From Balcony House I had to race to Cliff Palace, my next tour, since my first one had gone over by about 20 minutes. I made it on time, though, along with a family who apparently had the same plan. Unlike Balcony House, Cliff Palace’s trailhead isn’t visible from the parking lot; you have to walk down a short, small path to a large overlook.
When I first reached the overlook, I went straight ahead and saw the canyon and a tiny cliff dwelling straight across from me. After a moment, I turned to the left and what I saw was so unexpected that it was like being hit upside the head – Cliff Palace in all its large, magnificent glory.
The ranger who sold me my tour ticket had mentioned that Cliff Palace is the most famous and photographed cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, as well as the largest cliff dwelling in the United States. In terms of size alone, Balcony House was a closet compared to what I was seeing on that overlook. Cliff Palace has over 20 kivas (Balcony House had 2 that I saw), around 150 rooms and multiple stories, including a large room hanging from the top of the alcove unattached from everything else used for food storage.
To stand on the overlook, gape at the fantastic structure and take photos is totally free. However, to really get a really up-close and personal look, you have to sign up for a tour. After we met up with our ranger, our group descended down a set of oddly shaped stairs made several decades ago and some skinny paved paths until we got to our first stop.
I have to say our ranger at Cliff Palace was so much better than the corn-obsessed lady I had previously. This ranger explained everything in a very interesting way with the right amount of information, humor and brevity to keep things interesting. For example, at one point she was explaining that the only source of water in the canyon is rainfall, which is only 10-18in per year. Because of this, it’s doubtful the pueblo people made their mortar for the dwellings with water and several archaeologists and historians think they might have used bodily fluids like saliva and urine. This is the kind of info that’s interesting and slightly disgusting as to be memorable without being vulgar!
Sadly, there was no climbing or crawling though Cliff Palace like there was in Balcony House – the rangers and archaeologists are very concerned with protection and conservation for future generations – but there is certainly more to see, including kivas with tunnels between one another that to me only look big enough to fit a child, but since the ancient pueblo people were less than 5ft tall, it’s possible adults could fit there as well. All the rangers I saw during my trip mentioned different theories as to why the tunnels were built (warmth, transportation, religious ceremonies, etc.). Apparently like a lot of ancient structures, there are still some mysteries which may never be completely explained.
The tour wrapped up a tad early and the ranger let us take some more photos before heading back up to the parking lot. To do so required a series of 7-10ft ladders. During the climb, we some some small places etched in to the rock. The ancient pueblo people didn’t use ladders to get from the mesa down into the alcoves; instead, they climbed down the rock face using finger and toe holds they carved themselves. That amazes me! Imagine carrying not only yourself, but small children, tools, pottery, food, etc. I hate climbing small distances with ropes, a helmet and a belayer. I can’t begin to comprehend not only free climbing, but doing so with a potentially large load as well.
Although not a adventurously fun as Balcony House, Cliff Palace was worth the time and $3 tour fee. Even if you don’t want to take the tour, at least walk down to the overlook to check out the view because it is so worth the little extra time!