Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwest corner of Colorado, is a crown jewel of the U.S. National Park system. It is also a World Heritage Site, and a destination worthy of everyone’s travel bucket list. Contained within the park’s boundaries are some of the best preserved ancestral Puebloan archeological sites as well as plenty of adventures to keep the entire family active and engaged.
From meager pit-style homes to substantial cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park provides visitors a window into life long ago along these mesas. Today, we are going inside one of the park’s amazing, incredibly well preserved, ancient cliff dwellings. Come along with us as we explore one of Mesa Verde’s prized ancient ruins, Balcony House.
The Adventure To Balcony House Begins!
Humans have traversed these very lands for thousands of years, with settlements dating as far back as the 600’s. Today, we retrace some of these steps as we follow along trails winding beneath the cliffs. Be ready to challenge your fear of heights and small spaces, and any fear of ladders that climb up seemingly sheer cliffs. It’s time to tackle the adventurous Balcony House cliff dwelling tour!
This adventure begins even before one enters Balcony House. Just getting to the cliff dwelling is an adventure, and not for the faint of heart, nor the faint of heights! A deceivingly casual hike along a well worn trail beneath the cliff’s edge leads to this ladder, and the first obstacle that must be breeched if Balcony House is to be experienced up close.
To enter Balcony House, one must climb up the cliff face via this 32 foot ladder. Though it may appear rustic in nature, have no doubt that this is a modern day ladder well anchored into the cliff wall, and not one from the original inhabitants! Take a deep breath. The climb will be worth the challenge once standing at the edge of this ancient cliff dwelling.
Inside Balcony House Cliff Dwelling
The climb up the ladder sets the tone for the experience ahead, sending mind and thought racing back in time, and to the people who once called Balcony House home. Just imagine this climb 800 years ago, without that ladder, where toe holds etched in the cliff face provided the primary paths for ingress and egress!
Upon breeching that top step of the ladder, upon stepping forth into a long ago abandoned world, one quickly concludes that the effort was well worth the rewards. With Balcony House laid out before one’s eyes, thoughts of that arduous, adventurous ladder climb become a distant, fading memory.
At its peak, Balcony House consisted of 40 rooms, and was considered medium in size for the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Occupied during the thirteenth century, it was truly a feat of engineering and construction skills to build this village beneath the mesa.
Complete with family rooms, kivas and plazas, Balcony House presents a window into the past, and a study of the evolution of cliff dwelling architecture. From timber framed windows to finely mortared wall joints, it is apparent Balcony House was constructed with the intent to survive the trials and tribulations of Mother Nature.
And it has! Much of Balcony House’s original integrity remains today, providing glimpses into a society long gone from these cliffs. Though timber and adobe roofs have since crumbled and inhabitants since vanished, evidence remains of a well established life beneath the mesa. Like these grinding stones in a row, as if just yesterday, they were used for meal preparations.
Though their roofs may be lost to the elements, kivas remain mostly intact, waiting for their families and community members to gather for the evening rituals. Soot covers ceilings from years of cooking fires and warmth gathered around the flames on cold evenings.
Much about Balcony House remains in question and debate today. Why did these ancient people choose to live beneath the mesa, in cliff dwellings that most certainly were a challenge to build, and a challenge to maintain daily life?
Was it built here for defensive reasons? Why did they ultimately leave their homes? The answers might never be fully known, the reasons never fully understood. One thing we do know. Balcony House is an amazing experience, and one not to be missed!
Ins And Outs of Getting to Balcony House
Come prepared for this adventure! This is one cliff dwelling tour that will require physical exertion. One needs to be in decent physical condition to take on the initial 32 foot ladder climb into Balcony House. But that’s only part the adventure!
In addition to the ladder ascent required to access Balcony House, there is an equally challenging exit plan once the tour is over. To return to the mesa high above, intrepid travelers must crawl through a tight, 12 foot long tunnel and squeeze sideways through a narrow, 18″ wide passageway in the canyon wall. But wait! There’s more.
Last but certainly not least, and perhaps the most intimidating, is the final ascent to the mesa. Yes, that stairway up the cliff’s face is the final challenge to be tackled, and the only way out. This last climb is up a 60 foot stretch of open cliff face via not one, but two 10-foot ladders and a series of stone steps. Hold on tight to the chains!
Balcony House Travelers’ Tips:
- Entrance into Balcony House is only available via ranger guided tours.
- Tours are available from April to October.
- Balcony House tours require a $5 entrance fee in addition to the park entrance fee.
- Tickets can be purchased up to two days in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Morefield Ranger Station and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
- Wear sturdy shoes for this tour. Flip flops are not recommended.
Lastly, those with a strong fear of heights or not in decent physical condition may want to think twice about the Balcony House tour. There is no other way in nor out besides these adventurous ingresses and egresses.
Have You Experienced Balcony House?
We purchased our tickets the morning of our tour. Keep in mind that during peak times, tickets do sell out quickly in the morning hours. Plan ahead to ensure you get tickets as this is an experience well worth the $5 entrance fee, and one you don’t want to miss.
Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? Did you tackle the Balcony House tour? Did that last climb up to the mesa send your heart racing? Do share!
All images by C.Biederman.