Of the more than 300 national parks in the United States, 52,000-acre Mesa Verde (“Green Table,” so named because of its pine and juniper forests) is the only one devoted exclusively to archaeology. Here, the Anasazi people (recently rebaptized as the “ancestral Puebloans”) flourished from approximately a.d. 600, reaching the apex of their culture between the 11th and 13th centuries, by which time they’d begun building intricate multistoried dwellings of adobe or stone within the shelter of the rocky canyon walls. By the 14th century they had deserted the area for reasons that remain unclear. White men weren’t widely aware of their dwellings until the 1870s, but within ten years the area was being mentioned as a potential national park. Exploration began in 1888, and to date more than 4,000 archaeological sites have been identified, of which approximately 600 are cliff dwellings. Only a few have been excavated, among them the park’s highlights: the 156-room Cliff Palace and Balcony House, both on Chapin Mesa, and Long House on Wetherill Mesa. Admission is tightly controlled, and many sites (including these three) can only be visited in the company of a park ranger guide. The two 6-mile Mesa Top Loops (until recently called Ruins Road Drive) provide a motorist’s tour with dozens of overlooks.
Mesa Verde is located in Four Corners country, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona come together; from Park Point, the park’s highest elevation (8,572 feet), you can see all of them. The only place to hang your hat within the park is the modest but aptly named Far View Lodge, which is remarkable only for the fact that all its rooms offer Four-Corner views of up to 100 miles.