We will start our tour of the major cliff dwellings available to park visitors in Volume 3, and end the tour in Volume 4. Three of the major cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are presented in this Volume. They are Spruce Tree House and the two ruins located along Cliff Palace Loop Road, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. All three are built into the cliffs of Chapin Mesa.
The kiva is a unique architectural form that evolved from the pithouses of the Basketmaker Periods. It's a subterranean and/or above ground room used for a number of functions. The most common type of kiva was the kin or clan kiva. This type was generally subterranean and incorporated into room blocks. Roof poles were set on pilasters encircling the room, and entry was through an opening in the roof. It was used by extended families or clans for domestic functions, social gatherings, and religious ceremonies. A variant of the kin kiva was the tower kiva, extending two, and sometimes three stories above the ground, thought to be used for ceremonial functions. A third type was the great kiva, much larger than other kivas, and separated from other structures. The great kiva was used for religious ceremonies, and maybe town hall meetings. While most great kivas are found at Chacoan Pueblo sites, a few are found at Mesa Verde. Fire Temple and the great kiva at Long House are rectangular, while most Chacoan great kivas are circular. Features common in most kin kivas included a firepit and draft deflector, ventilation shaft, storage niches, banquette, roof pilasters, and sipapu. The sipapu was a small round hole in the floor representing a portal through which ancestral puebloans believed their ancesters first emerged into the world.
Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House is one of the most visited ruins in the entire country. It's located in Spruce Tree Canyon not far from Park headquarters on Chapin Mesa. Spruce Tree House is a Pueblo III cliff dwelling with 114 rooms and 8 kivas, making it the third largest ruin in the park. Two of the kivas in the north courtyard have had their roofs restored, and can be entered via ladders through holes in the roofs. A corridor nicknamed "Main Street" runs from the front of the ruin to the back of the cave. Two-story rooms on the north side of this corridor are seven deep and almost perfectly preserved, with roofs intact.
Petroglyph Point Trail is a 2.5 mile loop trail that starts at Spruce Tree House. It travels in Spruce Canyon and along its rim to Petroglyph Point where there is a well preserved petroglyph panel and great views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons.
Cliff Palace is the largest and most famous of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. This Pueblo III structure had 220 rooms and 23 kivas.The kivas are all slightly different in shape, but all have the features common to kin kivas (refer to the section, "Concerning Kivas"). Cliff Palace has both round and square towers, assumed to be ceremonial structures. There are storage rooms built into the niches and ledges of the alcove above the buildings.
In order to visit Cliff Palace a ticket must be purchased for a ranger-led group tour. Each tour group consists of maybe 40 to 50 people. The tour begins with a descent from Cliff Palace Loop Road to the northern end of Cliff Palace, and ends with a climb back up to the road at the southern end of the ruin. I've ordered my photos so that they more or less follow the tour from north to south.
Balcony House sits in an alcove in the west wall of Soda Canyon. As with Cliff Palace, a tour ticket is required to visit this cliff dwelling. Visitors have to climb a long ladder at the north end and then crawl through a short tunnel to enter the dwelling (exciting!). This Pueblo III cliff dwelling had 44 rooms and 2 kivas. Balcony House is divided into north and south sections by a wall with only one opening. The namesake balcony is located on rooms lining the north courtyard, while the two kivas are on the south side. The north courtyard also has a low wall along its outer edge.
I've been to Balcony House twice, but somehow I don't have a lot of photos of this cliff dwelling. After visiting Balcony House on one occasion, I stumbled onto a performance by the Zuni Dance Troup.
South section kiva - ventilation shaft, draft deflector, firepit, sipapu, banquette, and pilasters are visible
Source material obtained from Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest in Color by Ferguson and Rohn and National Park Service sources.
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