Offbeat Adventure

Some of the Oldest Buildings in North America Are Built Into Mesa Verde's Cliffs

Imagine yourself on a hike in the Colorado foothills. You slowly make your way up a gentle slope, marveling at the lush landscape and abundant wildlife. Finally, at the peak, you come to a cliff that towers 7,000 feet above sea level. You peer over the edge — only to discover an array of ancient windows carved into the cliff face. Welcome to Mesa Verde.

Life on the Cliffs

The cliffside dwellings at Mesa Verde were built in a time of plenty, when bighorn sheep and deer ran freely and corn, beans, and squash grew on the flat part atop the mesa. Except these aren't technically mesas. Mesa means "table," and a true mesa is a towering plateau that stands out on a plain. These are actually cuestas (Spanish for "slope"), which rise up on their flat side and cut off in a sheer cliff. But for about 100 years, from about 1190 to 1270, these cliffs were just called "home."

These weren't houses made from existing caves, nor were they carved into the cliffs themselves. They are actually brick-and-mortar buildings built directly into the cliff's alcoves. Some 600 cliff dwellings exist in total at these lofty heights, some of them truly massive in scale. Largest of all is the Cliff Palace, which boasted approximately 150 rooms and 23 kivas (an underground room associated with Kachina ceremonies). When this place was inhabited, it would have been brightly decorated in pink, brown, red, yellow, or white plasters, and it would have been a central hub for social gatherings, administrative needs, and religious ceremonies. At its peak, Cliff Palace was probably home to approximately 100 people.

Of course, that's only the largest of several such dwelling complexes that you can visit today. On Wetherill Mesa about 3.7 miles (5.9 kilometers) east-northeast, you'll find Long House, the second-largest dwelling in the park, and Chapin Mesa to the north has Spruce Tree House, with 130 rooms for about 80 people.

But for an even loftier adventure, you'll want to start at Cliff Palace and take the ranger-guided tour to Balcony House. While many of the dwellings are only accessible by ladder (and with the help of a ranger), Balcony House sets itself apart with the highest vertical climb. It's also home to some of the park's most fascinating features, from the 32-foot wood-slat ladders at the beginning to the narrow tunnel you have to navigate at the end. And just so you're aware, there is a "trial tunnel" at the trailhead so you can make sure that you can squeeze through ahead of time.

The People of the Mesas

Much of what could be learned about the people who lived in Mesa Verde 800 years ago has been tragically lost, thanks to the flocks of looters who descended on the sites at the tail end of the 19th century. By the time Teddy Roosevelt established it as a national park in 1906 (incidentally, the only park meant to protect human-made monuments), it was too late. Still, there's a lot that we've been able to learn about these cliff-dwelling engineers by examining the surrounding area.

For example, we know where they came from, and we know where they went. These were the ancestors of the Pueblo people, who left Colorado towards the end of the 13th century and migrated farther south to New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. But they lived in Colorado for several centuries before they even began building the cliffside abodes. Monuments and artifacts have been found dating back to 750 C.E. and point toward a highly advanced agricultural society. They made good use of the fertile land on top of the "mesas," and even displayed a clear understanding of geometry and astronomical phenomena as shown by the ancient Sun Temple in the mountains.

These early Pueblo people clearly found a good life among the cliffs. So why did they leave? As abundant as the region can be, it also deadly. It's prone to droughts, sometimes lasting for decades. That's exactly what happened around 1270, and likely what drove the final exodus from the region. However, there's also some evidence that that retreat was made under greater duress — some 34 bodies found at the sites weren't properly buried, and at least eight showed signs of a violent end. We might never get a complete answer, but there may be no better way to connect with the past than to literally walk through it.

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The history of the Pueblo and the dwellings at Mesa Verde is far richer and more nuanced than just their architecture. Learn all about it in Jesse Harasta's audiobook "Mesa Verde: The History of an Ancient Pueblo Settlement" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Discover Mesa Verde

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 27, 2018