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Tour of the ages: A walk through Mesa Verde cliff dwellings

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tucked high in a rock face alcove, Cliff Palace is an eye-catching example of pre-Columbian Native American architecture.

With 150 rooms and 23 ceremonial kivas, it is the stunning showpiece at Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado.

Similar to the Chacoan construction throughout the region, Cliff Palace is a masterpiece of sandstone, mortar and wooden beams. Each sandstone building block was carefully shaped with harder stones and held in place with mortar made from local earth, water and ash. Any remaining gaps were filled with chinking stones, adding structural stability to the construction, which is several stories high.

Tours led by park rangers and concessionaire Aramark bring the history of Mesa Verde National Park alive. (Courtesy of Aramark Tours)

During the summer, visitors can walk back in time, because Cliff Palace is open to hourlong, ranger-led tours.

It’s closed during the winter because of ongoing restoration, and now is the best time to get up close to the wonder, said Jeffrey Sumner, general manager for Aramark, the concessionaire at Mesa Verde.

“You can actually get down into the Cliff Palace and experience one of the coolest of the cliff dwellings the property has to offer,” he said.

The ranger-led tour is part of Aramark’s “700-Year Tour,” in which visitors travel through history, Sumner said.

“We pretty much take you through from 500 A.D. to 1300 A.D.,” he said. “It covers the basic start of the small pit houses to kivas and communal living in these cliff dwellings. We take you multiple spots and have interpretive talks at different sites.”

A ladder leading into one of Mesa Verde’s kivas. (Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Tourism)

The four-hour tour “is definitely more of a history lesson,” Sumner said. “Any guest can come do the national park hour tour, but when you do it with us, you get the whole history of it and how it all evolved; the theories on why they were here and why they left. It’s a snapshot of the time period.”

To add to the experience, Aramark’s fine-dining establishment at the Metate Room, which overlooks the area, with views into New Mexico and Arizona, is trying add a little bit of the flavor of the period, with its own twist.

“It’s a cool experience, because the views are incredible and we have a wonderful executive chef who created a new menu where a lot of it gets back to the native roots of the mesa,” Sumner said.

It’s an effort to add a different element to the experience, he said.

“We’ve gone back and said, ‘Let’s try and use the ingredients that were native to this region.’ ” Sumner said. “Here on the mesa top we have beans, corn and squash, and let’s make a menu that’s resembles that and let people experience that.”

A detail of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. (Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Tourism)

A popular item has been the elk Wellington, he said, as well as chile rellenos.

Also, an hourlong, ranger-led tour of Balcony House is not to be missed by the adventurous; Entry requires scrambling through a tunnel, scampering up a ladder and negotiating narrow passageways.

“Balcony House, with its well-preserved rooms, kivas and plazas, stands as a tribute to those who built and occupied the site in the 13th century, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico,” according to Kathleen Fiero, author of “Balcony House: A History of a Cliff Dwelling.”

It has 40 rooms, making it a moderately sized site on the mesa, but it grabs at those who can feel the footsteps of those who walked centuries before.

Visiting the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum is a great way to get a feel for Mesa Verde before heading out on the journey. It includes dioramas highlighting Ancestral Puebloan life, while also displaying many exhibits of prehistoric artifacts, a chronology of Ancestral Puebloan culture and other items related to the park.

There are also nearby overlooks for viewing the intricate and well-preserved Spruce Tree House, but rockfalls have closed the site to closer inspection.