A Really Busy Day

Mesa Verde National Park, Part 2

We have tickets for the 12:00 guided tour of Cliff Palace, but we arrive an hour early to explore the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Drive.

From Pithouse to Pueblo…

Ten excavated sites and a number of cliff dwellings are visible on this loop, revealing the full range of architecture from the earliest pithouses of around 600 AD to the latest cliff dwellings 700 years later.


The Ancestral Pueblo people began building these modest dwellings in Mesa Verde between 550 and 600 AD. They dug shallow pits into the ground, covered with pole and mud roofs and walls, with entrances through the roofs. Since these first homes were partially underground, they offered coolness in summer and warmth in winter. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

The presence of a smaller circular space adjoining the larger living space suggests the presence of an antechamber for storing crops, such as corn, squash, beans, fruits, seeds and nuts. Farming allowed these early peoples to establish communities and live in one location for years at a time. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

Navajo Canyon View

These mesas, canyons, and expansive views were the familiar landscape of the Ancient Puebloans. The deep canyons connected them to other communities within and beyond Mesa Verde.

Square Tower House Overlook

Built in an alcove in the upper walls of Navajo Canyon is this cliff dwelling representing the final phase of building at Mesa Verde. People lived here between 1200 and 1300 AD. The name comes from the 4-story-high tower with windows standing against the curved back wall. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

Pithouses and Early Pueblo Villages

This site shows 2 significant architectural developments that were taking shape between 700-950 AD: the trend toward deeper pithouses, and the move from pithouses to above ground dwellings. Pithouses were dug about 4 feet down. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

By 850 AD above ground dwellings were built from a foundation of slab-lined pits. Walls were built from a lattice of wooden poles plastered over with mud. Deep pithouses were also a part of these slab-lined villages. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

Ancestral pueblo families often returned to locations of previous dwellings to re-construct homes and fields. By 950 AD new architectural techniques favored stone masonry walls rather than wood and mud. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

Another significant change occurred in the 900s: the round pithouse as a family home transitioned into the circular underground room called the kiva. (Mesa Verde Museum Association)

By now we are on information overload and we are running out of time to get to the Cliff Palace tour. We decide we have time for one more stop and we choose a scenic overlook.

But first we see an old friend growing in the ground. We stop and admire the Lupine and clear the cobwebs from our overstimulated brains.

Sun Point View

This viewpoint is considered one of the best in Mesa Verde. From here a dozen cliff dwellings are visible tucked inside the alcoves below. Unfortunately a bus tour of French tourists arrive when we do, so I quickly take 2 pictures and we leave.

Actually we have to hustle now anyway to drive to the Cliff Palace Loop for our 12:00 tour.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Around 1200 AD some of the people then living on Mesa Verde moved away from their Mesa top fields and into the cliffs and alcoves.

Many of the building stones were shaped by hand using harder quartzite hammer stones. Water had to be hauled in and mixed with sand, clay, and ash to make mortar. Gaps in the mortar were chinked with smaller stones. (NP brochure written by Rose Houk)

A thin coating of plaster, requiring more water, was spread over many of the rock walls, inside and out. Although much has eroded away, some original plaster is still visible with finger impressions where it was carefully smoothed on by hand. Sometimes plasters were colored red, yellow, and white or painted with decorative symbols. (NP brochure written by Rose Houk)

Cliff Palace resides in an alcove about 215 feet wide by about 90 feet deep and about 60 feet high. It includes about 150 rooms (living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers) plus nearly 75 open spaces and 21 kivas. (NP brochure written by Rose Houk)

Both round and square styles of tower structures are found in Cliff Palace. Archeologists estimate this complex was an ongoing construction project from 1190 to 1280 AD. (NP brochure written by Rose Houk)

Inhabited by an estimated 100-120 people, today’s researchers believe Cliff Palace was more than a large village. They speculate that the site was an administrative or community center for the surrounding villages. (NP brochure written by Rose Houk)

On the mesa above the alcove, rock climbers rappel to inspect the damage from a recent rockslide. Lower and to the left, another cliff dwelling is barely visible.

Today visitors access Cliff Palace by ladders and stone stairways. The original residents, however, descended from the mesa top by means of hand-and-toe holds carved in the rock face.

We return from the Cliff Palace Tour ahead of the others and head back to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to Hike the Petroglyph Point Trail.

One thought on “A Really Busy Day

  1. Pingback: Loose Ends | wandering gypsy Laurel

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