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Cliff Palace is one of several cliff dwellings open to visitors in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the primary materials used in construction. Archaeologists believe this was probably a central meeting place for settlements throughout the area. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Touring the Pueblanos’ cliff dwellings in Colorado

The ranger warned us about having to navigate a 32-foot ladder, two 10-foot ladders, steep stone stairs that climbed a 60-foot, open-cliff face, and a 12-foot-long tunnel during our tour of Balcony House, an ancient cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park.

What she failed to mention is that the tunnel is only 18 inches wide, perhaps 3 feet high, and has a sizable rock protruding from the floor, which I’ve just discovered. I’m about halfway through the tunnel on my knees and am trying to figure out how to pass this obstacle when there is nowhere to go except over it. My solution is to push myself forward on one knee, using my arms to support my weight. It’s an additional feat to crawl out of the narrow opening and stand up.

The tour through Balcony House in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado demands that visitors climb this 32-foot ladder. Ancient Pueblanos, who lived here for about 100 years until the end of the 13th century, scaled the sandstone cliffs by placing hands and feet in small niches. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Having to become a contortionist for a short while during this tour certainly provides perspective on the everyday lives of the Ancient Pueblanos, peoples who inhabited this southwest corner of Colorado from about 550 AD to the late-1200s. Most of that time, they lived on the mesas — first in pit houses, then in houses above the ground. Miraculously, they also learned to cultivate corn and other crops with almost no water.

But in the late 1100s, for some unknown reason, the pueblanos began settling into the cliffs below the mesa. Their dwellings ranged from one-room homes to 150-room community centers, and here’s the thing: Unlike the thousands of visitors who tour the cliff houses, the pueblanos had no ladders. They moved about by scaling the enormous sandstone cliffs, placing hands and feet into niches and pulling themselves up or descending into the canyon.

“Just imagine,” our ranger-guide tells us. “If you were a woman, you would load your baby on your back, place a jug on your head, climb down the wall, walk a few miles for water, fill your 3-gallon jug (one gallon of water weighs 8 pounds), place the full jug on your head, walk back to the base of the cliff dwelling, then climb the wall to your apartment.”

OK, that puts things into perspective. Living on the edge and other perils of a primitive existence meant that life spans were short (32-34 years), but most certainly they were in excellent shape.

By 1300, the pueblanos had left the cliff dwellings and moved on to New Mexico and Arizona. Experts don’t know the reason for this exodus. 

As we walk, crawl and climb through Balcony House, I marvel at the precise construction of these ancient peoples; every wall, corner and crevice has a utilitarian or spiritual purpose. Most interesting are the kivas — large round rooms that were constructed below floor level that served as gathering places for political meetings and religious rituals.

Balcony House is one of several cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park that are open for tours, which are immensely popular. (Reservations required.) The most magnificent complex is Cliff Palace, which was undergoing repair when we were there in May. We were, however, able to view it from across the canyon. The complex contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and is believed to have served as a community meeting place rather than a collection of housing units.

If you go: The cliff dwellings are open to the public May through September. Visit For more photos, visit Have a travel story to share? Email [email protected]