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The Anasazi's Cliff Palace

Ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado have a story to tell.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park
Photo caption
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park is one of the largest structures of its kind.

Imagine yourself and a few friends, with no metal tools, building a village in a rocky alcove 50 feet up a canyon wall. The Anasazi—ancestral Pueblo people—did just that 800 years ago in what is now southwest Colorado. They created a cliff dwelling big enough to house 150 people, then lived in it for only about 100 years. By 1300 they were gone, perhaps driven away by drought. The marvel they left behind, Cliff Palace, is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park.

BEFORE HOME DEPOT Sandstone blocks and wooden beams formed Cliff Palace's 150 square and circular rooms, including living spaces and granaries, as well as 23 ceremonial areas known as kivas.

BY THE NUMBERS Parts of the structure stand 25 feet high, and the entire complex extends 324 feet—roughly 80 feet longer than the Great Sphinx at Giza.

SOLAR HEATING The village faces southwest, giving it maximum exposure to the sun in winter.

MANOR ON THE MESA After glimpsing what looked like "a magnificent city" in 1888, ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason gave it the perfect name.

RUDE GUESTS Before Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906, sight-seers and cowboys camped in its empty rooms and scavenged for artifacts.

FOR THE FIT Elevation at Cliff Palace is 6,790 feet. Tours involve a 100-foot descent on a steep trail and climbs up five eight-foot ladders.

Photography by Andreas F. Borchert/

This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.