The kids woke up especially early today; bouncing up and down. They were so excited to get to climb the “big ladders” at Mesa Verde National Park. We held tickets for the 10am Cliff Palace Tour (the most popular) and since it seemed to be at the furthest point in the park, we gave ourselves 2 hours to get there. Even after a quick coffee break, we still made it to the Cliff Palace parking lot with time to spare.
Since we had some time to burn, we decided to hike the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail. This easy mile round trip trail was perfect to help get some energy out of the kids. Little did we know, but there was an overlook of the Balcony House, the second tour we would be taking today. It was our first glimpse of the ancient Mesa Verde dwellings. The kids were amazed as they could even see the “big ladder” we all would be climbing later from here!
It was time to get back to Cliff Palace for our tour. As you wait for the Ranger, you are at another overlook where you can get a birds-eye view of Cliff Palace. It truly is an amazing sight! We later learned from our Ranger guide that Cliff Palace is not only the largest of the cliff dwellings in the park, but also the largest in North America. It boggles the mind to know that this dwelling housed a population of approximately 100 people within it’s 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round sunken rooms of ceremonial importance). The ranger explained that Cliff Palace was constructed between the period of 1190AD – 1260AD and abandoned by 1300 with only theories as to why.
The tour involves 120 uneven stone steps and climbing five, 8-10 foot ladders on a 100 foot vertical climb. You will be a little out of breath due to the elevation (7,000 feet) but not too difficult. You get some time to just walk around and marvel at the construction and ingenuity of these ancient people. The kids favorite part? The ladders of course! Better than a day in the park.
We chose to do our tours back-to-back as the starting point for both are close together. This time we were going to visit Balcony House which is a little more adventurous and may not be suited to everyone. Being a little claustrophobic, I was most worried about the 12 foot long tunnel that required us to crawl through on our hands and knees. I had to just buck up and knew I would deal with it when I got there. Oh, and don’t forget the 32 foot ladder that everyone needs to climb unassisted.
So what did we learn? Balcony House is a classic 13th-century cliff dwelling and it is said that it is one of the best preserved. Balcony House is smaller than Cliff Palace and includes 38 rooms and two kivas. The ruins are accessed by the “stout” double ladder that was put in by the National Park Service in the 1930’s. After spending time here and looking around, we left via what used to the be the entrance to the dwelling for the Ancient Puebloans – the 12 foot roofed tunnel. The tunnel was easier than I thought it was going to be as you can see the other end. I will admit it is a little tight. My 6’4″ husband had to kind of twist and turn to get through. All in all, Balcony House is not as impressive as Cliff Palace, however, the “getting there” was the most fun. This tour is definitely not recommended for those with fear of heights, health issues, claustrophobia or small children.
Now that our tours for the day were concluded, we had free time to do some exploring of the park. We headed to the Mesa Loop where we first stopped at the picnic area. There is food for sale in the park but we heard rumors that it wasn’t that great. A picnic was the perfect choice and the area was really nice. There were plenty of semi-private spots that offered picnic tables and grills. Drake even got out his new R/C car and drove it around a bit after lunch with dad while we all enjoyed some downtime.
After our break, we went to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum which houses some informative dioramas of Ancestral Puebloan life. There is also a short film, bookstore/gifts and snacks. I was more excited about the self-guided hike to Spruce Tree House. I loved this hike! It is a little strenuous as you quickly descend about 100 feet, but the trail is paved and there are no steps or ladders. As we made our descent, the trail led us into the shaded cover of trees. It was so lovely! It also provided a little cover for us as it started to sprinkle.
Spruce House is the third largest cliff dwelling with 130 rooms and 8 kivas. It most likely housed 60-80 people. A Ranger stationed there was stopping by to give guests a little bit of history as well as answer questions. Drake kept him busy for a while as he had plenty of things to ask him about!
Next up was a really quick stop at the Far View Sites so we could get a different aspect of ancient life; a mesa-top farming community. The short trail passed by five small villages and a reservoir. This trail is flat and would be easy with a stroller.
At this point, we had considered leaving for the day, however, Troy wanted to take the crazy road to Wetherill Mesa. This is the quieter side of the park as most people probably don’t want to make the drive. I will admit, there were a few amazing views out over the valley but wow, the road is not for the faint of heart. There were places where there were drop-offs on both sides of our truck. Once we arrived at the end of the road, we saw that there was a tram ride that takes you to some overlooks, however, getting there late in the day, we missed the last tram. Since we didn’t want it to be a waited trip, we took the self-guide tour of Step House.
It was a little bit difficult getting the kids on another 100 foot descent trail to visit Step House, but I am glad we did. This is an interesting site as it included examples of pit houses (earlier housing) and the more modern cliff dwellings. Since there are fewer people around, it was easier for me to imagine what life would have been like here 900 years or so ago. Although this ruin was interesting, my advice would be to visit Wetherhill Mesa area only if you have plenty of time.
Now that we had thoroughly worn out the kids, (they actually napped in the car) it was back to the campground. Fortunately for me, I had made dinner in the crock pot so we had a pork roast with veggies all ready to serve. After a nice after dinner nature walk around Denny Lake, we were all ready for a good nights rest. We will be moving on tomorrow!
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