Sunday, June 06, 2010

Mesa Verde :: Cliff Palace

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.


Tim Agazio said...


This post brought back great childhood memories.

Back in the mid 1960s one 2 week family vacation had us leaving Denver and touring all of Colorado. Because I was 7 or 8 at the time, I don't really remember too much about the trip except for 2 stops. One was Glenwood Springs that has a great natural mineral water swimming pool, and the other was Mesa Verde. I was so fascinated with the cliff dwellings that I mark it as the beginning of my passion for studying history.

These are great photos!

DianaR said...

I was looking at your pictures (in Google reader)and just popped over here to leave a comment only to find that Tim has basically left "my" comment - this brought back childhood memories for me as well!

We were coming from Ohio out to Boulder to visit an aunt and we stopped many places along the way. This was the first BIG family trip I remember. It was 1968 and I was 9 at the time. Mesa Verde just fascinated me.

Thanks for sharing these photos, they are great - but then again, Tim already said that too :-)

Carol said...

Good thing you posted such fab photos, now, Carol does not have to go there, might have a tad bit of trouble, as I cannot get my leg past the 3rd rung of a ladder, total freeze! SIGHH

Wonderful photos there!!

Terri said...

So glad to see you made it to our beautiful Colorado. If you go to Colorado Springs there is an awesome campground there called - Golden Eagle Ranch on Rock Creek Canyon Road. It's nestled up against the foothills and is a nature preserve as well. My husband I spent many peacefull days there.

Barbara said...

Although I've heard of this park, there others that are new to me. But they all have one thing in common, the excellent photos by you. Thanks.