Mesa Verde National Park
The countryside of Colorado's southwest corner holds what some archaeologists believe to be the continent's most important site. With 600 cliff dwellings across 81 square miles, Mesa Verde National Park is the United States' biggest archaeological preserve. The park, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, is also Colorado's longest protected place within the National Parks system. Here are structures of a centuries-old civilization that stir a sense of wonder. Tourists are guided through three grand settlements built by the Ancestral Puebloans. One is Cliff Palace, believed to be North America's largest cliff dwelling with 150 rooms. Another is Balcony House, what rangers call the park's "Indiana Jones tour" - a 32-foot ladder must be scaled to reach the village, with tight tunnels that require some to tuck it in. After a mile-long hike and canyon descent, tourists arrive at Long House, where basins in the ground remain from the people who carved them to store spring water. If wanting to check those sites out, get in line at the visitor center. Otherwise, you can go alone on various hiking trails of short to moderate lengths that allow you sweeping views of the mesa-framed, piñon and juniper-filled valley.
Activities: Ranger-led site visits, backcountry tours, self-guided hiking, photography
Wildlife: Elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, red and gray foxes, coyotes, gophers, badgers, bats among mammals; golden eagle, Cooper's hawk, wild turkey, western scrub jay, Stellar's jay, western tanager, western kingbird, white-throated swift, black-throated gray warbler, sparrows, cardinals among birds; lizards and snakes
Fun fact: The earliest photographs of the cliff dwellings were taken in 1874 by William Henry Jackson, the pioneer and known ancestor of one Samuel Wilson, from whom we got the iconic "Uncle Sam."
Address: Mesa Verde, 81330
Hours: Visitor center hours fluctuate by season
Directions: Off Interstate 25 south, take exit 50 for U.S. 160 west and drive about 256 miles, past Mancos, to entrance for park.
SETH BOSTER, THE GAZETTE