It would probably seem to be a good bet that from Hovenweep I would go to visit the “cliff dwellers” at Mesa Verde National Park, located near Cortez, Colorado and about 50 miles east of Hovenweep. The park contains over 4,000 known archeological sites including cliff dwellings and the mesa top sites of pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures although many of them are not accessible to the everyday visitor.
The first stop was the campground. Even though I was assured by the Ranger at the entrance station that the campground never fills up, I wanted to make sure that I had a site for the night. After securing my site I drove the dozen or so miles winding up the mountain side to the visitors center. A ticket, for the nominal sum of three dollars, is required to tour the cliff dwellings. The number of visitors on each tour is limited as are the number of daily tours to each site. There were several slots available for the two dwelling sites that were open – Cliff Palace and Balcony House – and I obtained tickets for Cliff Palace that afternoon and Balcony House the next morning.
There are signs posted at the waiting area for the tours warning that “Visiting the cliff dwellings will involve strenuous hiking and climbing. If you have any health problems do not attempt.” Dire warnings, indeed. But the trail is only a quarter of a mile long. How difficult could it be?
A portion of the Cliff Palace seen from the top of the trail. A large part of the dwelling is off to the left and much of it is barely visible in the shadows.
Several of the towers are four stories high. Park literature states that “The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best preserved in the North American Continent. Sometime during the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa top for 600 years, many Ancestral Puebloans began living in pueblos they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. The structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms. While still farming the mesa tops, they continued to reside in the alcoves, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century. By the late 1270s, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended.”
And, “Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. If you visit Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.”
It was fascinating. And the trail really wasn't so bad. A metal stairway leads to a series of uneven stone steps of varying heights. Then the path goes along the edge of the cliff making its way around to a 10-foot ladder going up to the next level. From there, you had to go back down a ways along a stone and dirt path finally reaching the area of the cliff dwellings.
The park Ranger preparing to climb the last of the ladders back to the top.
At first glimpse, and from a distance, the final ladder climb looks scary. This was taken from the trail waiting area before going on the tour. But, as you can see from the previous photo, the ladder hugs the wall and it was a relatively easy climb.