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What is Mesa Verde National Park?

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  • Written By: Cassie L. Damewood
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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Mesa Verde National Park is an 81.4 square mile (211 square km) area in the southwest corner of the state of Colorado in the United States. It was designated a national park by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to protect it from vandalism that had plagued the region for more than 100 years. Mesa Verde National Park became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and became an authorized World Heritage Site in 1978.

The park is most famous for its archaeological history, which dates back to 1200 AD. Historical accounts indicate that the ancient tribe Anasazi, a subgroup of the Pueblos who occupied large areas of Mexico and what would later become the southwestern United States, lived in this area. They built the majority of their dwellings inside caves and under the shelters or “tables” of cliffs in the surrounding mountains.

Cliff Palace is one of the most popular attractions at Mesa Verde National Park. It is commonly known as the largest existing North American cliff dwelling, with 23 sunken rooms carved into the massive rocks and cliffs. Each of the rooms, which have colorful drawings on the walls, is believed to have been used for specific ceremonies engaged in by the original inhabitants.

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Before Mesa Verde National Park received its national recognition and protection, hundreds of artifacts and relics were reportedly stolen from the caves and cliffs and sold to international collectors by the thieves. A local ranching family by the name of Wetherill is commonly credited with saving many of the historical ruins in the early 20th century by working closely with the local Ute tribe. Their combined efforts are credited with retrieving hundreds of ancient artifacts and selling them to the Historical Society of Colorado.

Mesa verde translates from Spanish to green table in English. The park’s name is normally attributed to the proliferation of the pinon and juniper evergreen trees that grow on and around the cliffs and plateaus in the area. Spanish explorers allegedly named the area Mesa Verde in the 18th century.

Although the Spanish explorers passed through the area in the 1760s and 1770s as they carved out a United States route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to California, it appears they never spotted the cliffs. This oversight is generally ascribed to the direction of their trek around the cliffs. The ancient caves and cliffs were not discovered until the second half of the 19th century.

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