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.
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.
(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.
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.).
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.
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.