InWord Journeys

The Natural World of Mesa Verde

Nature provided for the Ancestral Puebloans(Anasazi) who lived at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado. The geologic features, plants, and animals they found there enabled them to prosper for hundreds of years.

Through eons of geologic time, the region around Mesa Verde was shaped into a flat-topped highland ranging from 6,100 to 8,400 feet high. Fingers of side canyons and smaller uplands radiate out into the desert.

Because it slopes slightly to the south,
Mesa Verde is technically a cuesta,
not a mesa.

Partly because Mesa Verde dips at a 7-degree angle, conditions are right for the formation of the alcoves which shelter the cliff cities. After water penetrates the pores and cracks in the sandstone, it then expands and contracts with each subsequent freeze and thaw. Eventually, the rocks are forced apart and fall away, leaving behind large arched openings and sandstone blocks that can be shaped into building stones.
The openings that house the cliff
dwellings at Mesa Verde are not caves,
which are underground chambers.
They are actually alcoves.



Spruce Tree House

Once, the area now protected in Mesa Verde National Park was under the Cretaceous-era Western Interior Seaway, the inland sea which split North America into two pieces when it covered the continent from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains. Throughout eons of time the sea advanced and retreated, depositing sand in shallow areas and compacting shale under the deep water and swamps. Ripple marks and fossils of clams, ammonites, palm tree leaves, and oysters have been found here, along with sharks teeth, driftwood and even a starfish impression.

2 The red soil on the mesa top supports large juniper and piñon trees, and was ideally suited for growing crops. This rich loess soil is wind blown silt which holds moisture and forms deposits 3 to 30 feet thick.
        Starfish Fossil

When rain dissolves the calcium carbonate bonding the grains of
sandstone together, flower patterns are sometimes formed in
the rock. As water follows and erodes grooves into natural
depressions, it deposits ridges of minerals between the paths
and creates solution rills. One solution rill, in a niche at
Sun Temple, may have had special significance to the
Ancestral Puebloan people.

The geological forces that created Mesa Verde also provided
sources of water for the Ancestral Puebloan. After porous layers
of sandstone were deposited over denser shale, water percolated
through the sandstone. It was then forced to glide along the top
of the shale and eventually emerge in seep springs

In addition to corn, beans and squash, the Mesa Verdeans harvested plants such as amaranth, beeplant, groundcherry, and wild purslane.

    Prickly Pear Cactus
3 Prickly pear, saltbush, chokecherry, and piñon pine provided seeds, nuts and fruit. Acorns came from gamble oak.

Paints for pottery were made from plants and the minerals in crushed rock.


Juniper trees provided berries for flavoring and medicine, and the soft bark which easily peeled off for such uses as diapers and footwear insulation in the winter.

Juniper tree and berries

To learn what the prehistoric residents of Mesa Verde ate,
scientists examine coprolites, which are the people’s
fossilized excrement..


6 7
Yucca plants and fruit


Yucca had many uses for an Ancestral Puebloan. Yucca fibers
were stripped from the leaves and woven into rope, textiles,
mats, headbands, and sandals. Needles were fashioned from the
sharp leaf-ends, with intact fiber trailing behind as thread. The
tips were also used in hairbrushes. The fruit of the broad-leaf
yucca was used for food.


In the Mesa Verde summer, many
animals prefer to be out in early
morning and late afternoon hours.

Most of Mesa Verde’s riparian areas are now closed to visitors, but many plants and animals used by the Ancestral Puebloans can be seen on the mesa top and along the roads. To visit similar habitats in the area, drive along the Mancos River west of the town of Mancos outside of Mesa Verde National Park. 9

Look and listen for birds like evening grosbeaks, goldfinches and swallows, as well as eagles, ducks, great blue herons, and bluebirds. Many varieties of owls also live in the park.
Evening Grosbeak

10 Wild turkeys are reminders of the domesticated ones which provided feathers and bug control in the garden for the Ancestral Puebloans residing at Mesa Verde. Coyote, mountain lion, porcupine, elk and black bear live here, too.
      Wild turkey

The people of Mesa Verde used
turkey feathers to make
socks and winter leggings.

                                                                                  Mule Deer
12 Mule deer are a common sight at Mesa Verde today, although during the time of the Ancestral Puebloans, wild sheep were probably more abundant than deer. Still, throughout the Southwest, deer have provided not only food, but many other necessities to the native people. Tanned deerskin was made into clothing, and scrapers fashioned from deer jawbones were used to remove corn from the cob. Antlers and bones became awls, spearpoints, needles, and decoration. Hooves were used for rattles, and long hollow leg bones were fashioned into musical instruments to accompany ceremonial and social dancing.

If you see wild animals, remember to keep your
distance. You can harm them by feeding them human food,
and they can harm you by biting or kicking.

Rabbits, both cottontail and jackrabbit, scamper across the roads. They were more important food sources than large game for the prehistoric inhabitants of Mesa Verde, and they provided soft fur to be cut into strips and woven into blankets.



Lizards and snakes are often seen at Mesa Verde. The only poisonous snake here is the prairie rattlesnake.

Avoid rattlesnakes by being careful about where you
step and put your hands. And be aware that they are
pit vipers and will hunt at night during warm weather.

Black bears sheltered in the rooms
of Spruce Tree House during the Bircher
wildfires in 2000.

   For more about Mesa Verde and how the early Mesa Verde residents used the plants and animals, see The People of Mesa Verde and Mesa Verde National Park pages.


Copyright © Tish Minear and Janet Limon