We purchased tickets for the tour of the Balcony House when we entered Mesa Verde National Park , but after seeing the Cliff Palace the evening before and waking at 2 am to photograph the Milky Way, I was tired and wondered if the Balcony House offered much beyond the Cliff Palace. As it turned out, I thoroughly enjoying the ranger-led tour of Balcony House for both the adventure and a closer look at a cliff dwelling.
The Park Service advises “The Balcony House tour requires visitors to descend a 100 foot staircase into the canyon; climb a 32 foot ladder; crawl through a 12 foot, 18 inches wide tunnel; and clamber up an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps.” And you’re at 7,000-foot elevation.
Above, we climbed a ladder and stone steps to exit Balcony House, with the canyon floor far below. Look down the steps and railing to the top of a ladder, and you’ll see a park ranger (wearing a hat) at the bottom of the ladder, 60 feet below.
After descending a 100-foot staircase, our ranger tour guide showed us a seep spring on the cliff outside the Balcony House. Rainwater is absorbed by the sandstone, and it moves through the sandstone until it hits denser rock, where it moves laterally. At this seep spring, water has moved to the cliff face where people can collect water. The white deposits on the rock look like salts left behind by evaporated seepage.
This water movement also builds cliff alcoves. From the park geology page, “Alcove formation is caused by water that seeps into cracks, freezing and thawing in them, eventually expanding and slowly pushing the rock apart. These portions fall off in blocks, creating the alcoves you now see.”
After the seep spring, we climbed a 32-foot ladder to enter the Balcony House.
We gathered in front of a 2-story building with a balcony, for which the Balcony House is named. The building has low, rectangular doorways with a high sill. A Native American house in Wrangell, Alaska has a doorway with a high sill as a defensive measure. To enter the house, you must put your head down, bend over and step carefully over the tall sill — a vulnerable position.
Balcony House is high on a steep cliff. The canyon is wide, and the canyon bottom is far below. Snow-capped mountains are in the distance on the right.
To move to the other part of Balcony House, we climbed a short ladder, walked up some footholds in the rock and walked around the back of the alcove. Two girls in purple tops led the way.
Doorways at Mesa Verde were t-shaped or rectangular. This t-shaped doorway has the high sill like the rectangular doorway we saw earlier.
This large, deep kiva has the usual fire pit, deflector, and airshaft. The flat areas around the sides of the kiva might have been used as shelves.
These two kivas are at the edge of the Balcony House, with no wall or railing.
This interior wall has been plastered and decorated with a pink design.
To leave the Balcony House, we crawled through this 12-foot-long passage. The ranger told us that the middle of the passage has a higher ceiling, but I was too busy ducking to notice. The low passage was constructed with dressed stone, so this passage was designed.
Outside the low passage, the ranger showed us where the Ancestral Puebloans climbed the cliff. The shallow depressions to the right of the ranger lead upward.
We climbed a ladder to get up the cliff.
From the ladder, we climbed stone steps shown in the first photo.
After a long, twilight tour of Cliff Palace, I wondered if seeing another cliff dwelling would be more of the same. We don’t know much about the people who built and lived in these cliff dwellings, a key aspect of travel, culture, and trying to establish an emotional connection. But I enjoyed the tour of the Balcony House: climbing up and down ladders, crawling through low passages, seeing a canyon seep and t-shaped doorway, and peering through doorways to see a dark interior that reminded me of a Maasai boma.