Spruce Tree House is the only cliff dwelling you can visit on your own and that is only during the main summer months. In winter, this is the only ranger-led tour available and you are brought into the park's best preserved ruin. It goes out three times per day and is free.
During the main season from early March to early November, tours are unnecessary and can be done self-guided. The park provides very informative pamphlets on the dwelling which can be purchased at the trail head for a very fair price of 50 cents. If you are not doing any of the other tours, by all means, grab one as it will give you a better understanding of what you are seeing.
The self-guided tour begins at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Though the walk is only a half mile, the initial drop is 100 feet which you will have to climb back out of on your return. Allow 45 minutes to an hour to properly explore the ruins and enjoy the informative pamphlet. You can also return via the Spruce Canyon Trail which adds a couple miles to the walk but allows you to see some of the natural terrain that the cliff dwellers lived in. It will also get you away from the crowds as hardly anyone seems to take it.
These sites are largely untouched and remain very much as they were 800 years ago. Not only is Spruce Tree House the best preserved but it is the third largest in all of Mesa Verde. It contains about 114 rooms and eight kivas or ceremonial chambers. Set in a 200 foot long cave, the multi-tiered dwelling was built around the year 1200 by the Anasazi and it is believed to have housed about 100 people.
Mesa Verde is a park that can be explored entirely by car if one so desires. The park's main road is scenic and forks into the Chapin and Wetherill Mesa roads. The latter is much less visited, having less sites and facilities. Chapin Mesa is where the park's main features are located. There are two loops branching off this one: Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop, both of which are one-way. This is where you will find the Chapin Mesa Museum, Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. The dwellings are quite visible from well-placed viewpoints though to get a good photo, you will need a fair telephoto lens. In fact, you can get perhaps your best photos from these viewpoints at the appropriate times with regard to when the sun is shining on them.
The ranger-led tour of Balcony House is one of the park's true highlights These are not long walks but do involve some maneuvering so should only be considered by those who are fairly limber. Your first test will be a 32 foot ladder that gets you into the complex. There is also a 12 foot tunnel to crawl through and the finale is a 60 foot open rock face climb which utilizes two 10 foot ladders to get back out of the site. It's all great fun but perhaps not best for those with an extreme fear of heights.
The Balcony House while not as extensive as some of the other sites is particularly scenic, especially if the tour is done early morning when the sun is shinning into the cave. Rangers provide not only a great informative talk on the ruin but relay a true feeling for how the inhabitants of the dwellings lived. They are enthusiastic and provide a fun atmosphere for doing what can be a challenging walk for many.
The price is $3 per person and tickets must be bought at the Far View Visitor Center. It will take about a half-hour to drive the ten miles from there to the Balcony House parking area which is on the one-way Cliff Palace Loop part of the Chapin Mesa Road.
A $3.00 guided tour is required to gain access to the Balcony House. From Mesa Top Ruin Road, it isn't visible, as it is snuggled in the cliff below you. The Balcony House is believed to have been inhabited much later than som eof the other ruins, and it's claim to fame may have been a strong spring that provided ample water to its residents. The stream was so plentiful, the park system actually has redirected it away from the dwelling, as the underwater spring was eating away at the foundation. This was in an effort to preserve what was stillt here.
There is evidence however, that the structure changed dramatically towards the end of it's inhabitation. Getting down to the dwelling, one is immediately faced with a wall that was put up blocking good entrance to the rest of the dwelling. The distinct outline of a doorway and large windows being bricked up stare right at you. The only way in is through a 12 foot tunnel, that even a child would have to crawl to get through. This would easily allow anyone protecting the site to be able to strike whoever came through easily and effectively.
Was this bricked up entrance for protection...or was this a stronghold for the precious water source?
Wanna get back up to the mesa top? Don't worry. You do not have to climb up the cliff wall with your fingertips, as the original inhabitants obviously did. There is now a 32 foot ladder to climb up. It shakes, it's high up...just don't look down...
The Square Tower Overlook was one of our favorites. This was again very well-situated for late afternoon photography, with the sun's ray hitting it perfectly as it goes down. The 500 foot trail off the Mesa Top Loop is well worth the minimal effort. This ruin is one of the more interesting as it has a four-story tower in very good shape and supported by the back wall of the cave. It looks a bit like a high-rise with windows and was from the latter period of habitation, representing the final stage of development in Mesa Verde between A.D. 1200-1300.
Ranger-led tours offer more adventurous visitors a closer look at the amazing intricacy of the cliff dwellings. For a nominal charge of $3 per person, you are in for not only an educational walk but a fun-filled hour of moving around in the sites much as the original inhabitants did. It gives you an appreciation for how hard life must have been. The tours must be reserved and tickets can be purchased at the Far View Visitor Center which is at the fork of the Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa roads.
Be forewarned that the hikes, while relatively short, involve some maneuvering and the climbing of steep ladders that leave you completely exposed. If fearful of heights, you might want to reconsider but if you feel you can do it, by all means give it a try. While taking photos from the viewpoints is fine, you don't really get a feel for the sites without being in them.
The rangers are knowledgeable and some are quite funny. One thing to note, is there are only so many tours per day and if you want to be in each site at the best time, please reserve. We sorted out that we wanted to do Balcony House early morning and Cliff Place late afternoon so booked the first tour of the former and last tour of the latter for our second day in the park.
We decided to do the Cliff Palace ranger-led on the last tour of the afternoon to maximize the low light and get the best photos. While Cliff Palace is not quite as adventurous a tour as Balcony House, there are still quite a few ladders to contend with so if fearful of heights, reconsider.
The quarter mile walk involves climbing five 10 foot ladders over the course of a 100 foot climb. This can also be tiring at this elevation. The tour runs about an hour and the rangers are quite knowledgeable about the Anasazi who built the dwellings as well as giving great insight into life at that time. It is an entertaining hour that goes by quickly unless of course you are afraid of ladders!
The tours leave from the Cliff Palace parking area which is on the Cliff Palace Loop off the Chapin Mesa drive. Tickets are $3 per person and must be bought in advance at the Far View visitor center. It is approximately an eight-mile, twenty minute drive from there to the parking area.
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is one of the park's features that sets it apart from other Native American site based parks. Even from the exterior, it is special in its adobe-like architecture which fits effortlessly into the terrain. Along with the typical dioramas depicting pueblo life for the Anasazi, there are well-preserved examples of their impressive craftsmanship from pottery to clothing to weapons. Of particular interest was a great display on uses of things found in nature for medicinal purposes.
Be sure to catch the twenty-five minute movie which offers a great overview of the park and runs every half hour. Ranger-led tours of Spruce Tree House are free and run three times per day in the winter months. At other times of the year, it it is a self-guided walk and pamphlets are available here for the nominal charge of fifty cents.
Discovered in 1888 by two ranchers searching for stray cattle, Spruce Tree House was found tucked into a 216 ft long, 89 ft deep natural cove in the cliff side. There was a large spruce tree that had grown from the floor of the house up to the top of the mesa, where they were able to climb down into the cliff dwelling.
With about 114 rooms and 8 kivas, Spruce Tree House is the 3rd largest of the discovered dwellings in Mesa Verde. It is believed that about 100 people lived here.
Estimated construction between AD 1200 and 1276 Because of the deep, protective cove, Spruce Tree deteriorated only a little over the centuries. So, less "maintanence" was needed to support the structures. (The park system strives to keep as much of the dwellings original, with exceptions for safety of visitors and workers.) Due to the fact that this dwelling is in such "good" condition, Spruce Tree House is accessible without purchasing a tour ticket.
As you step into the dwelling, you can notice different architectural styles, with some round towers, and square rooms. Some have rectangular doorways, some have a T-shape doorway, and keep your eyes open...artistically "painted" designs are still visible on some walls. There is also a kiva here on display that is reconstructed as it would have appeared while occupied. The park system has reconstructed the roof of the kiva as it would have been, and is accessed by a 6 foot ladder. Visitors are allowed to descend into the kiva, to see how they were built. (See my local customs tips for more on kivas) There are rangers on hand here to answer questions.
The trail down and back up to Spruce Tree is very steep and about 1/2 mile round trip...hope you've been doing your aerobic exercises...also, poison ivy is rampant just off the trails...stay on the path.
Spruce Tree House is self-guided March through November. During the winter you must purchase a guided tour to gain access.
On the east side of Chapin Mesa, the Far View sites includes five villages and an impressive, mesa-top reservoir. This is a self-guided tour of a one of the most densely populated areas of the mesa, showing inhabitation from AD 750 to 1300. Within a half mile of this site, nearly 50 villages have been identified.
Unlike the cliff dwellings, these structures were open pueblos, some even standing two stories! The elevation here, 7,700 feet is higher than the other areas, which would have affected the growing season, but increased the moisture available to support agriculture.
The first sites you'll see are the Far View House, boasting 40 rooms and Pipe Shrine House, with 20 rooms...both show signs of remodeling and additions over the years. The larger size of the Far View Site may reveal that is was a multi-community gathering place...
Take the short path to Coyote Village, one of the earliest structures here, with 30 ground-floor rooms, five kivas and a tower. A pithouse from even earlier occupants is beneath the tower...
My favorite overlook was the one for Cliff palace. This particular ruin is well-situated for late afternoon sun and none of the structure is in shade at that time. You will need a good zoom lens to get a decent close-up shot of Cliff Palace but the orientation is perfect and it will look like you were right in front of it. Even sans zoom, you can get great shots that give perspective to the dwellings with regard to the caves they were built into.
The Mesa Loop Road will provide an auto tour through 700 years of history.
This is a six mile loop, that brings visitors past pit houses constructed around 750 AD, numerous view points for fabulous, cross canyon views of the thousands of dwelling in these cliffs such as the House of Many Windows, and short hiking trails to viewpoints for some more breathtaking structures, such as Sun Temple and Square Tower House.
From this road, one will also get a good look at Cliff Palace from across the canyon.
Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde's largest cliff dwelling. Tours of this 150 room, 23 kiva structure, built around AD 1100 run about an hour long...and tickets must be purchased at the Far View Visitor Center. It is worth taking the tour...the rangers are very knowledgeable and will describe more points of interest.
We learned that possibly 100 people lived here in cliff palace, but that a number of the rooms did not have any signs of domestic life, such as fires or wall paintings. Artifacts found in some of these rooms lead archeologists to believe most of these rooms were used for storage, such as food grown on the mesa top above. This dwelling may have acted as a "market" for nearby villages.
It is believed that the ancestral Puebloan people inhabited Cliff Palace for about 100 years. Different stages of construction are apparent in the different styles of structures and mortar. Some walls have been plastered, some still have wall paintings. Visitors can see soot deposits from home fires, and identify which areas acted as community spots, or just living quarters within the alcoves.
Getting down to the cliff dwelling is via a steep "staircase" and climbing back up to the mesa top involves climbing five 8-10 foot ladders. After the dwelling was discovered in 1888, many visitors gained access to these sites, and now you are treading on the same steps engineered by the archeologists over one hundred years ago.
From the Mesa Top Loop Road, just past the parking area for the Balcony House, is a great view point for the House of Many Windows. This cliff dwelling sits on a ten-foot wide cliff across the canyon. The "windows" of this multi-room dwelling were more probably doors. There is a toehold trail that leads to the dwelling (so the park says) that the inhabitants would have used to get up and down to the alcove.
once inside the park, you'll get very useful brochures as what to see and how to see it. Also the far view visitor center provides lots of info
You need to buy a ticket to see most of the dwellings which also means that you'll be a part of a group (sometimes very very crowded) and you'll have a ranger to guide you. I was hoping the rangers will know some basic stuff in order to answer simple questions, but what a shame!!!! They weren't able to answer simple questions or were just making up some answers and i was embarassed for them:(
Anyway, they're there only to watch out for tourists not to get stuck in some of the tunnels or to fall off while clinbing the ladders on the clifs
tickets can be bought from
- the Far View Visitor Center (15 miles from the park entrance); it's open 8am till 5pm, may 29th to Oct.10
-from the morefield ranger station; open 5pm-8.30pm, may 29th to sept. 5