Climb into ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde

Entertainment,Robin Tierney

"If you have a fear of heights and tight spaces, this tour's not for you," said Park Ranger Paula Wolfe, preparing 25 adults and children for an hour climb up and down cliffside ladders, squeezing between rocks, and crawling through crevices "as wide as my hat." The destination is Balcony House, a cliff dwelling inhabited by nimble pre-Columbian Indians between 1180 to 1270 A.D.

"I studied these peoples, the ancestral Puebloans," the former Fairfax resident said of her decision to work in southwest Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park. Besides this $3-per-person tour, the park's new offerings include the five-hour Far View Explorer ($25 adult, $12.50 child) tour that comes with lunch and transportation to spots such as Mummy Lake, a 90-foot-diameter reservoir that's among America's oldest engineered structures. The expanded tours let visitors "experience how native peoples lived," said park spokeswoman Judy Swain. For breathtaking views, she suggests staying in the park's Far View Lodge, open through October.

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Aug. 27 and 28: Mesa Verde Country Food, Wine & Art Festival: Farmers, vintners and artists celebrate centuries of the area's agrarian heritage.

A World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde ("green table") is North America's largest archaeological preserve, and the first national park designated to preserve indigenous culture. Established in 1906, the park's 52,000 acres contain 4,400 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.

By 750 A.D, instead of moving with the seasons, Ancestral Puebloans settled and farmed Mesa Verde's south-facing sites. Pit houses evolved into pueblo communities atop mesas, as at the Far View site, and in mountainside alcoves, such as Cliff Palace, the world's largest known cliff dwelling.

Balcony House's plaza looks down 600 feet into Soda Canyon. Explorers peer into the 38-room dwelling, its sophisticated food storerooms and two kivas -- chambers dug into the plaza floor integrating smartly designed fire pits, with timber pilasters for support. The original juniper-beamed roofs have been removed. Dwelling walls were constructed of fine stonework coated with plaster.

Wolfe explained how alcoves formed over centuries of tan sandstone freezing and thawing. Residents grew corn, beans, squash and amaranth on mesa tops, and harvested nutrition-dense nuts from pinon trees.

The site appears as it did 800 years ago, aside from ladders sparing visitors from having to use finger- and toeholds carved by the original occupants.

By 1300 AD, the cliff dwellers were gone. "Depletion of soil, trees [and] water" were likely factors, Wolfe said. But she said that Puebloan lore gave another reason: "The gods told us it was time to go."

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