The Palaces of Mesa Verde National Park

The Palaces of Mesa Verde National Park

I first visited Mesa Verde as a kid and I loved it. I wasn’t sure it would be worthwhile to return, but we’ve got the time and the campground has free showers, so we decided to go for it. Visiting a place as an adult that you loved as a child is almost always going to be rewarding. OK, maybe not if the place is Disneyland, but a return visit to a park like Mesa Verde, with so many layers of cultural and natural significance, will allow you to discover things you didn’t understand when you were 12. Plus, how many things do you remember from your 1992 vacation?

A big part of a visit to Mesa Verde — for some, the only part — is a visit to the cliff dwellings. There are a few dwellings you can visit on your own, but you need to purchase tickets for ranger-led tours of the largest and most significant dwellings. Since this is a busy place, it’s a good idea to purchase your tickets at least a day in advance. We decided to take the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours on the same day, around lunchtime, in hopes of smaller group sizes.

Cliff Palace was our first visit. This is the largest and most impressive cliff dwelling in the world, and it’s one of the most popular tours. As our guide spoke about the kivas and their portal to the spiritual world (the sipapu), I wondered how anyone could get a sense of the spiritual significance of these places on such a crowded and chaotic tour. I felt nothing other than annoyance at the woman next to me, repeatedly pressing her sweaty arm against mine as she swayed back and forth. If you want a more personal experience, we’d suggest buying all of the tickets. Get a small group together and buy all 50 tickets for $150.

Balcony House is another story. The most adventurous cliff dwelling tour at Mesa Verde includes climbing a 32-foot ladder, some seriously tight squeezes, crawling through a tunnel, and another ladder/cliff scramble combination. Our guide, Tim, was great — the kind of guy you want to go have a beer with after the tour. After some introductions, he sprang nimbly up the ladder to the cliff dwelling. He does this three times a day, typically. I felt a bit of panic on the ladder — it shimmies very disconcertingly as you climb — but I overcame my fear by focusing on just the next handhold and the next step, until the next step was the last. After the ladder climb, the group seemed overwhelmed by giddy adrenaline. No one could stand still — we all tried to tame our shaking knees as we stumbled about, bumping into one another and the walls.

As we stood around a kiva in Balcony House and Tim spoke about the design, I stood and stared at the sipapu. I was separated from Paul by a crowd and Tim’s voice became just another background noise. Maybe it was the adrenaline (or dehydration), but I started feeling a little dizzy and goosebumpy as I was drawn into the sipapu. Who’s to say that that tiny, dark place isn’t the portal where the spirits of the people who lived here pass between the living and the spiritual world? I felt like they were looking out at me and the rest of the group in confusion. What were we doing there? How could I express my gratitude for being able to visit this wonderful place?

After we crawled through the tunnel and scrambled up the cliff face and the danger was all over, a woman behind us broke into nervous laughter. She was breathing really hard (as was I), as she exclaimed, “I can’t tell if I’m panting from the altitude or the effort or the fear!” It’s a combination of all three, and it, and the ability to get this peek into a different time and way of life, is exhilarating.