High above the floor of Mesa Verde Canyon near Cortez, Colorado, are the remains of a mysterious abandoned city built into the natural recesses of the overhanging cliffs. The Indians who once lived there were called Cliff Dwellers, and their lives were difficult.

To reach the land where they grew beans and corn and hunted, the Indians had to climb down the steep cliffs, using crude ladders, handholds, and toeholds made for that purpose. Carrying water and supplies up to the dwellings must have been hazardous, especially for older people and children. But the caves did offer protection from the elements. Once inside their homes, families could also feel safe from enemy attacks. Perhaps this is one reason why the high dwelling places were chosen.

Such villages have been discovered in many areas, but those in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado are among the best preserved. For nearly one hundred years, Indian tribes developed these villages into full-scale communities, complete with meeting rooms and warehouses and hundreds of individual rooms used for sheltering families. Some of the dwellings are four stories high.

Near the end of the thirteenth century the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers moved away. However, they left some tools and pottery and such perfect baskets that this particular group became known as the Basket Makers. The reason for their departure remains a mystery, but it is believed that a thirty-year drought may have forced them to leave. The need to move away when the water runs out has turned many early western cities into ghost towns.

Today the National Park Service maintains the cliff dwellings so that visitors can share this glimpse into history. Although the ruins can be viewed year round, the best time to visit Mesa Verde National Park is from mid-May through mid-October, when accommodations and concessions and guided tours are available.

Campfire programs dealing with the pre-Columbian and modern Indians of the Southwest and the natural history of the area are conducted nightly from June to September. When gathered around the firelight’s mystic glow, tales of the strange city and its early inhabitants can be spellbinding.

Illustrated by Jon Burton