While the United States lacks the mega Amerindian monuments of further south like those of the Aztecs, Mayans, or the Incas, it still does have a number of treasured archeological sites. One of these is the mysterious mound of Cahokia, another is the mounds at Poverty Point in Lousiana. But another of America's great ruins are those at Cliff Palace in Colorado.

This is the largest cliff dwelling known in North America and is UNSECO Listed. It is located in the Mesa Verde National Park and is one the must-see places for anyone interested in America's prehistory.


History Of Cliff Palace

The Cliff Palace had its heyday in the 1200s and at that time it is thought to have had around 100 residents. Not a city for sure, but a significant cliff-based village. It is believed that Cliff Palace was built by Ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi). The site is constructed from the local materials of sandstone, with wooden beams, held together with mortar made of ash, water, and soil.

  • Number Of Rooms: 150
  • Number Of Kivas: 23
  • Size Of Rooms: Around 6 feet by 8 feet
  • Population: 100

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During a period known as the Pueblo III period that spanned 1150 to 1300 AD the threats of warfare seem to have risen. In response, the people living here built numerous stone masonry towers that are believed to have been defensive in nature. There was periodic warfare here throughout the 13th century, the increase in fighting was possibly driven by the "Great Drought". One village has been discovered where it would appear the inhabitants were massacred.

The people who lived here are believed to have used a combination of farming crops, gathering, and hunting. However, the sites were abandoned by around 1285 following a period of social and environmental instability. The cliff dwellings provided refuge and security but the waves of severe and prolonged droughts made it infeasible to live here. In the wake of the severe droughts, people moved south to places like the Rio Chama and the Albuquerque Basin.

  • Date Abandoned: Around 1285 AD

About The Site

In order to reach their homes, the Ancestral Puebloans would have had to have used wooden ladders. They had their family rooms closer to the front. At the back of the site are smaller rooms, these would have been used for storing food like squash, corn, and beans.

Related: The Lost City Of Cahokia: 10 Theories About What Took Place There

Besides the storage rooms and the residential rooms, there are also large, round rooms dubbed "Kivas". These Kivas are believed to have been used for ceremonies and various ritual purposes. Every family or clan is thought to have had its own kiva.

As with so many ruins around the world today. One can be forgiven for thinking the ruined castles, pyramids, and palaces were made of boring stone. But they were typically plastered and painted - but time often wears this away quickly. The Great Pyramid of Giza was plastered white with limestone and the dwellings at Cliff Palace were plastered in bright red, brown, yellow, pink, or white colors. Decoration and art is not just a modern thing!

Visiting Cliff Palace

Today the site is accessed via the Cliff Palace Loop Road, this also accesses the Balcony House. Touring these sites is with park ranger-guided tours only.

The Cliff Palace is only one of a cluster of around 600 cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park. Most of these are small with only 1-5 rooms each. Many are just single storage rooms. But the Cliff Palace is exceptionally large and could have been an administrative and social site for the surrounding population with a high level of ceremonial use.


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  • Hours Open: 8.00 am To Sunset

Tourists visiting the site are often confused by how small the doorways here are. But it the Ancestral Pueblo of the times was likely much shorter than people in America are today. The average man was likely 5'4" to 5'5" while the average woman was 5' to 5'1" - about the same for European's across the seas of the same time. Additionally, as with everywhere in the world, the life span back then was much shorter than today. The average Ancestral Pueblo probably had an expectancy of 32-34 years - although this is greatly impacted by around 50% child mortality before the age of five.

Related: 10 Largest Caves In The World, Ranked By Size

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  • Entry Fee Per Vehicle: $20 Off-Peak Season
  • Entry Fee Per Vehicle: $30 Peak Season
  • Annual Pass: $55

Mesa Verde National Park

Today Cliff Palace is part of the Mesa Verde National Park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. It was established during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency in 1906 and occupies some 52,485 acres of land. This makes it the largest archaeological preserve in all the United States. Evidence of settlement here stretches back around 9500 BC and excavations have revealed a number of successive cultures living here.

Next:  Visiting The Stunning Maya Ritual Caves Of The Mayan Peninsula