Most people don’t know this about me, but one of my majors in college was anthropology. Granted, it was anthropology with a biological focus. But I still took all of the introductory classes, including archaeology. In fact, I initially went into the field of anthropology because I wanted to be an archaeologist. I quickly changed my mind – long story – but I still find archaeology to be incredibly cool!
So for me, Mesa Verde was a very interesting place to visit. Not only could I see all of the old dwellings, but I could read the interpretive signs and begin to see how many of the things I’d learned in class had been employed here by archaeologists as they aimed to understand the lives of the people who used to live in Mesa Verde.
Some of it will obviously always be guesses and approximations. But over the years, archaeologists have been able to formulate some pretty plausible explanations for what life was like for these ancient peoples. And what better place to understand this than at Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America?
For example, tree ring dating of wood used in the dwellings shows that Cliff Palace was built and inhabited from 1190-1260 AD. The dwelling is very large, with 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round rooms used for spiritual or religious ceremonial purposes). The number of rooms suggests that many people lived at Cliff Palace – archaeologists estimate approximately 100 individuals. The large number of kivas and the higher-than-average kiva-to-room ratio as compared to other sites suggests that many ceremonies were performed here. Perhaps Cliff Palace was a place of importance.
The rooms were small, each housing maybe 2-3 people. Single rooms located in the back or up high were more likely used for storage, as they are smaller and less accessible. Soot stains on the walls and ceilings of the rooms suggest that Ancestral Puebloans used fire. Doorways in the cliff dwelling are very short, suggesting that the average Ancestral Puebloan was much shorter than present day people. This is consistent with other human remains dating to the same time period but found elsewhere in the world; the average woman was approximately 5 feet (1.52 m) tall and the average man 5’6″ (1.68 m).
Lastly, the Ancestral Puebloans had to discard their trash, and usually did so by tossing it over the edge of their cliff dwellings. Therefore, down below are piles of garbage called middens. These middens contain broken tools and cooking utensils, food scraps, animal bones, and anything else that was unwanted. Everything found in middens can tell archaeologists a lot about how the Ancestral Puebloans lived. For instance, they were capable of fashioning tools of all shapes and sizes out of wood, stone, and bone. They ate wild turkeys and used their feathers and bones for other purposes (i.e. clothing and tools). They made pottery. The list goes on.
Long story short, there is much to be learned at Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace is located at the end of the Chapin Mesa road and can be visited only by a ranger-led tour ($4 per person). The tour is 1 hour long and includes just ¼ mile (0.4 km) of hiking, but is rated as strenuous due to the altitude (7000 feet/2134 m), and the 120 uneven stairs and 5 ladders that must be traversed to reach the dwelling site.
In summer, due to demand, we could visit Cliff Palace or Balcony House, but not both on the same day. Since Cliff Palace is the largest dwelling, this was our rationale for selecting it over Balcony House.
As you can see from the photos, Cliff Palace is a very intricate dwelling, with structures of many shapes and sizes. Some structures have been restored in recent years, but most remain as they have been for the last 800 years. It’s incredible to think that people lived here, in these stone structures built into the side of a cliff. They had to be very resourceful; and clearly they were, as they inhabited the Mesa Verde area for 700 years!
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: Mesa Verde is located off of US Highway 160 in the southwest corner of Colorado; to get to Cliff Palace, follow the park road to the fork, then keep left onto Chapin Mesa Road
- Fees & passes: $15 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted. Cliff Palace tours are $4 per person; purchase tickets at the visitor center
- Camping: Morefield Campground – 267 sites, reservations accepted but the campground usually doesn’t fill up; $30+tax per night.
- Hiking: the Cliff Palace tour requires 0.25 miles (0.4 km) of hiking, with 120 uneven stone stairs and five 10 foot (3 m) ladders
- Other: basic amenities can be found throughout the park, but there is no gas beyond Morefield Village (located near the campground). Also, RVs and trailers are not allowed beyond this point due to the narrow, winding roads.