Most national parks protect natural wonders - mountains, forests, canyons. But Mesa Verde was the first national park created to preserve man-made wonders - ancient cliff dwellings, made from sandstone, perched on ledges at elevations of 7,000 feet.
This intricate architecture, dating to the 12th century, is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde National Park was established 18 years later, in 1906.
The park's centennial is being observed this year with festivals, lectures and access to sites that have been closed to the public for decades.
A four-day party, free to the public, with a birthday cake, music, Indian dances, a traders' festival, craft demonstrations and other events is scheduled for June 29-July 2. Other highlights of the centennial include monthly lectures and demonstrations; daylong horseback rides in September to Spring House, which has been closed since the 1960s; and ranger-led hikes to two other dwellings. One of these, Mug House, has never been open to the public before, and another, Oak Tree House, has been closed since the 1930s.
Other events are being held in communities around the region; for advance reservations and a complete schedule, visit http://www.mesaverde2006.org. The celebration ends Dec. 9 with a "luminaria" - nighttime illumination - of Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, another dwelling.