Home » 1999 Cross Country Road Trip

Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Sunday, August 8, 1999 - 9:00am by Lolo
190 miles and 4.5 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay


Our next stop was to see the Anasazi cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. The park's most spectacular cliff dwellings--Cliff House, Balcony House, and Long House--can only be visited during a ranger-guided tour, so we headed right for the Far View Visitor Center to purchase tickets for the ranger-led Balcony House Tour.

Andrew & Tommy at Mesa VerdeAndrew & Tommy at Mesa VerdeThe tour information had all these warnings for people with claustrophobia or a fear of heights. Apparently we were going to have to climb 32-foot-ladders up the sides of a cliff and crawl through narrow 30-foot-long crawl spaces. I started getting the same queasy feeling that I get before going on an amusement park ride. The kids were amused by my apprehension and just told me to relax.

To get to the Balcony House we drove the scenic Ruin Drive along the Chapin Mesa, stopping at the numerous view points along the way. It really was hard to believe that these ancient people actually built their homes into the sides of a cliff. They weren't just simple little caves either. Some of the dwellings looked like multistoried apartments with hundreds of rooms.

When we lined up for our Balcony House Tour, I was happy to see that there was a collection of butts much larger than mine that had to crawl through those tiny spaces we had been warned about. I was starting to relax. We were soon joined by our very enthusiastic ranger, who led us down a path to the base of one of those log ladders we had to climb. After a brief demonstration on the do's and don'ts of ladder climbing, the ranger asked Andrew and Tommy to lead. They scooted up the 32-foot-high ladder like little monkeys, making it look easy. It really wasn't bad at all. Our ranger spent the next hour leading us though crawl spaces and up and down ladders through the various rooms of this amazing dwelling. Along the way, he painted a picture for us of what life was like for the Anasazi people that inhabited these dwellings more than 800 years ago. Every once in awhile we are lucky enough to come across a ranger that truly loves what he is doing and whose enthusiasm is contagious. This was one of those lucky times and it definitely made for a more interesting and fun tour.

After the tour we headed over to the Chapin Mesa Museum where we learned more about the Anasazi and their fascinating life on the mesa. Andrew had just finished studying Native American culture in his 4th grade Social Studies class, so I think he got a kick out of seeing the real thing. From behind the Chapin Mesa Museum, we hiked the 1/4 mile trail to the Spruce Tree House, the park's best preserved ruin and the only one that you can visit on your own. We even got the chance to climb down a ladder through a smoke hole into a kiva, which was an underground ceremonial room.

Back at the museum we found out that in a few minutes there was going to be a genuine Hopi Indian ceremonial dance, which was something that happened here only once or twice a year. This was our lucky day--first the enthusiastic ranger and now dancing Hopi. We quickly headed down to the small amphitheater to catch the show, which was fascinating to watch. I always wonder if these ceremonies and rituals are still a part of their modern-day life or just a live history demonstration of past customs. I really hope that it's still a part of their culture today.


Mesa Verde National Park, located in the very southwestern corner of Colorado, is an 80-square-mile mesa that rises 1,600 feet above the surrounding desert and river valley. It is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. with more than 4,000 Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) archaeological sites dating from 550 to 1270 AD. These sites include some of the largest cliff dwellings in the world, mesa-top pueblos, pit houses, and kivas (underground ceremonial rooms).

The Anasazi, which is a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones," began settling here in mesa-top pueblos around 750 AD. These peaceful and highly religious people were mostly farmers and potters. Around 1200, they moved their village down into the recesses of the cliffs and built multistoried apartment-style dwellings, often containing up to 400 rooms. By the middle of the 13th century, the mesa was a bustling trade center with a population of about 5,000 people. Then for some unknown reason, around the latter part of the 13th century, the pueblos were abandoned. Archaeologists are not sure why or where the Anasazi went. It is thought that the Hopi and other Native American tribes in the Four Corners area are descendants of these ancient cliff dwellers.

The major cliff dwellings were first seen by white settlers in 1888 when two ranchers, Richard and Charles Wetherill, were riding across the mesa in search of stray cattle. When they peered over the rim, they were shocked to see multistoried cliff dwellings build into the alcoves of the cliffs more than 2,000 feet above the valley floor. They climbed down to explore the deserted village, which they named Cliff Palace. In its 200 rooms and 23 kivas, which had been uninhabited for over 700 years, they found stone tools, pottery, baskets, and other artifacts. When word got out of their discovery, treasure hunters came in droves in search of valuable artifacts. In order to protect these treasures, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill in 1906 creating Mesa Verde as a National Park.

Three of the park's cliff dwellings can be visited on ranger-guided tours--Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. Tickets for these tours, which are quite inexpensive, can be purchased at the Far View Visitor Center. You can also take the ¼ mile trail from the Chapin Mesa Museum for a self-guided tour of the Spruce Tree House, which is the park's best preserved ruin. Here you can climb down a ladder through a smoke hole into a kiva.

Mesa Verde National Park location map in "high definition"

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