basketry, pottery, sculpture and the presence of items from far away places, there’s a great body of knowledge about how the ancient Puebloans lived, farmed and built, and how they conducted trade among themselves and with other cultures. Nevertheless, they’re still a mystery to us. They left no writing that we have found. We don’t know anything substantial about their culture, other than what can be inferred from their artifacts. Most mysteriously of all, some time just before or around 1300, they abandoned their large centers in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and elsewhere, and faded into the desert air, insofar as being a recognizable culture is concerned.

Researchers conclude that persistent drought — always a threat — reached a critical point. A shortage of water affected both farming and the supply of wild game. As the food supply declined, the Puebloans couldn’t sustain their large, settled communities. Because they left no written record, and no direct descendants who can tell the tale from oral histories, the ways in which they scattered and persisted to become the contemporary people of the Southwest can’t be reconstructed.

All human societies create legends, myths and tales of their origins and history, passed orally from one generation to the next. Certainly the Anasazi did, too, but their stories didn’t survive. Are their legends incorporated in the tales told by the Hopi, the Pueblo tribes, the Utes, and their kin? There remain only their walls of stone in the silent canyons, under the western sky.

Mesa Verde Navajo Canyon Brad Nixon 9772 (640x480)

Getting to Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is in extreme southwestern Colorado. Colorado Springs is at the top right of the map below: 350 driving miles; Santa Fe, New Mexico is at the lower right, 250 miles. All primary routes on good maps are eminently driveable and offer spectacular scenery.

Mesa Verde map Google

The park entrance is on east-west U.S. Route 160, just east of Cortez. Durango, Colorado (blue star) is 36 miles directly east, and is my recommended base, with numerous accommodations and restaurants. The route is an easy, picturesque drive. Consult the Mesa Verde National Park website for information about camping. There are no shopping or hotel facilities in the park.

The map also shows Chaco Culture National Historical Park, blue circle, for reference.

To read my article about the buildings in Chaco Canyon, CLICK HERE. HERE is the National Park Service’s website for Mesa Verde, and HERE is the one for Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017. Map © Google.



  1. Thanks Brad – those ruins are pretty impressive – seeing them reminds me of the awe I felt when I first caught sight of Petra (


    • Mark, that would indeed be a fantastic place to see. I’ve never been to that part of the world. Thanks.


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