Mesa Verde National Park, Part 1: Cliff Palace and Balcony House

Mesa Verde is best known for its cliff dwellings. In fact, these dwellings are what people generally conjure up when discussing the Ancestral Puebloan culture (or the Anasazi as many people still refer to them as). However, these dwellings represent a later stage than the great houses of Chaco Canyon, which flourished in the late 1100s. The area at Mesa Verde, having actually been inhabited since ca. 600 AD, was not merely another outlier of Chaco Canyon, but rather existed concurrently and then “flourished” (if you want to define the construction of the cliff dwellings as their cultural apex), from ca. 1190 – 1280 AD just as populations in Chaco Canyon were migrating north to places like Salmon Ruins, Aztec Ruins, and Chimney Rock. There are numerous cliff dwellings within the park but unfortunately my visit in late September meant that some were already closed for the season. I was able to visit the famous Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House however in addition to numerous sites located above the rim.

Cliff Palace was constructed between 1190 – and 1260 AD and had about 150 rooms and 23 kivas, serving a population of approximately 100. Like other cliff dwellings, it would have been very difficult to access prior to modern times, contributing to the popular theory that the Ancestral Puebloan people began construction of these houses for their easily defendable positions, hence signaling unrest that was not present in earlier times. Even now, with trails cut into the rock and metal staircases bolted to the canyon walls, visitors must use ladders to access most of these houses as entry is generally from the canyon rim.

View of right side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 - 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

View of right side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 – 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

View of left side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 - 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

View of left side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 – 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Closer view of left side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 - 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Closer view of left side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 – 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Closer view of right side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 - 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Closer view of right side of alcove, Cliff Palace, 1190 – 1260 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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Balcony House is believed to have been a later construction, with one tree ring date placing construction near 1278 AD. Visitors are given greater access to the 45-room Balcony House than Cliff Palace which provides the opportunity to examine original timber roofing and adobe. Access for the modern visitor is more challenging than other cliff houses, requiring the use of a 32-foot ladder for entry and a tunnel and another ladder for exit.

View of site from left side of alcove, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

View of site from left side of alcove, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Original timber and roofing, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Original timber and roofing, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Masonry integrated in cliff wall, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Masonry integrated in cliff wall, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Tunnel used for exit, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Tunnel used for exit, Balcony House, ca. 1278 AD, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado