We’d toured the West side of the park on our first day, and it was spectacular. But if I had a short period of time and had to choose, the East side with Cliff Palace (pictured above) is the way to go. When I started compiling the photo essay for this post and edited through our images covering the entire second day, I had almost 80 pictures. A lot of ground to cover. So I’ve divided it into two parts — this being the morning where we zoomed all around the East side to see as much as possible before our 2:00 reservations for the 700 Years Tour. That tour and Cliff Palace will be Part Two, post to come.
Day 2 – Part One:
Checked out of Far View Lodge (located in the center of the park)
Breakfast at the Far View Terrace Cafe (near the lodge)
Took the Eastern Road, headed south
Toured Balcony House, because it was not a part of the 700 Years Tour
Toured Spruce Tree House, also not on that tour
Chapin Museum, filled with art and artifacts
Headed back to the Cafe and Lodge, for lunch and to meet our tour bus (post to come)
They served a huge breakfast, something for everyone: an omelet station, biscuits with green chile gravy, eggs and sausages, breakfast burritos, Starbuck’s coffee, every kind of cereal imaginable, bagels, toast, danishes, fresh fruit, and much more.
We had a hearty meal, then grabbed a few bottled waters for the road. At approx. 8000 ft. altitude you’re getting 30% less oxygen, and it’s a dry desert climate. You’re parched before you know it.
My simplified map. So, after breakfast (center of the wishbone by Far View Lodge) we took the Eastern road headed to Balcony House.
And stopped at view points along the way.
Gorgeous canyon views.
The drive to the parking area and shelter took 45 minutes or so…..
…..at which point the wind picked up as a storm rolled by. The weather changes so dramatically in the Southwest. If you don’t like it, wait ten or twenty minutes and it’ll change.
Balcony House is a medium-sized cliff dwelling built by the Ancestral Puebloan people of Mesa Verde. It is a ranger guided tour only. We’d purchased our tickets at the visitor’s center the day before when we first arrived at the park.
We’d met a family visiting from Virginia earlier and asked their three young children “which cliff dwelling was your favorite?” They all replied “Balcony House! Because you get to climb huge ladders, crawl through a hole, and scale the side of a cliff while holding chain rope. It’s awesome.”
That’s why all of the photos in this section were taken by Mr.D. Because I believe in signs and when the ranger described the climbing and scaling and that once you began the tour there was absolutely no turning back…..well, let’s just say when my mouth went dry I knew it wasn’t for lack of water.
According to Mr.D, they walked down some stairs and then along a cliff-wall path until they reached the 32 foot ladder. Roughly two stories tall. He said that when you’re on the ground looking up it doesn’t look intense, but about half way up the ladder beings to sway a bit, and it might give one pause to think “what am I doing?” That’s really saying something, from someone who has skydived.
After the ladder of no return, they inched along the back alcove wall to the passage way into the dwelling.
First glimpse back down to the ladder and sheer cliff. Around this time, the winds from the storm were getting stronger but the rain had missed us.
Does this not boggle the mind? Their little village built into a cliffside? And no one really knows why. Or why they eventually left and migrated to New Mexico and Arizona. There was no written language to tell the story.
They came in through the back (left) of this open area, onto designated paths to walk around.
This two story structure designed with beams holding up a ledge is the ‘balcony’ of Balcony House. It’s in a small area of the dwelling, with just enough room to sit and look out to the valley.
Kiva room. This would have been enclosed by a roof that also served as the floor to the main walkway above. The rectangular opening in the back was the ventilation system.
Metate grinding stones for corn and seeds.
Balcony House 2014.
Balcony House, 1896.
Photographed by Thomas McKee who camped there to photograph the ruins. It took 12 to 14 mules and horses to carry all of his camping and photographic equipment up the mesa to document the sites.
McKee described it as the ‘most beautiful of any cliff dwellings that I have seen. Note how perfect is the masonry and the open passage way in front to the balcony overlooking the canyon.’
After you’ve had a chance to look around and tour, this is the only exit out. Another reason why little kids go bonkers for this place. You crawl in 4 feet to a spot where you can stand upright. Then you crawl to the end for a total of 12 feet. The ranger is the last one out.
Then you climb the native foothold steps on a 60 foot rock face. The park describes Balcony House as being their most adventurous. I asked Mr.D “How did you get this shot looking back, on those tiny cliff steps while holding that chain rope?” His answer, “Hold the chain with your left hand, pivot, point down, don’t think too much, take the shot, turn, start to breathe again. Continue on.”
The wind had picked up to the point that it was blowing people’s hats off their heads and onto to the canyon floor. Something tells me there are lots of hats down there.
And P.S. I know there’s no written language telling us exactly why they built their cliff dwellings, but this house design looked to be a fortress. With small passage way entrance and exit. I’m leaning towards the theory that it was for reasons of protection from predators and invasion.
From there, we traveled up to Spruce Tree House which is an open tour, no fee or tickets required in the spring, summer or fall. (Again, we passed by Cliff Palace because of our afternoon tour reservation.)
Another twisted gnarly tree.
First peek at Spruce Tree House from the top of the trail. A leisurely walk, nicely paved. No ladders or cliff scaling.
The dwellings throughout the park look similar from a distance, but as you walk through each one they have their own distinct characteristics. Depending on how high up they’re positioned. Some are more compact, others are wide and sprawling. A nice feature here is…
…a hole in the center of the large community floor, with ladder leading down to a kiva room.
That you can climb down and experience what it felt like to be in an actual kiva, a Hopi word meaning ‘ceremonial room.’ They were used for ceremonial purposes, sleeping areas and meeting rooms.
Spruce Tree House, 1907. Photographed by Dr. Jesse Nusbaum. Showing the kiva and courtyard before they were restored by the National Park Service.
Next we went to Chapin Museum, nearby. They have an impressive collection of prehistoric artifacts.
Corn cobs, approx. 1500 years old. About the size of stubby cigars.
Blankets made of yucca, feathers and fur.
Sandals made of woven yucca fibers and cords, looped at the toe and heel.
When you walk above the cliff dwellings on the mesa top the land is harsh and dry. No lush green farmland or decent water supply. We kept shaking our heads as to how they survived, and it makes sense that they used every single part of the yucca plant. For shoes, clothing, ropes, shampoo, soap, soups, and other recipes.
You can identify their pottery by the white forms with black markings.
Shattered bowl, carefully pieced together.
Chapin Museum also displays dioramas with information about the cliff dwelling people. They have a nice bookstore, and show a 25 minute film with overview of the history of Mesa Verde every half hour.
There is a cafe and gift shop near the museum, they serve mainly burgers and pizza. But the lines were long that day so we headed on back to Far View Cafe for lunch.
And to meet the bus for the 700 Years Tour. More to come…
Here is a link to Day 1 covering parts of the West side of the park.
Here is a link to the Metate Room where we had dinner.
Note: There are hiking trails all over the park, to petroglyphs and other sites that we didn’t cover. Follows are links and phone numbers that were helpful in planning our self-guided, ranger-only, and specialty tours:
Mesa Verde National Park Website
Park Visitor’s Center Phone 970 529 5037
Mesa Verde National Park Plan Your Visit
Mesa Verde Fees and Reservations
Far View Lodge Phone: 800 449 2288
Special Tours at Recreation.gov