Imagine living in a home built into the side of a cliff. This dream-like place really does exist. Built way back in the 12th century there is a vast dwelling made up of almost 200 angular and circle-shaped rooms like something straight out of a Game of Thrones episode.
The largest of all the cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace, has about 150 rooms and more than twenty circular rooms. Due to its location it was well protected from the elements. The buildings ranged from one to four stories and some hit the natural stone ceiling. To build these structures people used stone and mud mortar along with wooden beams adapted to the natural clefts in the cliff face.
This building technique was a shift from earlier structures in the Mesa Verde area which prior to 1000 A.D. had been made primarily of adobe (bricks made of clay, sand, and straw or sticks). These stone and mortar buildings along with the decorative elements and objects found inside them provide important insights into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people during the thirteenth century.
You can in fact visit Cliff Palace by climbing a ladder in the very same way its original inhabitants did. It’s not known for sure why those farmers—the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area from 500 to 1300 A.D. made their home high up above this land. What is known is that they put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into constructing these stone and mortar buildings—often with their bare hands. Those who travel from around the world to see this archaeological wonder with their own eyes are able to spot handprints and fingerprints preserved in the walls.
Found in southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde, a national park famous for its flat-topped mountains, Cliff Palace forms part of a collection of 600 cliff dwellings built by these ancient peoples. Not all Ancestral Puebloans chose to live this way, though. Only an estimated 100 people inhabited Cliff Palace, the largest of several high-up structures, according to the National Park Service (NPS).
The Cliff Palace Overlook is the first stop on the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75 percent contain only 1-5 rooms each and many are single room storage units. If you visit the Cliff Palace you will view an exceptionally large dwelling which had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
Open 8:00 a.m. to sunset, the Cliff Palace Loop Road takes you past Cliff Palace and Balcony House and overlooks to other cliff dwellings. You may enter Balcony House or Cliff Palace by ranger-guided tour only.
They cleverly employed wooden beams wedged into the sandstone rock to help support the buildings each with between one to four stories. Families lived in a collection of rooms formed around ingeniously designed, circular rooms called kivas which extend down below ground.
Typical features of a kiva included a fire pit or hearth, a ventilation shaft, a deflector (low wall designed to prevent air drawn from the ventilation shaft from reaching the fire directly), and a sipapu (a small hole in the floor that is ceremonial in purpose). They developed from the pithouse, also a circular, subterranean room used as a living space.
Kivas continue to be used for ceremonies today by Puebloan peoples though not those within Mesa Verde National Park. In the past, these circular spaces were likely both ceremonial and residential. If you visit Cliff Palace today, you will see the kivas without their roofs but in the past they would have been covered. The space around them would have functioned as a small plaza.
The builders of these structures plastered and painted murals although what remains today is fairly fragmentary. Some murals display geometric designs while other murals represent animals and plants.
The creators of the murals used paint produced from clay, organic materials, and minerals. For instance, the red color came from hematite, a red ocher. Blue pigment could be turquoise or azurite while black was often derived from charcoal. Along with the complex architecture and mural painting, the Ancestral Puebloan peoples produced black-on-white ceramics and turquoise and shell jewelry. Goods were imported from afar including shell and other types of pottery. Many of these high-quality objects and their materials demonstrate the close relationship these people had to the landscape.
Another interesting insight that can be gleaned from this spectacular historic site is the stature of the Ancestral Puebloans some 750 years ago.
The size of the doorways confirms that the average man stood from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 5 inches tall while an average woman was 5 feet to 5 feet 1 inch tall—similar to Europeans of the same period.
Although earlier Ancestral Puebloan villages were built in the open these people began to build cliff dwellings about 1150 perhaps as a defense against invading groups of ancestral Navajo and Apache.
In addition to the natural protection provided by a cliff, the absence of doors and windows to the rooms on the ground floor left a solid outer stone wall that could be surmounted only by climbing a ladder which could be whipped away in the event of an attack
Why were the cliffs abandoned?
As the 13th century ended, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde for other sites. After all the time and effort it took to build these beautiful dwellings, why did people leave the area? Cliff Palace was built in the twelfth century. Why was it abandoned less than a hundred years later?
These questions have not been answered conclusively though it is likely that the migration from this area was due to either drought, lack of resources, violence, or some combination of these factors. We know for instance that droughts occurred from 1276 to 1299. Often referred to as the Great Drought this climatic event probably occasioned crop failures and shortages of drinking water creating difficulties in provisioning the concentrated population living in the cliff dwellings.
The cliff dwellings remain though as compelling examples of how the Ancestral Puebloans literally carved their existence into the rocky landscape of today’s southwestern United States.
Visiting a Cliff Dwelling
To enter all cliff dwellings you must be on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The 2023 tour season runs from May 14 through October 21.
Tour tickets can be purchased on recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Tickets are available 14 days in advance 8:00 am MST on a rolling daily window. For example, tickets for May 14 will be available starting April 30 at 8:00 am MDT. Demand for tour tickets is high. The park recommends reserving tickets as soon as they become available.
>> DIG DEEPER
- The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years
- Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History
The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.
—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace