Cliff dwellings, many protected as part of the U.S. National Park System, are ancient homes built in recesses of cliffs and canyon walls. They are prevalent in the Southwest, yet they’re found nowhere else in the U.S. The high deserts here are home to gorgeous canyons and stand-alone sandstone cliffs. Peppered by crevices of all shapes and sizes, these sandstone walls offered the perfect environment for cliff dwellings.
But the ingenuity of the ancient people of the high desert made the crevices inhabitable. Depending on the size of the recesses, they built single homes, neighborhoods, even large villages, sometimes housing over a hundred people. Where possible, they dug further into the cliff recesses for larger establishments.
The resulting buildings were sometimes several stories high, with strong roofs between stories made of wood and plaster. Their inhabitants accessed the rooms by ladders through openings from the rooftops, or through small doorways from neighboring rooms. In larger crevices, they also constructed kivas, circular ceremonial centers.
The National Park Service incorporated many of these cliff dwellings to protect them while also allowing us to visit and enjoy them. My family and I visited them often, and over time, we found a few we keep returning to. The following are some of our favorites.
1. Cliff Palace In Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, the largest and best-preserved cliff dwelling in the U.S., is one of over 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park in the Four Corners area of Colorado. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde was home to the Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived there between 450 and 1300 AD and built the cliff dwellings between 1150 and 1300.
The most spectacular of them, Cliff Palace, was home to about 100 people and had about 150 rooms and 23 kivas. Archaeologists believe it was a ceremonial center, with social and administrative significance.
Today, a guided tour takes visitors through its rooms and kivas. The most popular tour in the park, it offers the chance to walk through the ancient structures and climb inside a covered kiva, while learning about the lives of the Ancestral Puebloans. The tour lasts one hour -- some of which is spent sitting and listening to the ranger, but it also involves uneven steps and climbing ladders during the quarter-mile round trip.
Balcony House and Long House, two more cliff dwellings in the park, also offer guided tours. You can visit the smaller Step House on Wetherill Mesa on your own, and see Spruce Tree House from an overlook on the mesa top.
To explore more than just Cliff Palace, you need at least two days in Mesa Verde. The park offers overnight amenities, including rooms at the Far View Lodge or campsites at the Morefield Campground. Several cafes and the elegant and sustainable Metate Room offer dining opportunities.
Pro Tip: Access to the Cliff Palace and the other cliff dwellings is closed during the winter and early spring; open between late May or mid-June (depending on the cliff dwellings) to mid-October.
Note: Due to COVID restrictions, the visitor center and museum are both closed until further notice. Please check the park’s website for up-to-date information before planning your visit.
2. Betatakin In Navajo National Monument
Part of Navajo National Monument, Betatakin lies in a spacious alcove overlooking a narrow canyon. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans around 1260 and abandoned in 1300, Betatakin featured 120 rooms and several kivas. Today only 80 of these rooms remain, but they are well preserved, some with their roofs intact.
One of the most spectacular cliff dwellings, Betatakin is also one of the least accessible. You can only get close to them by joining one of two ranger-led tours. Offered in the mornings in the summer, the trails are three or five miles round trip. Both are steep and considered strenuous.
However, you don’t need to take the tour to see the extensive cliff dwellings. They are visible from an easy-access overlook at the end of the Sandal Trail, a paved, 1.3-mile-long trail starting at the visitor center. The overlook’s viewing telescopes help to see them in greater detail. You’ll even notice the wooden ladders used to access the rooms.
Navajo National Monument is on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, about ten miles off Highway 160 at the end of Arizona Highway 564. You’ll find a visitor center with a museum, a picnic area, and a campground on the premises.
Note: Due to COVID restrictions, Navajo National Monument is still closed. Check their website for information on when they will open.
3. White House Ruin In Canyon De Chelly National Monument
Named for the light-colored plaster still visible in some rooms, White House Ruin is one of several cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Closest to the visitor center, it is the only one in the park accessible without a guide.
Editor’s Note: Canyon de Chelly made our list of amazing Arizona canyons to explore after you’ve seen the Grand Canyon.
White House Ruin, like the others in the canyon and those in Mesa Verde and Betatakin, was once home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. Archaeologists believe it was home to about 100 people between 1060 and 1275. The ruins comprise two different levels, one on the canyon floor and another in an alcove on the canyon walls. Between the two levels, White House Ruin had about 80 rooms and four kivas.
An overlook offers a good view of the cliff dwellings, but it’s worth taking the 1.3-mile-long trail into the canyon for a closer look.
The steep but wide and well-kept trail showcases gorgeous rock swirls and takes you through a short tunnel before reaching the bottom, where it levels off. Make sure you stay on the designated trail since Navajo families live in the canyon and their properties are not fenced.
Other large cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly are Mummy Cave and Antelope House, visible from different overlooks on the canyon rim. You can visit them with a local Navajo guide.
Note: Fully on Navajo Nation’s territory, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is closed at the moment due to COVID restrictions. Check their website for opening times.
4. Montezuma Castle In Montezuma Castle National Monument
A smaller but no less spectacular site, Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona preserves the ancient homes of the Sinagua people. Their name originates from the name the early Spanish explorers gave the San Francisco Peaks nearby, la sierra sin agua (the mountain without water).
However, Montezuma Castle is a misnomer. The Sinagua, who built this spectacular cliff dwelling, had nothing to do with Montezuma. In fact, they built this structure at least a century before the Aztec king was born.
The 20-room cliff dwelling we know of as Montezuma Castle, carved 100 feet above the ground into a limestone wall, dates from between 1100 and 1300. It was not a castle, but more of an apartment complex in a village, housing about 35 to 50 people. They lived up on the cliff above the flood zone of the nearby Beaver Creek to preserve the land for farming. In a land without water, every inch you can grow something counts.
Montezuma Castle is the easiest cliff dwelling to visit in the Southwest, which makes it popular. A short side-trip just off Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, the park offers a paved trail through the site, with views of the well-preserved cliff dwelling.
5. The Cliff Dwellings In Walnut Canyon National Monument
The Sinagua also built cliff dwellings on the high walls of Walnut Canyon in Northern Arizona. Walnut Canyon National Monument preserves these cliff dwellings, which date from 1100 to 1250.
Built in the natural alcoves of the canyon walls, you can visit 25 of these rooms and even walk through them. The paved, one-mile-long Island Trail starting at the visitor center leads to them. Though short, the trail is strenuous, descending 185 feet into the canyon, and includes a long stairway. Once it reaches the level of the cliff dwellings, it gets easier as it continues on a flat ledge around the cliff.
As you walk through the rooms, you might notice blackened walls in a few, signs of the ancient fires used for cooking and warmth. Take it slow and enjoy the views, including those of other cliff dwellings across the canyon.