The only national park in the US devoted exclusively to archeological remains, MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK is set high on a densely wooded plateau south of US-160, around fifty miles west of Durango. It lies so far off the beaten path that its extensive Ancestral Puebloan ruins were not fully explored until 1888, when a local rancher discovered them on his land.
During the thousand or so years up to 1300 AD, Ancestral Puebloan peoples expanded to cover much of the area now known as the “Four Corners”. While their earliest dwellings were simple pits in the ground, they ultimately developed the architectural sophistication needed to build the spectacular multistorey apartments that characterize Mesa Verde, nestled in rocky alcoves high above the sheer canyons that bisect the southern edge of the Mesa Verde plateau. Why such remote and inaccessible structures were necessary remains unclear, but it suggests that Ancestral Puebloan culture was not as peaceful as it’s often depicted; in any event, the soil at Mesa Verde ultimately appears to have been depleted, and the region’s inhabitants migrated into what’s now New Mexico to establish the pueblos where their descendants still live.