Mesa Verde visitor center

Mesa Verde National Park is a treasure trove of archaeological and natural resources, abounding with sites and artifacts that divulge a rich history of the region’s former inhabitants. Until recently, though, it was easy to drive by the landmark without a hint of what lay down the park’s road. With the opening of the long-awaited Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center, that has changed dramatically. The park and its supporting organization, the Mesa Verde Foundation have earned a crowning achievement with the center.

The park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and as archaeologists have explored the 52,122-acre park, they have discovered more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including approximately 600 cliff dwellings. Getting to these sites was no small undertaking for the park’s 572,000-or-so visitors each year, who must drive 21 miles from U.S. Highway 160 before reaching the park’s heart. The center’s opening gives visitors an easily accessible overview of the park and clearly lays out what lies in its depths. Maps, guides, tour information and registration and park souvenirs are now readily accessible from the highway.

That is critical for improving visitors’ experience, but, more importantly, the center offers park researchers a much-needed home for analyzing, cataloging and storing the trove of ancestral materials found at the park’s sites.

All told, these sites represent inhabitants from A.D. 500 to 1300, and have yielded 3 million artifacts that were formerly stored in less-than-ideal facilities that had no public access. The park’s archaeologists were challenged to manage and properly care for these artifacts. In the new facility, the fragile material is stored in a manner that will provide protection in perpetuity and allow researchers much easier access. That logistical improvement lays the foundation for archaeologists to learn far more from the abundant relics found in the park, further bolstering Mesa Verde’s story.

The Visitor and Research Center was the culmination of a years-long effort supported by lawmakers across the political spectrum. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and his predecessor, Democrat John Salazar, were enthusiastic about the $16.5 million project, with the latter helping secure much of the funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Mesa Verde Foundation, as well as other foundations and private donors, made up the difference. It was a wide-spanning partnership that produced impressive results.

The Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center will hold its grand opening at 10 a.m. Thursday, and a series of celebratory events will follow to honor the opening and Indian Arts and Culture festival.

Kudos to all involved in the center’s conception and construction: It is a long-awaited and welcome addition to the region’s rich archaeological resources.

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