Mesa Verde, the landform after which the Mesa Verde archaeological region is named, towers over the surrounding valley in the heart of the Four Corners, in southwestern Colorado. Inhabited by Pueblo people for more than 1,500 years, the mesa today is home to Mesa Verde National Park and Ute Mountain Tribal Park, dedicated to the preservation of the thousands of archaeological sites within their boundaries.
The Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains in the background
The Great Sage Plain is a vast expanse of rolling, sage-covered uplands stretching north and west from Mesa Verde to the red rock country of southeastern Utah. Dissected by hundreds of canyons and punctuated by large stands of pinyon and juniper, this seemingly inhospitable landscape was abundant in the natural resources Pueblo people needed to thrive: deer and other game, wild plants, and especially the deep soils required to grow corn and other crops.
Archaeological surveys have documented tens of thousands of Pueblo and other archaeological sites across the Great Sage Plain.
Where the Great Sage Plain Meets Red Rock
. . . in southeastern Utah.
Canyon Country of Southwestern Colorado
Canyons slice through the Great Sage Plain, twisting and turning as they descend to the San Juan or Dolores rivers, part of the larger Colorado River drainage system. Some canyon streams run year-round, others only intermittently.
San Juan River
From its headwaters in northwestern New Mexico, the San Juan River wends its way west through the heart of the Four Corners before eventually emptying into the Colorado River.
The San Juan River marks an important archaeological boundary: to the north lies the Mesa Verde region, the northernmost extent of the ancient Pueblo world; to the south, southwest, and southeast lie Chaco Canyon, Kayenta, and the Rio Grande valley, each with their own regional manifestations of Pueblo culture.
San Juan River: Goosenecks
Sediment eroding from rocky cliffs turns the San Juan River red through the “Goosenecks” section in southeastern Utah.
Abajo Mountains in background
Comb Ridge is a spectacular red rock monocline that stretches from the Abajo Mountains in southeastern Utah to Tsegi Canyon near Kayenta, Arizona—almost 80 miles. Alcove dwellings, upland sites, and ancient trails carved into rock are evidence of thousands of years of human occupation.
Stories Etched in Stone
Throughout the ancient Pueblo world, people converted sheer rock faces into artists’ canvasses—pecking, and sometimes painting, images that offer unique glimpses into life in the distant past.
Ancient Pueblo site in foreground
The Colorado River in Arizona: Pueblo and other indigenous peoples lived along the river corridor, including in the Grand Canyon.
Kate Thompson, photographer
In northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Wash cuts through some of the harshest high desert landscapes of the Four Corners. Although the wash flows only intermittently, its upper reaches are home to the famous Pueblo great houses of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Beginning in spring and lasting into summer, strong winds from the south and west whip across the Four Corners, creating whirlwinds, or “dust devils,” such as the one shown here in a tilled field close to the Crow Canyon campus.
Pinyon pine wood was used by Pueblo people for fuel and in construction; the tiny nuts were a source of protein.
Prickly Pear Cactus
The discovery of charred prickly pear seeds in ancient hearths indicates that Pueblo people ate this readily available wild plant.
This shaggy-barked tree was a source of construction and fuel wood; its berries are edible.
Rabbitbrush thrives in disturbed habitats, such as abandoned agricultural fields. The Pueblo people used this woody shrub for fuel.
Ute Mountain in background
Springtime on the Great Sage Plain: A patch of globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) blooms bright orange next to the dagger-like leaves of a large yucca (Yucca baccata). The masonry wall is part of an ancient roomblock at Escalante Pueblo, at the Anasazi Heritage Center just outside Dolores, Colorado.
Summer monsoon rains bring much-needed moisture to a parched earth. Pueblo farmers of the Four Corners relied on the summer monsoon to grow their crops. A weak or failed monsoon could lead to hardship; successive years of inadequate monsoon moisture, especially when coupled with dry winters and/or shortened growing seasons, probably contributed to periodic migrations.
In good years, the summer monsoon can begin as early as late June and last into September.
Ute Mountain, near the Crow Canyon campus
The ancestral Pueblo homeland is a land of four seasons. Turning yellow at the lower elevation are cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii) lining a stream; the traces of gold on Ute Mountain are stands of aspen (Populus tremuloides).
Ute Mountain with a dusting of snow
Winter precipitation is a crucial factor in dryland (non-irrigation) farming—producing the deep soil moisture needed to germinate crops in the spring and sustain them until the summer monsoon. This is as true for dryland farmers today as it was for Pueblo farmers 1,000 years ago.