There are more than 600 cliff dwellings within the boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park, but the vast majority are small, containing 1-5 buildings or single-room storage structures. In contrast, the Cliff Palace has 150 rooms and 23 kivas, making it the largest cliff dwelling inside the park by quite a bit.
Scientists estimate around 100 people lived in the Cliff Palace, and that it may have been a cultural, administrative, or religious center for the Ancestral Puebloans in the region.
To visit the Cliff Palace, you must be accompanied by a park ranger guide. Purchase your tickets online or at the Visitor Center, then meet at the trailhead.
Initially, you’ll walk down a paved path to an overlook where you can make out the Cliff Palace. Even from a distance, this structure is impressive … but don’t worry, you’ll get an even better view in just a few moments:
Once you’ve met your ranger and your group, the ranger will lead you down a staircase to a narrow locked gate, after which you will make your way down a steep but beautiful canyon trail to the edge of the Cliff Palace.
As you round a corner, you’ll find yourself almost right inside the Cliff Palace itself.
The park ranger will tell you about the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for more than 700 years before largely abandoning their cliff dwellings and kivas.
Another few hundred years went by after their abandonment until they were rediscovered in 1888 by two cowboys who were riding along the mesa top looking for stray cattle. The ranchers came down into the canyon much the same way you did, thinking they had found the ruins of a lost city. They collected some artifacts and left to tell others about the wonders they had stumbled upon.
Early visitors to the ruins followed the same suit — taking what they saw for their own possessions and often sleeping in (and setting campfires in) the dwellings they came upon. Protection didn’t fully come until 1906, when the area was folded into the new Mesa Verde National Park.
A few years later, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution excavated and stabilize the Cliff Palace ruins, and although work is still being done in the area today, with your park ranger guide you can walk into the Palace itself to see its exquisite architecture and design for yourself.
On your way out, you’ll have to climb up a series of short ladders in a steep, narrow canyon – but with patient and careful footing it shouldn’t be much of an issue for most hikers.