I loved the idea of walking where the “Ancient Ones” lived 1,000 years ago…
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings in Colorado Springs, Colorado, promised to be both mystical and historic and well worth the short five-mile drive from town to reach. I loved the idea of walking where the “Ancient Ones” also known as the Anasazi had lived up to 1,000 years ago.
The cliff dwellings had simply been abandoned one day as the occupants walked to a new land, with new opportunities and left their homes behind, never to return. The cliff homes still stood, just as they had been left, made of the mother Earth’s red clay and soil, and protected from any signs of natural decay by the red sand cliff overhangs that hid them from above.
I turned off highway 24 and followed the modern commercialized signs that promised me the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and a gift shop. The parking lot was already full and it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Everyone had the same idea I had to beat the heat of the day and get there early. Families emerged from battered station wagons and shiny SUV’s looking road weary as they duly followed the family Patriarch up the paved walkways, water bottles and Starbuck coffee mugs in hand as someone in the group consulted a brochure to read off what they were seeing.
I stood in the parking lot and looked past the crowds to the cliff dwellings themselves.
The Underwhelm of the Cliffs
Red clay bricks had been neatly and methodically stacked to build the perfect structure. Some of the dwellings reached to the cliff overhang above and simply stopped before they made that climb to the stars. They stood neatly placed as close together as any modern complexes would be and shared a uniform look that came from the same “builder” creating each one.
Editor’s Note: Get more out of the cliff-dweller’s story! Be sure to read about the history of the people, and the birth of the museum, to fully appreciate your travels. CLICK HERE for Colorado Day Trips
Small narrow windows were placed quite symmetrically along each building as it stood facing the modern-day parking lot and I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. The Manitou Cliff dwellings may have been well over 1,000 years old but they resembled the more modern apartments that lined any city street in America. Steps led from the parking lot to the dwellings, much like any modern-day apartment complex, and like any modern-day apartment complex, throngs of people milled about, peeking into glassless windows, and cautiously going into darkened opened doorways.
Unlike a modern apartment complex however, I had to pay an entrance fee before I could trek around inside the adobe walls and follow the masses of people which seemed to be growing larger by the minute.
The Colorado Springs Manitou Cliff Dwellings tour was a self-guided expedition which allowed me to break free of the groups that moved through the abandoned rooms like curious tourist on vacation and find a relevantly unoccupied home to enter.
A Connection to the Past
The bright Colorado July sunlight went suddenly dim as I entered and I had to stop in the doorway and let my eyes adjust to the sudden change in light. I could see why the Anasazi had kept so many windows and doors free of any barriers to let the light and heat penetrate. I had worn shorts and a tank top and found myself suddenly chilled as I stood in the empty room. It had to be at least ten degrees cooler just inside the room. At least the Ancient Ones had known the value of a cool home.
Narrow doorways inside led to even smaller rooms I guessed to be bedrooms that I could squeeze into. I couldn’t imagine a family had much privacy in such tight living quarters and judging from the visiting families I had seen crammed uncomfortably close into the units I could only imagine how the “Ancient Ones” viewed their little homes.
The theories were plentiful about why the occupants had left the “good life” and abandoned these homes in the cliff walls. The drought would certainly make life harsh and maybe, I theorized, they had left to find a more plentiful source of water to support their growing numbers. I had only been there a half hour and I was already parched from the dry heat and dust that was kicked up from the dirt floors and the tourists tramping through.
Maybe they had simply left because life in a small apartment is cramped.
My first apartment in college had been about the same size and it was okay for one person but I couldn’t imagine my growing brood in one of these deluxe “units”. I made my way out of the dwellings and found my way to the “gift shop/museum” which had been constructed to match the adobe dwellings with raw cliff walls. I was fascinated by the rows of skulls-both human and animal that were behind glass walls with the required signage of explanation as I moved through the less crowded building, soaking up the air-conditioned coolness.
Finally, no good tourist leaves without a visit to the gift shop where a sign promised “handmade Native crafts and Jewelry”. I fingered a pair of handmade turquoise earrings, pondering if they were made by a Pueblo woman who was a descendent of someone who had once lived, maybe even died in the Cliff Dwellings behind me.
Perhaps…the Promise in the Brochure Didn’t Lie
My momentary disappointment at the commercialized feel of the Colorado Springs Manitou Cliff Dwellings vanished as I purchased my earrings that came complete with the feel that I was a part of something historic that was being preserved by making the dwellings open to the public to tramp through, climb along, and touch with sticky fingers and dirty hands.
The “Ancient Ones” had left the dwellings built inside the cliff walls, with no way of knowing that a thousand years later their homes would be of so much historic interest as the modern-day tourists, much like me, sought to find a piece of tangible history that connects us to a life and culture long since gone.
The brochure hadn’t lied after all I decided. The dwellings did hold some trace of mystery that couldn’t be obscured by tourist and gift shops and museums. Maybe the Dwellings weren’t the isolated place I had hoped to find, hidden obscurely from the world once more, but I had walked inside something created a thousand years ago and touched the walls and floors that the Ancient Ones had touched as they lived their ordinary lives to completion. For a minute, I was one of them, standing in my living room or bedroom, pondering my thoughts, planning my day, enjoying the coolness of the interior against the heat of the day outside. For a minute, I was as close to the Ancient Ones as a person could get in the digital age of computers and airplanes and cars and for a minute, just a minute, I was one of them.
When You Go:
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Post Office Box 272
Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Photo attribution for Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings: