Tag Archive | Cliff Palace

SW National Parks Trip: Cliff Palace

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 – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

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.

A portion of the Cliff Palace complex, showing several kivas in the front and a four story tower on the right side

A portion of the Cliff Palace complex, showing several kivas in the front and a four story tower on the right side

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.

Close up of the Cliff Palace tower. The lighter areas on the tower indicate reconstructed areas.

Close up of the Cliff Palace tower. The lighter areas on the tower indicate reconstructed areas.

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.

The view of Soda Canyon from the Cliff Palace Overlook. Cliff Palace is out of frame, in the lower left.

The view of Soda Canyon from the Cliff Palace Overlook. Cliff Palace is out of frame, in the lower left.

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.

A close up showing some of the kivas at Cliff Palace

A close up showing some of the kivas at Cliff Palace

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.

A close up of a Kiva at Cliff Palace, showing a display of grinding stones

A close up of a Kiva at Cliff Palace, showing a display of grinding stones

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?

 

 

SW National Parks Trip: Mesa Verde History

We got to visit to Mesa Verde National Park! Mesa Verde means green table in Spanish, named for the flat topped mesa that is covered in piñon pine (also spelled pinyon, but I prefer the Spanish spelling) trees.  Mesa Verde National Park was created on June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The current boundaries of the park encompass 81.4 square miles, or around 52,000 acres.  Almost 600,000 people visit the park each year.

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The land was once a giant ocean, and the canyons that exist today were created when the ocean and waterways receded, and erosion worked its magic on the sedimentary layers. Elevations in the park range from a low of 6,000 feet to a high of 8,572 feet.  Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the country that was created to protect a cultural site, and it is also a Unesco World Heritage Site – designated in 1978.  Mesa Verde protects over 4,700 archaeological sites created by the Puebloan culture, including dwelling sites, spiritual sites, ancient roads and other sites. Over 600 of the structures in Mesa Verde are cliff dwellings – these are the sites that the park is most famous for.

The first culture to live and farm at Mesa Verde were known as the Basketmakers.  Sources vary on the date, but it seems that they began living in Mesa Verde beginning about 400 A.D.  They made very detailed and beautifully woven baskets, which they used for many utilitarian purposes, including storage, cooking, and carrying water.  They lined some baskets with pitch in order to waterproof them for carrying water.

Around 550 A.D. the Puebloan people were living on the mesa tops, growing maize and hunting to supplement their diet. They also domesticated turkeys and dogs.  This culture discovered pottery methods, and they turned their attention to making pottery and fewer baskets. During this period on the mesa tops, they started out living in pit houses, which were houses dug into the ground of the mesa, with a roof made from timbers laid in rows and covered with reeds, brush and earth.

In about 750 A.D., they began to build villages on the mesa tops from adobe.  Initially, the walls were fashioned with a simple mud and pole construction, but over time their methods improved, and they began constructing buildings using stone masonry with adobe mortar. At this time, they were still living on the mesa tops.

What most people don’t know is that the Puebloan people only began to build the cliff dwellings that Mesa Verde is famous for in the 1190s. And the Puebloan people are thought to have left the area around 1300 due to a prolonged drought – that means they lived in the cliff dwellings for only slightly more than 100 years. Of course, that explains why only 600 of the 4,700 archaeological sites are cliff dwellings.

Between around 1300 and the 1800s, the Ute tribe came to the area. Spanish explorers traveled through the area in 1776, looking for a route from Santa Fe to California. They described the mesa and the canyons during their expedition, but apparently did not get close enough to see the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcoves.

In the 1870s, the area was home to the Ute tribe, and trappers and prospectors moved through the area. The Utes had long known about the cliff dwellings, but considered them to be sacred sites and did not live in them. One prospector, John Moss, found a cliff dwelling in 1873 and described it for the greater population. In 1876, a federally financed survey crew came through; that led to the first discussion of a systematic study of ruins in the American Southwest.

Meanwhile, the Wetherill family were living and ranching in the area, and had befriended the local Utes, who told them about the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcove. After gaining permission to winter their cattle in the canyons, Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace and climbed up to it. He and his family and friends explored Cliff Palace and collected many of its artifacts. Some he sold to the Historical Society of Colorado, and many he kept for himself. The Mesa Verde dwellings were no longer a secret.

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

In 1891, the Wetherills hosted Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish explorer and mineralogist. He introduced scientific methods of collection and cataloguing of artifacts, and meticulously documented and photographed all of the artifacts he found. Unfortunately, he also packed up a large number of them and shipped them to Sweden. The collection then was acquired by the National Museum of Finland, where it still resides today. It’s really sad. This was a major catalyst in the dialogue for protecting the site in the future.

Fortunately, the movement to preserve Mesa Verde had a lot of interest, and was ultimately successful.  I’ll post about our visit to the park next!