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The Four Corners region was once a bustling metropolis, the home of the Ancestral Puebloan people (also called Anasazi). The single best place to explore this ancient culture is Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, with more than 4,500 known sites dating from A.D. 600 to 1300, including the most impressive cliff dwellings in the Southwest.

The earliest-known inhabitants of Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") built subterranean pit houses on the mesa tops. During the 13th century, they moved into shallow alcoves and constructed complex cliff dwellings. These homes were obviously a massive construction project, yet the residents occupied them for only about a century, leaving in about 1300 for reasons as yet undetermined.

The area was little known until ranchers Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill chanced upon it in 1888. Looting of artifacts followed their discovery until a Denver newspaper reporter's stories aroused national interest in protecting the site. The 52,000-acre site was declared a national park in 1906 -- it's the only U.S. national park devoted entirely to the works of humans.

A series of lightning-sparked fires has blackened over 50% of the park since 2000, closing it for several weeks one summer. Officials said that although the park's piñon-juniper forests were severely burned, none of the major archaeological sites were damaged. In fact, the fires uncovered some sites that officials were not aware existed.

Essentials

The entrance to Mesa Verde National Park is about 10 miles east of Cortez, Colorado; 56 miles east of Hovenweep National Monument; and 125 miles east of Bluff and 390 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Admission to the park for up to 1 week for private vehicles costs $15 from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend and $10 the rest of the year; rates for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and individuals on foot are $8 and $5, respectively.

For information, contact Mesa Verde National Park, P.O. Box 8, Mesa Verde, CO 81330-0008 (tel. 970/529-4465; www.nps.gov/meve).

The Far View Visitor Center, site of the lodge, restaurant, gift shop, and other facilities, is 15 miles off U.S. 160; it's open from early April to mid-October only, from 8am to 7pm daily at the height of summer and closes at 5pm at the beginning and end of the season. Chapin Mesa, site of the park headquarters, a museum, and a post office, is 21 miles south of the park entrance on U.S. 160. The Chapin Mesa Museum, open daily year-round (8am-6:30pm from early Apr to mid-Oct, until 5pm the rest of the year), houses artifacts and specimens related to the history of the area, including objects from other nearby sites.

The cliff dwellings can be viewed daily, and in summer rangers give evening programs at Morefield Campground and Far View Lodge. In winter, the Mesa Top Loop Road, Spruce Tree House, and museum remain open, but many other facilities are closed. Food, gas, and lodging are generally available in the park from mid-April to mid-October only; full interpretive services are available from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

Seeing the Highlights

Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House can be seen up close only on ranger-led tours, which are offered only during the warmer months; tickets ($3) are available at the visitor center. The Cliff Palace, the park's largest and best-known site, is a four-story apartment complex with stepped-back roofs forming porches for the dwellings above. Its towers, walls, and kivas are all set back beneath the rim of a cliff. Climbing a 32-foot ladder permits exploration of Balcony House, while Long House, on Wetherill Mesa, is the second-largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. Rangers also lead 4-hour bus tours that include a few short hikes to archaeological sites along the Mesa Top Loop and a walking tour of Cliff Palace. Cost is $49 adults, $38 children 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under with a paying adult.

Rangers lead free tours to Spruce Tree House, another of the major cliff-dwelling complexes, only in winter, when other park facilities are closed. Visitors can also explore Spruce Tree House on their own at any time.

Although the draw here is ancient cliff dwellings rather than outdoor recreation, you will have to hike and climb to reach the sites. None of the trails are strenuous, but the 7,000-foot elevation can make the treks tiring for visitors who aren't accustomed to the altitude. For those who want to avoid hiking and climbing, the 12-mile Mesa Top Loop Road makes a number of pit houses and cliff-side overlooks easily accessible by car. If you'd really like to stretch your legs and get away from the crowds, however, take one of the longer hikes into scenic Spruce Canyon; you must register at the ranger's office before setting out.

Where to Stay & Dine

Only one lodging facility is actually in the park, Far View Lodge , which has two restaurants and a bar. The company that runs the lodge also operates two other restaurants in the park -- one near the campground and another near Chapin Mesa Museum. Numerous lodging and dining possibilities are in nearby Cortez. Stop at the Colorado Welcome Center at Cortez, Cortez City Park, 928 E. Main St. (tel. 970/565-3414), open daily from 8am to 6pm in summer and from 8am to 5pm the rest of the year; or contact the Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Bureau, P.O. Box HH, Cortez, CO 81321 (tel. 800/253-1616; www.mesaverdecountry.com), or the Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 968, Cortez, CO 81321 (tel. 970/565-3414; www.cortezchamber.org).

Camping -- Morefield Village, site of Mesa Verde's campground, is 4 miles south of the park entrance. Open from mid-April to mid-October, Morefield Campground, c/o Aramark, P.O. Box 277, Mancos, CO 81328 (tel. 866/292-8295; www.visitmesaverde.com), 4 miles south of the park entrance, has 435 sites, including 15 with full RV hookups. The campground is set in rolling hills in a grassy area with scrub oak and brush. The attractive sites are fairly well spaced and mostly separated by trees and other foliage. Facilities include picnic tables and grills, modern restrooms, coin-operated showers and laundry (not within easy walking distance of most campsites), a convenience store, and an RV dump station. Basic sites (no hookups) cost $24 per night, and full hookup sites cost $32 per night. Reservations are accepted.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.