- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. — Most national parks protect natural wonders — mountains, forests, canyons. Mesa Verde was the first national park created to preserve man-made wonders — ancient cliff dwellings made from sandstone and perched on ledges at elevations of 7,000 feet.

This intricate architecture, dating from the 12th century, is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888.

Mesa Verde National Park was established 18 years later. The park’s centennial is being observed this year with festivals, lectures and access to sites that have been closed to the public.

“It’s not just a birthday party to commemorate 100 years in June 2006,” says Tessy Shirakawa, chief of visitor services for the park. “It is a yearlong celebration about the last 100 years, and looking into the future to the next 100 years.”

A four-day party, with a birthday cake, music, Indian dances, a traders festival, craft demonstrations and other events is scheduled June 29 through July 2.

Other highlights of the centennial include monthly lectures and demonstrations; daylong horseback rides in September to Spring House, which has been closed since the 1960s; and ranger-led hikes to two other dwellings. One of these, Mug House, has never before been open to the public, and another, Oak Tree House, has been closed since the 1930s. Other events are in communities around the region. The celebration ends Dec. 9 with a luminaria — nighttime illumination — of Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, another dwelling.

The cliff dwellings were built by a group of people whom archaeologists call Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the area from about A.D. 400 to 1300. Their descendants include 21 contemporary tribes.

“They were incredible masons,” ranger Kimberly Accardy says on a tour of Cliff Palace, the largest of the park’s 600 dwellings. “They did not have metal. All their tools were made out of wood, stone or bone.” Bricks for the buildings were made from sandstone mixed with mud mortar. She says Cliff Palace probably was “a community center for trade, commerce or special ceremonies. Just 125 people lived here, but many more people came here. It’s a bit like the idea of people living on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area and coming into the central area to take care of their needs.”

Cliff Palace’s 150 rooms include walls up to four stories high, nine storage rooms on an upper ledge, and 21 kivas, the deep round pits used for ceremonies and other community activities. Kivas still are used by Hopis and other tribes.

The Puebloans hunted wild game, domesticated turkeys and grew corn, squash and beans. For water, Miss Accardy says, “they relied on rain and snowmelt, and a lot of the alcoves had seep springs” — water that trickled in through the canyon walls.

The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most first-time visitors to Mesa Verde — Spanish for “green table” — tour Cliff Palace, but adventurous types, including sure-footed children, also will want to see Balcony House, which can be accessed only by climbing steep ladders and shimmying through an 18-inch-wide stone tunnel.

Balcony House is much smaller than Cliff Palace, but its highlights include interesting archaeological evidence.

Shell prints on the sandstone suggest that millions of years ago, “this was the shore of an ancient sea,” says Ranger Lee Littler. There is red plaster on the walls along with paintings of triangular designs that resemble mountain ridges. “Everybody wants to add personal touches and beauty to their homes,” Miss Accardy says.

The celebration includes a symposium May 3 through 5 on the history of Southwestern archaeology. “The science of early archaeology [in North America] started here at Mesa Verde,” Miss Shirakawa says.

The same year Mesa Verde was made a national park, Congress passed a law making it a crime to collect or destroy antiquities from federal land. The law was spurred in part by the removal of 600 objects from Mesa Verde by a Swedish scientist. Those objects reside in the National Museum in Finland.

Mesa Verde’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum has its own fine collection. While you’re there, visit nearby Spruce Tree House, the only dwelling in the park accessible by a paved trail.

Cliff Palace and Balcony House require tickets for tours; Spruce Tree House and the museum are free. Those looking to get away from the crowds may want to head to a more remote area of the park, Wetherill Mesa, to explore two other dwellings: Long House, which requires a ticket, and Step House, which does not.

The Ancestral Puebloans left Mesa Verde about 800 years ago, and archaeologists think they might have been on a quest. “They were on a migration route to find their ancestral home,” Miss Accardy says. “Perhaps they left on a journey to that place.”

A mountain of information

Mesa Verde National Park is open daily, year-round. Entrance fee: $10, good for seven days. Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Spruce Tree House are open year-round for free self-guided tours. Go to www.nps.gov/meve or 970/529-4461.

Mesa Verde park headquarters is a one-hour drive from Cortez, Colo., heading east on Highway 160, and 90 minutes from Durango, heading west on Highway 160.

Centennial events: Tickets for ranger-led two-hour hikes and September horseback rides to sites open for the centennial are available online; go to www.mesaverde2006.org, which lists all centennial events, including the free birthday party June 29 through July 2.

Accommodations inside the park include Far View Lodge, $110 to $127 nightly, or Morefield Campground, $20 to $25; go to www.visitmesaverde.com or call 800/449-2288. Outside the park, Mancos, Cortez and Durango offer a variety of lodging and dining. For visitor information, go to www.mesaverdecountry.com.

Ranger-led tours: tickets, $3 each, available at Far View Visitor Center, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 9 through Oct. 9; Cliff Palace tours are held April 9 through Nov. 4; Balcony House, April 30 through Oct. 9. Note that Balcony House tours involve steep ladders and climbing through a tunnel. At the more remote Wetherill Mesa, open May 28 through Sept. 4, Long House requires a ticket; Step House does not.

Nearby attractions:

• Four Corners National Monument, where you can have your picture taken standing on the spot where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet, www.mesaverde.com/fcmonument.htm.

• In Colorado, San Juan Skyway, www.byways.org/browse/byways/2101; Anasazi Heritage Center, www.co.blm.gov/ahc and Escalante Ruin, www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/amsw/sw25.htm.

• In New Mexico, Aztec Ruins National Monument, www.nps.gov/azru; and Chaco Canyon, www.nps.gov/chcu.

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