“Do you want to take a tour of Balcony House?” the enthusiastic park ranger asked me as I stood contemplating what I was going to do at Mesa Verde National Park after I was informed Cliff Palace, the most famous cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, was closed for renovation.
Renovation? Cliff Palace has been around since the late 1200’s and the week I arrive it was closed. It’s like going to Disneyland and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is shut down. It should never be allowed. But at least you can see Cliff Palace from the driving tour!
As I pondered the tour of Balcony House the park ranger informed me that touring Balcony House is a must do. I was pondering as there would be ladder climbing and crawling through an 18” tunnel (45 cm). I knew I could handle the ladder but the 18” hole. This girl drinks way too much beer to fit inside an 18” hole.
I told the ranger I would think about taking the tour and as I was leaving the visitor center she warn me that the tour may be sold out by the time I reach the next park ranger station located inside the park. It was April and a Monday so I was not too concerned about all the spots being gone. I mean there were 38 openings when I left the visitor center, there would be plenty left, right?
After driving 21 miles to the next ranger station I decided that I would take the tour. I did it mostly for you, my readers… OK and myself. I knew I would regret not taking the tour. So once I arrived at the next ranger station I found the ticket sales window and asked to purchase a ticket. The ranger’s response “you’re in luck there are still two tickets left”. Phew that would have been upsetting. I jokingly said to the ranger that I hoped I fit through the 18” tunnel. She reassured me that I would as she and I were similar in size and she was able to make it through and was confident that I would too.
The tour began and the tour ranger went over a bit of history, but more importantly she explained what we were about to embark on. The first part of the tour was going to be easy, a descent of 100 feet (30.4 m) down a walkway and staircase. And with every descent comes an ascent. To get into Balcony House we would then climb up a 32 foot (9.75 m) ladder. After the tour was over we would then crawl through the famous 18” tunnel. But the fun didn’t end there as there were two more sets of ladders and stone steps that span another 60 feet (18.2 m). And all this would be done at 7000 feet elevation (2133 m). The ranger said “you will be huffing and puffing by the time you climb back up to the parking lot”. No one in the group showed fear and we all followed the ranger down the staircase.
As we approached the first ladder I could not remember the last time I had climbed a ladder. As I grabbed the first rung I had a slight mind malfunction and forgot how to climb a ladder. Once I got my wits about me I began to awkwardly find my way up the ladder. The ladder was quite wide which allowed people to climb two by two. Needless to say the person I started with was not the person I ended with. Nonetheless it was not a race and I made it to the top where we entered the first common area of the 38 room cliff dwelling along with two kivas.
The cliff dwelling had received it’s name “Balcony” from balconies that were built at the north end of the structure. The balconies were used by the inhabitants, which judging by the size of the balconies as well as the door openings the Pueblo Indians were much smaller people than we are today. The Pueblos spent their days farming on the mesa tops but built their homes into the cliffs as a form of protection from the elements as well as enemies.
Archaeologists believe that Balcony House dates back to around 1180 AD. Basing on the tree rings of the wood used in Balcony house it was added on to most likely three times with the last construction taking place around the 1240’s. The Pueblos did not stick around much longer as it was believed they moved out of the valley completely by the 1300’s. There is no accurate knowledge as to why they moved on but there was evidence of a long drought that could have been instrumental in their move out of the area. Ancestors of the Pueblos are linked to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona and the Zuni, Acoma, Laguna and Rio Grande Pueblos of New Mexico and Texas.
As we traversed through the cliff dwelling we found ourselves at the mouth of the tunnel. I stood and looked around at the other people in our group. I was not the thickest of the group but I certainly was not the thinnest either. As I took my place in line to crawl through the tunnel I secured my day pack against my chest and began making my way through the tunnel. About half way I felt a slight squeeze against my hips and froze in sheer panic. I thought to myself ‘this was it, I was going to be stuck in the tunnel’. Fortunately I shifted my body and was able to wiggle out of the tunnel. Although we were departing the cliff dwelling via the tunnel it was believed that the tunnel was the original entrance to Balcony House.
Once outside I climbed my way up the two sets of ladders and followed the stone carved steps back to the parking lot. The ranger was right, I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the top. Although I tried to disguise it I’m sure my glistening forehead did not.