Some things never get old. Like the ancient cliff dwellings scattered throughout the American Southwest. We find them endlessly fascinating.
In previous posts we’ve likened the structures at Bandelier National Monument to ancient condos and those at Gila to primordial McMansions. Compared to those parks, Mesa Verde is an Ancestral Puebloan metropolis. The park’s 52,000 acres contain nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including a whopping 600 cliff dwellings.
Among these treasures is Cliff Palace, North America’s largest cliff dwelling. This massive structure has 150 rooms and 23 ceremonial spaces known as kivas. As many as 100 people may have lived here during it’s hey day, although Cliff Palace is thought to have been used primarily as a social and administrative site for both Mesa Verde residents and those of neighboring clans.
Smaller, but in some ways more interesting, Balcony House is accessed by a 32-foot ladder climb. The original inhabitants didn’t enter this way, though. In their time, a 12-foot crawl space provided the only way into the 40-room structure, making it highly defensible. That crawl space is now used as an exit, which leads to a thrilling 60-foot climb up open cliff face and back to the parking lot above.
Balcony House, with its climbing and crawling, is considered an “adventurous” cliff dwelling tour. Well worth the effort, it gives visitors a completely different perspective on the park.
To say Mesa Verde is large is an understatement. Plan at least a full day to see the highlights and even longer for a deeper dive into everything the park has to offer. The drive from the nearest town (Cortez, CO) took us an hour and a half alone, due to the winding mountain roads. Staying in the park’s campground or at the Far View Lodge cuts travel time considerably.
Wherever you stay, get tour tickets in advance. Many of the cliff dwellings are only accessed on ranger guided tours that frequently sell out. Tickets are not available online, but are sold up to two days in advance at the park and the Welcome Center in Cortez.