Mesa Verde National Park: Withering Heights

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

Visiting Mesa Verde was a very last minute decision inspired by a curiosity stemming from foggy memories of middle school history books and the fear conjured by my neighbor of the previous campsite: a single man/possible serial killer who stayed up all hours of the night scribbling his manifesto in the middle of the Colorado forest armed only with a pen, piles of paper and a hatchet.

Located near the Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico), this “green table” is nestled at Colorado’s southwest pocket, at an elevation of 7000 - 8500 ft (psh, not high at all).

The drive up to Mesa Verde was steep and precarious, with the dusty grass as the only barrier separating road from cliff edges. When I finally rounded the last terrifying turn, I got a breathtaking glimpse of why this park was vital aspect of every middle schooler’s history lesson.

This elevated destination is not only a National Park, but is the largest archeological preserve in the United States.There are over 600 cliff dwellings still standing within the park’s limits, the most famous of these being the Cliff Palace (the largest cliff dwelling in North America and probably the one pictured in your history book!). And a few of these preserved ancestral homes are open to visitors.

This mountainous park is bursting with history, wildlife and opportunities for adventure seekers.

The Height You’ll Go for History

I was late as usual. When I arrived at the park in the afternoon, the summer sun was still beating down heavily. But small herds of smiling families, linked together by vice-link hand holds, meandered the parking lot in search of their vehicles as I swerved into a spot.

I ran into the information center, almost knocking into several of those little chain-linked families, in search of a map and a bathroom (the drive in was very long). I grabbed a map, Spruce Tree House was open to the public. Spruce Tree House was one of the only self-guided dwellings open, due to it’s proximity to the ground and easy-footed terrain. And I had an hour before the site closed. Since many other dwellings open to tour were very high up in the cliff and didn’t have infrastructure built around them to hold large groups, you had to be brought in by a ranger.

While less hazardous than other sites, Spruce Tree was still a trek in the heat of this summer evening. Starting from the peak, I had to take several staircases and switchbacks down the steep incline. However, this first glimpse of Mesa Verde’s rich history was worth it.

It was something you read about and heard about, but didn’t quite imagine it in its reality. Nestled within an alcove of the cliff, warm brown stone walls stood erect and seemingly sturdy.

Spruce Tree House would inspire the most apathetic of persons to transform into a history nerd. This wasn’t a decrepit fossil that you had to squint in concentration to imagine the life it once breathed, but a still standing, perfectly preserved home used 1400 years ago by a badass people who braved cliff faces and soaring heights.

The occupants were the ancestral Puebloans, otherwise known as the Anasazi. They built communities in the cliffs of Mesa Verde and thrived for about 700 years before moving on and settling elsewhere. At the time the cliffs provided shelter, safety and access to water.

I had definitely joined the end of the day rush. By the time I reached the bottom, crowds buzzed around the site snapping a few last photos and catching the tail-end of ranger-led tours, pointing out handprints in the clay and explaining the function of different rooms.

I started back up the steep pathway to my car, falling in line next to a park ranger. I told her I wanted to go into one of the ranger guided houses the next day.

“Definitely go see Balcony House! It has the best views and you’ll get to see a kiva* and a lot of climbing.”

“Cool! Thanks!”

“Wait...but are you OK with heights? If not, DO NOT do it. Although I saw a three year old on the tour last you’ll be fine.”

She sped on ahead of me to unlatch the gate and yell instructions to the stragglers. I couldn’t be more clumsy that a three year old. Balcony House it was!

My tour began at 8AM the next morning, so I left my campsite around 6:30. The drive up the mountains from the Mesa Verde campsite was about forty-five minutes of the steepest, twistiest roads I had encountered thus far. When I was brave enough to break focus and look, the views were extraordinary.

I joined the group of about thirty who were standing by the trail entrance on the parking lot pavement. The group spanned all ages; from a middle-aged couple snapping photos in their hiking gear, to small families loading up on snacks and water, to a group of European twenty-somethings laughing about the night before. Our ranger guide appeared and beckoned us to come closer for instructions. She warned us that it was a hike and it was imperative that we keep drinking water (the desert climate is hot, dry and it is very easy to become dehydrated).

“If any of you are afraid of heights this is not the tour for you. We will get to a steep ladder, this is your last opportunity to turn around. Do not be embarrassed about 50% will head back.”

Intimidating. In my peripheral a five year old was jumping off his father’s back onto the asphalt, oblivious to any potential dangers of the day.

If this little nugget can do it, so can I. I mean come on.

We began down the steep trail, which lined the edge of a large canyon. Eagles circled above, soaring across the epic crevice. What a kingdom.

The trail began to elevate as we inched toward the peak and the hike became harder and hotter. The ranger stopped us and we circled around, taking deep sips of water and wiping sweat from our brows. When I mustered the energy to look up, we had reached a giant ladder scaling the cliff face.

“This is your chance to turn back. Just don’t look down if you climb.”

Looking down meant looking down the depth of the huge canyon this dwelling was built into. The little five year old and his dad started to scale, his dad behind him for support. I approached the ladder and took the first step.

Not so bad.

It was a slow climb. The ladder was super-sized to fit the cliff face so there was a wide gap between each step. You wanted to be sure about your footing. The ranger assured us that even if someone launched themselves backwards we would be fine, but not to do that. By the time I was two thirds up the ladder my stomach turned. I looked down. This was not for the faint hearted.

I reached the top and someone held out a hand to pull me up. I hugged the stone wall of the cliff, so happy to be on solid ground. But then I turned around. The view was spectacular. We had a glimpse of what those surveying eagles see everyday.

We rounded the corner to Balcony House, a group of dwellings nestled into the rock, with nothing separating them from the cliff drop off. Like Spruce Tree, the walls were preserved in a similar style. However, Balcony House was obviously much higher up, and had a kiva dug into its foundation and sticks protruding from the stone wall. While you might think it’s the view, the sticks are what inspired the name. These were used as foundations for little balconies outside the windows, where people would sit and take in the view.

The Balcony House is believed to be a middle-sized dwelling with about ten rooms, plazas, kivas and tunnels. It was a community built for several families.

Though still erect, these walls are delicate artifacts and the oil from our hands can be detrimental. If touched often the oil can erode the rock, leaving a blackish smudge. The ranger gave close instructions on where to touch and step. After taking in the views, we were led through a tight tunnel used to enter different family homes. I had to squeeze through and at one point crawl on my hands and knees through a damp dark hallway.

After walking through several rooms, we made our ascent up to another ladder. It was smaller, thank god. Climbing quickly, only looking ahead I pulled myself up to the stone floor. I was now on a cliff face, a foot wide, with only a chain-link fence between me and the edge. This was far more terrifying than any ladder. I turned facing the cliff, heart beating through my throat and inched toward the first switchback. Tour mates ahead of me stopped, breathed deeply and exclaimed about the beauty of the view. I shot them a fiery look.


After about five minutes of terror scaling, I reached the peak. This was where you safely admire the view people. To my surprise we were only a few steps away from the parking lot where we had met. On shaky legs I walked over to the fence and looked over the horizon, and listened to the next tour group get their warning.

It was an exhilarating step through time. And unlike that middle school history lesson, it will definitely stick.

* "Kivas is a Hopi word used to refer to specialized round and rectangular rooms in modern Pueblos" (