Tag Archives: Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park – Balcony House

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The last day in Mesa Verde began with our last breakfast at the ARAMARK cafeteria. After this day, we’d at least have options for food, but up on the mesa, it was compromise, compromise, compromise. The day before we tried the “world-famous” Navajo Taco for lunch. It was an utter joke. For ARAMARK, fossilized shammy = flat bread. And I won’t even go into the toppings…

Despite the bleak food situation in the national park, we weren’t looking to skadaddle too quickly. The dwelling tours were captivating, and we had to complete the trifecta with a morning climb/jaunt/crawl/tour of Balcony House.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

While Cliff Palace overwhelms you with its grandeur, Balcony House moves you with its intimacy. There is no easy overlook off the road, no dramatic viewpoint on approach — just a nestled little community that you don’t really see until you’ve entered it via a 32-foot ladder. In fact, to leave the dwelling you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a narrow dusty passage before ascending two dramatic ladders back up to the mesa top. Not once do you have a stand-back-and-survey-the-whole-dwelling moment. It’s pretty cool because of it.

Upon entrance, to the right of the landing where the first ladder delivers you, is a small stone arch enclosing a pen of some kind (above). Archaeologists believe that the Ancestral Puebloans kept their turkeys in these pens, an ingenious construction that was part meat locker and part ADT security alarm. Spend any time among live turkeys and you quickly understand how frantic and nuts they are. If anything or anyone approached Balcony House, the turkeys would let the whole community know.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The dwelling takes its name from a 30-foot balcony attached to the second floor of one of the structures. You can see it in the middle left side of the top left photo of this blog post. Our ranger speculated that residents of the structure used the balcony as a hallway between rooms more than anything. Standing there, seeing 5-foot-9 tourists standing next to this balcony, you quickly begin to realize just how short the Ancestral Puebloans were. I asked the ranger about this, and sure enough, they averaged anywhere from 5-foot to 5-foot-3 in height, but then again, she noted, so did most people in 1300 AD.

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

I’ll be honest: I’m not one for tour guides in any scenario. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they show you a place in the way they want you to see a place. The focus of a tour is never in sync with my eye, and 75% of the information goes in one ear and out the other. It’s just how I’m wired.

Plus, I think there is something lost when your questions are answered. I know very little about Siena’s Duomo, about the history of the Pantheon, and about the symbolism of the Good Friday Parade in San Miguel de Allende — but I understand them in a very different way that is visceral, emotional and full of curiosity. That’s because I approached them through the lens rather than through a tour guide. I’m not saying my way is better than their way. Not at all. I’m just saying their approach doesn’t suit me.

At one point, the ranger scolded me for moving five feet to the right to take a photo while she was talking. She said it threw off her concentration. My first instinct was to feel bad, but in hindsight, I think it was a bullshit thing to do. Bullshit because the only way to see Balcony House is by guided tour. The least the guides can do is allow for silent periods of five minutes here and there so that you can process the mystery of a place, or see it with your own eyes. But in the end, they have 45 minutes to tell you everything there is to know about the Ancestral Puebloan people, and like I said, with me, a lot of that goes in one ear and out the other.

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Mesa Verde National Park – Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Three days to see Mesa Verde was plenty, but considering that the main cliff dwellings are in canyons, where shadow and sunlight conspire for extreme contrast, we had to carefully plan which sites to visit when for fear of getting the wrong lighting conditions. This meant that we’d save the biggest and best cliff dwelling — Cliff Palace —  for the end of our second day.

Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

This massive complex — North America’s largest cliff dwelling — hangs in an alcove tucked above Cliff Canyon, where evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan people is everywhere. Our first view of Cliff Palace was from the opposite side of the canyon rim, at a place called Sun Point View. Overlooking two forks in the canyon, the vantage is the one place in Mesa Verde where the whole of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization comes into view. Dwellings, ruins, and jumbled-up archaeological sites emerge from the walls and forest … the longer you look, the more you see.

Ultimately, a network appears — a civilization that was once interconnected and thriving. My imagination went wild standing there on that sun-baked overlook, visualizing the Puebloans as they traveled from dwelling to dwelling.

Sun Point View overlooking Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

(Click on panorama for larger view)

The castle of this fiefdom is Cliff Palace (above center). Tucked in its protected corner of the canyon, it is massive in size — 150 rooms, 23 underground chambers (kivas) and an estimated population of 100. Considering that most dwellings from this era consist of 2 or 3 rooms, its an especially significant site.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Our ranger tour guide was more like a drill sergeant than a docent — his narrative on Ancestral Puebloan family life was barked more than recited, but he was fantastic, devoting extra attention to the infant mortality rate and day-to-day challenges of children (malnutrition, etc.).

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

From the main overlook next to the dwelling (photo above) he led us down a series of stairs, than down a ladder, and onto a trail that delivered us to the foot of the dwelling. In evening light, the walls and towers of Cliff Palace were absolutely radiant. Despite being in a group of 40 people, it wasn’t hard to imagine what this, the most magnificent dwelling in the park, must have looked like when first discovered by European descendants in 1891.

Square Tower House and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The tour went quickly, and 45 minutes after setting eyes on Cliff Palace, we ascended a series of ladders through a rocky crevice, climbing our way back to the car, where we tucked our tired little girl back into her car seat. Despite our better judgment (i.e. “get dinner, get girl to bed”) we made a run for Square Tower House before the sun set. Back around and across to the opposite mesa we rushed, reaching the overlook just in time to capture the three-story structure before it submerged into shade (above left).

The next morning we’d tour Balcony House and then leave for Pagosa Springs to conclude our trip. As much as I was enjoying the guided cliff-dwelling tours and short nature hikes, they paled in comparison to the joy of watching how well our five-month old girl was doing. This little one travels well.

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Mesa Verde National Park – Cedar Tree House and Long House

(Click on images for a larger view)

Mesa Verde National Park has long been on my list. Located near the Four Corners and home to an extensive network of abandoned dwellings from the Ancestral Puebloan Indians, it is a magical place I should know well. After all, it is in Colorado and its an UNESCO World Heritage site (so is Macchu Piccu, the Roman Coliseum, and the Pyramids of Egypt).

But time and distance had conspired in my head to keep me from going. Why? It is 8 hours by car from Denver … so is Billings, Montana.

I last visited when I was two years old. Naturally, that shouldn’t count as “having been there.” However, one of the earliest memories of my life is from when we went into the kiva at Cedar Tree House (below). I think it stands out to me because we descended a ladder into a hole in the ground. That’s got to mess with your head when your that young.


So we arrived at Mesa Verde after another long afternoon in the car. Varenna had slept for much of the uneventful journey, but by the time we weaved through the emerald gambel-oak forest that covers the mesa just inside the park entrance, she was kicking and screaming. Emotionally, I kept feeling like we were being selfish for going on this trip, but the wonderful thing about six-month-olds is how short their memory is. One stop, one good break to roll around on a blanket, and everything is right with the world again.

After checking into the underwhelming Far View Lodge (run by ARAMARK, a hospitality company that only works where it has no competition: like stadiums, national parks, college campuses, etc., explaining why the standards for food and bedding are so low), we gently buckled Varenna back up and drove 20 minutes south to see the only dwelling we could reach before sundown — Cedar Tree House (left in second photos above), considered the best preserved dwelling, and home to the reconstructed kiva that you can climb down into.

By the time we reached it, however, it was closed for the day, gated off across the grotto, with a phalanx of 50 to 60 vultures watching vigil over it from the trees above. It appeared that a forest fire had at one point reached the top of the dwelling and been beaten back. The sky burst into lavendar and pink, and an eerie silence permeated the whole scene. No wonder the Ute Indians didn’t like this mesa after it was abandoned. There was definitely a haunted vibe. The only sign of life came from a family of turkeys on the rocks above the dwelling who humorously chased the vultures.

The next day, we traveled to Wetherill Mesa, which practically comprises half the park but only sees 20% of the park’s visitors. There we took a hiking tour to Long House with a nasally, patronizing guide who — despite her smarter-than-you tone — provided an impressive amount of information on the Ancestral Puebloan Indians, their way of life, and their subsequent disappearance from the mesa. Long House was especially fascinating because of the seep spring at the back of the dwelling, which filled cups chipped into the stone drip-by-drip (above right). How they were able to keep the entire population of the dwelling hydrated off this meager faucet is mystifying, amazing and admirable.

There was also an amazing structure hanging above the dwelling (below), apparently reserved for food storage.

Taking photos on a guided tour can be a little awkward (“uh-huh, uh-huh <click> … I’m listening <click>”) but its the only way to gain access to the dwellings, and for good reason. They would certainly get trashed (accidentally by the klutzy and intentionally by the greedy) if they weren’t heavily policed and patrolled. Even backing up to frame a shot, I had to be careful not to bump into an ancient brick wall.

Maybe if you gave tours to people like me, you’d take on a patronizing tone over time.

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I Love Colorado

(Click on images for a larger version).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting a lot of new imagery of my home state of Colorado. Last Saturday to this past Friday, Hailey, Varenna and I did a swing through Southwest Colorado — our little girl’s first true vacation. We saw some of the few places we have not experienced yet (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado National Monument) plus some old favorites (Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray, Pagosa Springs).


Southwest Colorado is God’s country. I don’t say that lightly or because its late at night and I am out of words. It is simply a staggering place. The landscape is a beautiful dichotomy: overwhelming and intimate at the same time. When you are not picking your jaw up off the ground because of the vaulted peaks, plummeting waterfalls and sheer canyons, your finding yourself in a cozy valley or by a fresh gurgling river, thinking about retirement because the place is so livable.

Mesa Verde, Square Tower House, cliff dwelling, Colorado, Ancestral Puebloan, Anasazi

On this trip we visited Mesa Verde National Park for the first time since we were kids (Hailey was 7 when she visited with her family, I was 2). Until now, the context of Colorado’s indigenous people was little more than knowledge to me. As an editor and as a writer, I knew quite a bit about their civilization and its rise and subsequent migration away from the mesa. But knowing and understanding are two different things sometimes. You have to go there to truly visualize and appreciate the systems that connected the dwellings and people of the mesa.

Here is a Google Map of the entire trip’s itinerary:

I’ll have more — plenty more — to come in the next few weeks. Lots more Colorado travel coming up (fall color in Steamboat and Snowmass) and then the year’s big trip around Thanksgiving: Kauai.

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