Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site- and a national park with a difference. And the difference is that it's not a park devoted to the preservation of native wildlife; it's a park for the preservation of what is one of the most astounding archaeological sites in all of North America.

Way back in about the 6th century AD, a nomadic people known as the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, began to settle down. Farmers, potters and basketmakers, the Anasazi built cliff dwellings of earth and stone along the precipitous hillsides of southwestern Colorado. Over the years, these dwellings- complete with wide passages, streets, houses and even `squares'- became part of a series of cities, the most prominent of which was in the area today known as Mesa Verde. The Anasazi civilisation endured- and prospered- for many centuries, until, about four hundred years ago, it died out suddenly and mysteriously.

Today, all that remains of the Anasazi are their distinctive black-and-white pottery and the spectacular cliff settlements of Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde was declared a national park- and USA's first cultural park- in 1906.Within it are an interesting archaeological museum (the Chapin Mesa Museum); a visitor centre, and wayside exhibits which depict the daily life of the Anasazi. Evening campfire programmes are held to illustrate the history of the area, and guided tours are available throughout the year.

Although Mesa Verde is not strictly speaking a wildlife sanctuary, it harbours an impressive array of wildlife. Among the steep cliffs and rocks of the park live a number of small mammals like shrews, bats, jackrabbits, squirrels, and mice. Some larger animals, including black bear, deer, mountain lion, skunk, raccoon and fox can be seen as well, apart from birds such as woodpeckers, flycatchers, magpies, warblers, kestrels and owls. Watch out for snakes- there are rattlers around!


Entry Permits

Entrance fees of US$ 5 are charged per person for all visitors, and a further US$ 10 for all private vehicles. Both permits are valid for a period of seven days. In addition to these, annual passes- which are valid for a year- can be bought for US$ 20. American citizens are eligible for lifetime passes, which allow entry to all the national parks in the country. These passes are free for those with permanent disabilities, and cost a nominal amount- between US$ 10 and 50- for everybody else.



Five towns- Durango, Cortez, Dolores, Mancos and Hesperus- are in close proximity to Mesa Verde. Of these, Cortez and Durango have airports, which are linked to other destinations within the US. The nearest railheads are at Grand Junction (Colorado) and Gallup (New Mexico); both are connected to Cortez by bus. From Cortez and the other towns, there are buses to the park, the entrance to which lies midway between Mancos and Cortez.

In order to preserve the archaeological heritage of Mesa Verde, park authorities restrict movement to certain marked areas. Visitors can hike along six trails: the Spruce Canyon Trail, the Knife Edge Trail, the Petroglyph Point Hike, The Prater Ridge Trail, the Point Lookout Trail and Soda Canyon Trail. These vary in length from a mile to seven miles, and demand a certain degree of physical fitness. For those with little time and stamina, the Petroglyph Point Hike is recommended; it offers excellent views of the dwellings, and is relatively easy to do. Prior permission is required to hike along the Petroglyph Point Hike and the Spruce Canyon Trail.

Bicycles are also permitted along certain paths of the park.


Best time to visit

Mesa Verde is open throughout the year, including all public holidays. Summer is the best time to visit the park, but it's also peak season, so be prepared to be part of the crowd. It's possible to visit Mesa Verde in winter, although some parts of the park-including the tourist lodge and the campsite- are closed at this time.

Note that summers are warm in Mesa Verde, with occasional thunderstorms in July and August. Winters are cold- temperatures drop to below 0C between December and March, and snowfall is common. Even during summer, the high altitude of the park makes evenings chilly.



Mesa Verde offers limited accommodation facilities, in the form of a tourist lodge and a vast campground. Both are open only between April and October. Outside the park, and in the surrounding towns- Dolores, Cortez, Mancos, Hesperus and Durango- are a range of inns, hotels, motels and lodges running the gamut from budget to luxury.

Further information on Mesa Verde National Park is available from the National Park Service (Tel: 1-800-365-2267). Bookings for accommodation and tours can also be made at the same phone number. Alternatively, you could contact the park administration directly at Mesa Verde National Park, PO Box 8, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado 81330 (Tel: 970-529-4465).

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