Our first stop at Mesa Verde National Park was at the Visitor’s Center – I got my National Parks Passport stamp, some postcards, and some handy booklets with facts on the various cliff dwellings. We talked to the ranger about our options for a tour, and I decided to book us for the Balcony House tour. I would have loved to do the tour of Cliff Palace too, but I didn’t think I could get Jon to do two tours in one day.
I chose Balcony House because it was the most challenging tour, with the ranger explaining that visitors would have to climb a ladder, crawl on their hands and knees and scale the side of a cliff. Oh, that’s all… And they also said it wasn’t a good tour for people with a fear of heights. Even though I am afraid of heights, this tour sounded a lot cooler than the others. We were in! The tours are an extra fee, not covered by your annual parks pass or the standard entrance fee, but they are still very reasonable – $4 per person.
We had some time to stop at Cliff Palace on our way to Balcony House for our tour. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, consisting of about 150-200 rooms. The dwelling was discovered by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason in 1888, while they were out one winter day looking for stray cattle. Wetherill was ranching in the area and had spent some time building relationships with the local Native American tribes; they told him about the dwellings in the canyons. The Ute tribe that was living in the area had known about the cliff dwellings for generations, but they considered them to be sacred land, so they didn’t inhabit the dwellings themselves.
Cliff Palace is built below the mesa top into the cliff, underneath a large flat overhang under the mesa top. The Park Service has built a series of steps into the cliff so visitors can climb down into the dwelling on tours. There are also a few 10 foot ladders that you have to access to get into the site, but it doesn’t have the significant climbing and crawling that is required on the Balcony House tour. Because of the stairs, it is fairly accessible to large numbers of the public, so it is the park’s most popular tour.
Cliff Palace was built between 1190 and 1260, in a period when the Puebloan culture was moving down from the mesa tops into the alcoves. They devoted a lot of time and resources to construct these elaborate homes and spiritual sites; hauling in water to mix mortar, and making plaster to smooth over the block walls. Cliff Palace was three stories tall in areas and had 23 kivas. A kiva was the spiritual center of the dwelling, and is thought to have been a center for worship and perhaps the business of the community. There is a four story square tower in the Cliff Palace complex as well.
Cliff Palace would have been one of the more comfortable cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Its position relative to the sun would have allowed it to receive more sun during the winter to warm the dwelling, while being tucked in under the overhang protects it from the harsh winter winds. During the hot summer, it would have been protected from the sun beating down from directly overhead, making it cooler.
However, despite it being one of the more comfortable cliff dwelling sites, Cliff Palace is thought to have only housed about 100 people. Researchers believe that a small number of people lived there year round, and others came for special ceremonial observances during the year. This guess is based on the fact that there is a fairly low ratio of living rooms to kivas.
When we were there, there was a tour of the dwelling just leaving from the mesa top. As a result, the dwelling was empty and I was able to get some great photographs of the dwelling from the viewpoint on the mesa top. That said, I would love to tour this dwelling whenever we are able to return.
After we checked out Cliff Palace, it was time to head over to Balcony House for our tour. I’ll post about that next!
Have you ever done the tour at Cliff Palace? What was your favorite part?