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Ancient Cliff Dwellings Draw Modern Crowds


Sometime during the late 1190s, after living atop the mesas for 600 years, many Ancestral Pueblo people began living in sandstone cities they built beneath the overhanging cliffs.

After leaving the enchanting landscape of New Mexico, national parks traveler Mikah Meyer headed north into the state of Colorado, where he found more natural and manmade wonders.

Cliff Dwellings 'on steroids'

His first stop was Mesa Verde National Park in the southwestern part of the state, which protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings built of sandstone and mud mortar. It is home to the largest, best-known and best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America.

Mikah takes a "selfie" with one of the ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.
Mikah takes a "selfie" with one of the ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.

Having visited the "impressive" Gila Cliff dwellings in New Mexico, Mikah said the ones at Mesa Verde were on a whole new level.

“They are 10 times bigger,” he said. “There are just so many ruins to look at, and hike to and from, and tour, that it’s basically a cliff dwelling site on steroids!”

Accompanied by a ranger, who was a family friend, he walked among the ancient structures, marveling at their beauty and architecture.

Ancient culture

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, is not only a beautiful national park site, but historically significant as well. For seven centuries, starting around 1,500 years ago, the area was home to the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Their culture spanned the present-day “Four Corners” region of the United States – which is where four states - Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah - meet. Today, that notable spot is a popular tourist destination, where visitors can literally place a limb in every state.

The Four Corners is the only spot in the United States where four states meet – Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico – and visitors can be in all of them at the same time
The Four Corners is the only spot in the United States where four states meet – Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico – and visitors can be in all of them at the same time

Back at the park, visitors can visit cliff dwellings of different sizes.


Balcony house -- a 13th century marvel

Tucked under a sandstone overhang, Mesa Verde’s Balcony House offers an ambitious tour. Accompanied by park rangers, visitors have to climb a 10-meter (32-foot) high ladder and squeeze through a tunnel to reach some of the main areas.

But their efforts are rewarded with close-up views of the massive structures -- including 40 rooms and two ancient Kivas, circular structures that were typically used for religious and social gatherings.

Tucked under a sandstone overhang, Balcony House offers visitors a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.
Tucked under a sandstone overhang, Balcony House offers visitors a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

In a National Park video about Mesa Verde, ranger Andrew Reagan says visitors to the sites can’t quite believe the existence of the dwellings.

“They come to this park and they first see the cliff dwellings and they think ‘that's an impossible place to live.’ But as soon as you climb that ladder and you're inside the North Plaza, it all makes sense. They look around at the beautiful walls and the balconies that still have their plasters on them and they think, ‘I could do this…this is a really comfortable space.’”

Also, as Mikah points out, because the dwellings are on the edge of a cliff, visitors get unprecedented views of the surrounding country. "You can go to the peak and have amazing 360-degree views of Shiprock [Mountain] in New Mexico and the Colorado valley and mountains and white capped mountains to your east."

Long House

The second largest cliff dwelling in the park is Long House, and getting to it is another adventurous journey. A two-hour ranger-guided tour includes hiking for 3.6 kilometers (2.25 miles) and climbing two ladders.

During the tour, park rangers point out the nearby stream which provided fresh water for the people who lived here, and discuss their agricultural practices in the dry desert.

Cliff Palace

Another site, Cliff Palace, is the largest cliff dwelling, not only in Mesa Verde park but in all of North America. With 150 rooms and 21 kivas, people say it looks more like a city.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, contained 150 rooms and 23 and was home to about 100 people.
Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, contained 150 rooms and 23 and was home to about 100 people.

After visitors walk down a sandstone trail and climb up a 3-meter (10-foot) long ladder, they're greeted with stunning examples of ancient architecture.

“And you get to look at each individually crafted block of sandstone that was crafted 800 years ago and realize how much time and energy the Pueblo Society invested in these sites,” according to ranger Reagan.

Mesa Verde was abandoned by 1300, and no one knows why. Some say it was due to a series of prolonged droughts, or possibly by over-farming, which hurt food production.

But the site remains an attractive destination for visitors seeking beauty and ancient history. “They built these sites so grand that they were drawing people in from all over, 800 years ago,” Reagan said.

And 800 years later, the UNESCO World Heritage Site continues to draw visitors from all over, like Mikah Meyer.

He invites you to learn more about his travels across America by visiting him on his website, Facebook and Instagram.

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