Mesa Verde
National Park:
September 29, 1906

A World Heritage
Cultural Park:
September 8, 1978

On the 100 Most
Endangered List
[Mesa Verde Cliff Palace]

Geology Hisatsinom How to get there.

The Mesa Verde region is known as the archaeological center of the U.S., but with an appeal for vacation seekers as well. Mesa Verde is definitely camera country, and though it is the first national park for the purpose of preserving the works of man, creation is certainly in its glory as well.

Total area of the region is 52,121.93 acres, with 8,100 acres set aside as wilderness. In a beautiful setting just between mountains and high desert, there are many animals and over 200 species of birds. In the summer this includes hummingbirds and turkey buzzards.

Campground visits by the wild Miriam's turkey are common, and for the hiker who can sit still for a moment, patience may be rewarded by a passing rabbit, chipmunk or squirrel. Wait a bit longer and the parade may include coyote, skunk, foxes, or a mule deer. Less friendly perhaps, and seldom seen are mountain lions, elk, black bears, rattlesnakes and tarantulas.


Mesa Verde, which means "Green Table," is not a mesa, which is flat, but a cuello, which is tilted. The elevation at the entrance to the park is 6954 feet, with elevations on Mesa Verde itself ranging from 8000 to 8400 feet. An interesting note to this is that the land surrounding Shiprock to the southwest was at this same altitude before erosion exposed the volcanic vent that the Navajo call Tse'Bit'Ai meaning "Rock With Wings."

About 100 million years ago an inland sea covered Mesa Verde and the flow and ebb during the next 30 million years brought the sediments that formed layers of shale and sandstone.

The settling shudders of the tectonic plates, whose collision had just built the new Rocky Mountains, caused the canyon splits. Then wind and water went to work.

SEE also: Bisti Wilderness

The freeze and thaw cycles began to remodel the fine-grained sandstone into apartment space for the early settlers, and the finishing touch was a deposit of red dust blowing in from the southwest; rich enough to grow corn. This took one million years. And just in time for the Hisatsinom.


The Hisatsinom were in this area from year one to 1300 AD, with a maximum population of 40,000. They took full advantage of the natural rock and sandstone formations to build grand apartments, and they planted the corn.

The cliff dwellings were chosen with passive defense in mind, as the apartments themselves were situated high above sheer walls. The Moki steps were cut in a combination that would strand an enemy on the cliff face if he did not start down on the "right" foot; this would be one of four possible combinations, and this enemy could only be man.

Their story is that of the Hopi, and if one cares to listen closely, many of the so-called mysteries of the Hisatsinom would be quickly solved. But the wonderment is here at Mesa Verde.


Mesa Verde was first put on the list of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 1978. The plaster covering the adobe walls is drying; a restoring technique has been developed but funds are lacking. World Monuments Fund has returned Mesa Verde to the list for 1998-99. If you are interested in helping see our preservation/ecology links page.

How To Get There

The service center in Cortez is a two-hour drive west and north from Farmington. See Shiprock on the way. Ten miles north of Cortez (the Navajo call it "Tsaya-toh" meaning "rock water") is the Anasazi Heritage Center, (I guess they are going to have to change the name) built next to the 12th century Dominguez and Escalante Anasazi ruins. Available are 2 million samples, records and artifacts. The word Anasazi is still in use in many places but the Hopi word Hisatsinom is now in favor.

Exhibits include interactive computers, microscopes, corn grinding implements, a loom and weaving materials, a holographic image, and changing special exhibits.

Both the park and the center are open 365 days a year, and for the hardy, snowshoe and cross-country ski travel is allowed on roadways in the winter.

Farmington Information: 1-800-448-1240.

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© Copyright 1998 by L. Michael Smith. Fair use granted.