“The Manitou Cliff Dwellings are comprised of Anasazi ruins that date back 800-1000 years old.”

The story of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park is told at the Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings museum. Their headline (shown above) may be all some people read before they head up from the parking lot to play in the home of the “ancient ones.”

But that’s not the whole story…

You see, you must read a little further down to realize that the Anasazi didn’t live here, in Colorado Springs. The site you see from the parking lot is not the actual home to the “ancient ones.”

But before you dismiss this as a tourist trap, don’t. The reason Virginia McClurg founded the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association and hired William Crosby in the early 1900’s to literally move a village, is to preserve and protect the dwellings and stories of the “ancient ones.”

History of Manitou: It Started at McElmo Canyon

If the Manitou Cliff Dwellings are the only thing you know about man’s first condominiums, then you’re only getting part of the story.

Did you know there is a whole section of the country where structures just like this one are carved into the cliffs?

While Colorado Springs is not the original location for the stones you see stacked before you, many of the stones and the design you see were taken from the original site in McElmo Canyon and carefully reconstructed. This is just one of many found in the Four Corners region of the country.

Four corners is the cross section where Colorado and Utah border the north and Arizona and New Mexico border the south.

The boundaries of “Cliff-Dweller Land” include parts of southern Colorado and Utah, Arizona as far as the Colorado River, and New Mexico. In McClurg’s time, there were at least 12 distinctive areas of cliffs, caves, and other prehistoric dwellings. These included:

  1. The ruins of the Province of Tusayan (ruins found near the Hopi Pueblos)
  2. The Sale and Gila River Valleys
  3. Lower and Upper Verde Valleys (The Red Rock Country)
  4. San Francisco Mountain region near Flagstaff, Arizona
  5. Little Colorado River Valley
  6. Canyon de Chelly
  7. Navaho National Monument – Betatakin and Kitsiel
  8. Pajarito Plateau (near Santa Fe, New Mexico)
  9. Structures in the Zuni region
  10. Chao Canyon
  11. Mesa Verde
  12. San Juan River Region

So, why move it?

Why were the Cliff Dwellings moved?

Vandals. Even in early days, “greedy” treasure seekers compromised the walls digging for treasure. They used dynamite or blasting wherever they thought it would hurry excavations. Foundations were damaged and structures which may have stood the test of time were in jeopardy of being destroyed and taking their stories with them.

It was also determined the original mud used to build the homes would not hold up to the volumes of visitors if the original location was opened for tourism. To preserve the history as much as possible, a private and government collaboration, along with mules, horses, and trains, moved the original cliff dwellings to Manitou Springs.

Finally, Mother Nature inspired the relocation. Because the red stone is naturally fragile, years of wind and rain were already causing the structures to crumble even though they were built with great skill. Moving the site and building it with more durable material, while not “original” in nature, allows us to retain the stories and history of the people.

True, it’s not the “original” site. The ancient ones didn’t actually live where the current Manitou cliff-dwelling site exists. However, the replica is an attempt to preserve a piece of history and make it accessible to current and future generations. The aim is to deliver the history and the experience without damaging the past.

So, how has the story of the cliff-dwellers emerged?

“Real” Science Moves In to Capture the Story

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park…

The cliff dwellings of the four corners region, and the southwestern states in general, were discovered and explored during a time of war. When the United States and Mexico went to war over Texas our knowledge about New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and California was limited…and sometimes inaccurate and embellished. Gold had not been discovered so travel to the Golden State was limited mostly to trappers and adventurers.

Early military reconnaissance parties were sent out and told to report back anything interesting.

Well, what they found was a whole lot of land that was literally covered with ruins of towers, big communal houses, isolated clusters of house ruins, small houses, and countless homes of a similar style built into the faces of cliffs which appeared to be inaccessible. They also found the remains of prehistoric irrigation canals all throughout the valleys in every direction.

Before the US Bureau of American Ethnology and the United States Geological Survey set up to scientifically gather information, research the findings, and release the information, the early form of “fake news” traveled the country (although, much slower than a tweet!)

Everyone was interested in the mystery of a “vanished” race. Some said they were descendants of the Aztecs and Montezuma; some believed they were a dwarf race because only the smallest of people could fit through the small doorways; other stories brought terror at the thought of the entire population being exterminated by a hostile enemy.

I imagine this last point fed into the fears about native Americans in general, fueling fears about people with different customs and looks than the new Americans.

Luckily, fantasy and fear didn’t win.

The “real” scientists stepped in and got to work. They excavated the ruins to find the messages and clues these past inhabitants may have left. Then, they talked with the Pueblo Indians to find out what they knew about the ruins and their former inhabitants.

It is believed these people lived in clusters of houses, surrounded by a common wall, which enclosed massive houses that served as temples or citadels, for protection. It is doubtful whether they were all occupied at the same time. It was the custom of these aboriginal people to keep “on the move” and as soon as drought or some other circumstance arrived, rendering the site unfavorable, they left it and occupied another.

Sounds like a modern-day nomad!

A Farmer’s Story

What they found was a story about the land. More precisely, a story about farming the land.

The Cliff-Dwellers built in the cliffs not because a warlike foe was bent on their destruction, but because the cliffs were there; they overlooked the corn-fields, and melon and squash patches, and therefore were the most convenient, easily accessible house sites they could find.

They built on the mesa tops when the mesas were more convenient, and they built on the bottom lands when that was the best option. These facts soon knocked out the idea that Cliff-Dwellers were a separate and distinct race of people.

They were the same people as those who built on the mesa tops and the valley bottoms. This also disproved the idea they were driven out of existence by a warlike foe. More probable is they were moved by hunger, restlessness, or the desire to avenge some real or supposed injury or insult.

The cliff dwellers had to watch out for theft. It was believed that “wandering” Indians, those not having fixed homes, were lousy at planning for the future. You know, saving for a rainy day and all that. So, when they came upon settlements where the inhabitants were industrial agriculturists, people who stored corn, melons, and the like for future use, and who dressed buckskins, wove cotton they grew, made sleeping mats of yucca fiber, and baskets and pottery, the temptation for the wanderer was to take what they needed, rather than do the work themselves.

To protect themselves, the cliff-dwellers and home-loving agricultural Indians, banded together. They built communal houses with outer walls like rude forts with only a few entrances. They tilled their fields and generally had someone on the lookout during “raiding” seasons and when an alarm was given, they hurried to their homes, closed the gateways, and stayed safe.

The cliff-dwellings were no more fortresses than the big community houses on the mesa tops. They were primarily houses, with outlooks over their cornfields. They were planned so they could be easily defended in case of raids.

The large number of cave-dwellings is an indication of the population. Ancestors of the Pueblo Indians were always looking for good land for growing corn. Arizona, you may know, is not really known for consistent and predictable rainfall. It’s naturally a country for irrigation. And while the Pueblo Indians understood the art of irrigation, they were not engineers. No dams were erected to create reservoirs to handle drought.

The result was they could handle one, two, maybe even three droughts in a row. But if a drought lasted longer than that, they moved on, seldom looking back. Because of the lack of water conservation practices, they were in perpetual migration. They traveled light, deserting former homes and building new ones.

What was it like to live in these cliff dwellings?

Pottery displayed at the Manitou Spring Cliff Dwellers museum…

Without actually being there, we can only rely on the stories of the original inhabitant’s offspring and what has been uncovered through excavation. And, imagination.

Looking at the face of a cliff-dwellings, it looks like a bunch of human nests carved into the face of the cliff. How did they get in?

It’s believed ladders were used; however, descendants say “No.” Could it be they were as “agile as mountain goats” even in advanced ages so that getting home, up the cliffs, at the end of the day was an exercise in rock climbing? Holes carved into the rock suggest, maybe. 

The floors were made of adobe, or similar mud, which was also used as mortar and plaster. Fires were built in a hole in the floor. Excavations uncovered the remains of ashes in such holes. The rafters and walls were smoky, and no chimneys were found. Its likely smoke escaped through small spaces in the walls.

There were many rooms and few doorways.

Some structures were more like caves, hollowed out by nature and man. The rock was soft strata so a small cave could be quickly enlarged to the required size. However, with the soft nature of the cave walls, hanging up too many pictures was probably a bad idea!

For protection, a wall was built in front and/or sides. The back of the cliff and its upper wall, formed the back and roof of the home.

There are literally hundreds of such rooms and cave dwelling in the Four Corners region.

Some rooms had vertical entrances. In other words, you dropped through a hole to the floor below. Most likely, ladders were used. Other rooms were flat and you entered the room on the same level as the entrance. The entrances look like pigeon holes carved into the soft rock.

While decorating was limited to nature and the tools available, rooms were still made “homey,” Walls were plastered and floors were leveled. They may have been covered with mud cement for a finished look. And judging by the pottery and stone implements found, the skill of homemaking was in full force. Some walls had little cubbies probably used as shelves.

The Landscape Changed with the Seasons

An early summer traveler wrote this about the daily life of cliff people (paraphrased):

Our road ran between the fields and the foot of a shouldering wall of red rock. In the fantastically eroded crevices, brush summer shelters of the families (of Navahos) who tilled the fields were erected. Children swarmed over the rocks, companions of the goats and the dogs; old women and young sat in highly colored groups, sheer curiosity lighting their faces as we rode past.

In the fields men worked deliberately at corn-stalks so high the ears all but dragged on the ground; melons of all shapes, sizes and colors lay between the widely spaced hills of corn; here and there the more vivid green of an alfalfa patch showed. Down by the main wash, beside the ancient ditches which bring rich, silt-laden water to the fields, rose beautiful old cottonwoods.

There were orchards, too. Fruits ripening to a tempting redness.

Women slowly worked at frames stretched either outdoors or just inside the wide entrances of the brush shelters, making blankets. Scarlet strings of peppers hung on poles and over fences, and yellow strips of melon (perhaps squash) were drying beside piles of multi-colored corn ears.

Color, vivid and appealing, was everywhere, the more marvelous for its contrast with the pale glory of the desert. Unchanging, silently vast, smeared with color!

That was in the Summer.

Now, contrast that colorful description with another account. This one was observed in a harsher, winter climate and may explain why the caves didn’t have many entrances:

“…we tied handkerchiefs over our faces to protect our noses and eyelids from the burning reflection of the sun on the reddish sand…About noon we looked back and saw through the heat-haze a monstrous black thunder-cloud coming across the desert.

An hour later it hit us.

At first, instead of rain, this fierce-driven storm hurled sand upon us! Sand in wonderful streamers, sand in high-tossed waves, sand in out-spread, obscuring curtains blown fantastically, sand in whirling spirals, and sand in dull, lever-driven streams whipped, stung, and caressed us, sifted into our hair and through our clothes.

It was a roaring, stunning sort of assault but luckily it came upon us from behind. We plodded on, bunched against it under our ponchos.

Then came the torrential downpour.”

Sand storms and heavy rains. It makes sense to create a cluster of homes protected from each of Mother Nature’s elements.

Mesa Verde National Park

A six-hour trip from Denver, Mesa Verde National Park gives you an experience with the original cliff-dwellings.

While the cliff-dwelling in Manitou Springs is an introduction to Pueblo peoples of the past, a drive just six hours from Denver provides an up-close view of protected homes. The cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park offers both guided and self-guided tours of park features.

It was written that “some of the finest ruins have been discovered upon the eastern face of the cliffs” in what is now Mesa Verde National Park.

While Native Indian populations were the first to “discover” these clusters, cattle ranchers re-discovered them and introduced them to the rest of the world. Richard and Alfred Wetherill of Mancos are believed to have taken herds of cattle on long rides throughout the Mesa Verde. And, as with any type of slow-pace travel, you have the opportunity to really ‘see’ what surrounds you.

And, see they did!

Cliff-Palace was discovered when they were searching for a stray herd through the pinion wood on the mesa. They passed through a section of dense scrub bush to the edge of a deep canyon. Opposite the cliff, sheltered by a massive vault of rock, was an entire town complete with towers and walls rising out of the ruins.

Not far away, they found another large cliff-dwelling which they named Spruce-tree House after the large spruce rising from the ruins.

Inside these rooms were remnants of daily life. Cotton cloth, wooden, stone and bone implements, string, pieces of hide from deer and sheep, belts, moccasins, sandals, maize, pottery, and skulls.

The ruined fortress is best seen in the afternoon when the sun is shining into the cavern. It occupies a large space under a grand oval cliff. It appears like a ruined fortress with ramparts, bastions, and dismantled towers.

The stones in front were broken away; however, you can see where walls rise behind into a second story and then behind those, under a dark cavern, stand a third tier of masonry. Even further back, you can see little houses resting upon the upper ledges. Holes within the walls appear to have provided footholds and places for hands to grab as they moved along the rows. A short distance away are cozy buildings perched in nooks that seem completely inaccessible.

Many agree…the journey is worth the scenery.

Wrapping it Up: Your Cliff Dwelling Travel Adventure

So, what is the story these cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park tell?

Is it a moment in time where a people lived, and then disappeared, abandoning their home because of weather, draught, or force?

Or, do they tell a story of the progression of the people. From primitive caves to simple houses, to clusters of prosperous agricultural communities?

Perhaps it’s a little of each?

Why not travel to these destinations and find out for yourself? And, of course, remember to snap that selfie and share it with us on social media! Hopefully yours will be more than just another perfect picture…a perfect picture with a new understanding of the world around you, and before you.

Wishing you happy discoveries!

When You Go:

Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings Museum
10 Cliff Road
Mintou Springs, CO  80829

May, June, July & August: 9:00am – 6:00pm
March, April, September & October: 9:00am – 5:00pm
November: 9:00am – 400pm
December, January & February: 10:00am – 4:00pm

Website: https://www.cliffdwellingsmuseum.com/

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Website: https://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm 

Photo attribution for cliff dwellings Mesa Verde National Park and Manitou Spring Cliff Dwelling Museum:

Inside Cliff Dwelling #2, Manitou Springs Colorado, June 2005
Walking through ancient cliff dwellings in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
Cliff Dwellings
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Anasazi Condos