Balcony House Tour

Climb the Ladder


A visit to Balcony House is a 0.25-mile (0.4 km) hike. The tour requires walking down a 130-step metal staircase then, (1) climbing up one 32-foot (9.8 m) ladder to enter, two small ladders, and 12 uneven stone steps within the site.

(2) crawling through an 18-inch wide (46 cm) by 12-foot (3.7 m) long tunnel as you leave the site.

(3 – 5) ascending a 60-foot (18 m) open cliff face with uneven stone steps and two 17-foot (5 m) ladders to exit. Mesa Verde National Park, near Cortez, Montezuma County, Colorado.

Photograph and caption (above) is from the US Park Service, Mesa Verde, Balcony House tour web site

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On the Mesa Rim

We purchased our timed tour ticket at the visitor center at the foot of the Mesa, essentially a flat top mountain rising dramatically from the surrounding plain. In the second photograph we are looking over the mesa rim overlooking Soda Canyon.

The tour is a small adventure, starting with a climb down into Soda Canyon and a climb up a 32 foot ladder. The ladder is solid and we had plenty of time to climb with one person ascending at a time. I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience and had my equipment tucked away for safety. I had to leave my sturdy tripod in the car. A more adventurous photographer captured the following ladder photograph.

photo: Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0


Here we are looking back to the entrance, where visitors crawl on hands and knees to enter.

Here is Pam twenty two (22) minutes into the tour. The structures are build into a naturally occurring cleft in the mesa cliff, below the rock shelf of the mesa top. The rock shelf is the roof above Pam.

Looking up to the ceiling above a rock and mud wall. The structures have been carefully, lovingly, conserved since the rediscovery of Mesa Verde in 1884. The conservation work began 1910.

The 38 rooms and two kivas house up to 30 people. The cliff northeast facing cliff provided little warmth from the sun in winter. At 7,000 feet and 37 degrees latitude, the mesa is cold wintertime — the average low being 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 8 Celsius). As other locations offer a southern exposure, the warmest side for the northern hemisphere, why was this site chosen by the ancients? The answer is found in the two water seeps emerging from the ground at the juncture geological layers where the water gathers and finds a way from surface rainfalls. The high desert climate here was dry then and now.

The walls demonstrate an enormous variety around basic patterns.


I had enough time to capture these “fine art” views of Balcony House, looking back toward the entrance. The round, in-ground structures are kivas, ceremonial and communal gathering spaces.

Possibly the most adventurous and potentially frightening tour component was the end, crawling on hands and knees along an 18 inch wide (46 centimeters) 12 foot long (3.7 meters) tunnel followed by a climb up a 60 foot (20 meters) open (exposed to falling over) cliff face.

Copyright 2023 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Mesa Verde Textures

Building Techniques


When the ancestral Puebloans moved from living next to their fields, in adobe structures, to these cliff dwellings, their building techniques were left behind.

Stone and Mud Mortar with wood beams. Mesa Verde National Park, Montezuma County, near Cortez, Colorado.

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Balcony House

Mud mortar was used to bind stones. Wood poles were used for to construct floors. These are walls captured during the Ranger guided tour of Balcony House.

This flat Kiva floor was achieved through clay, softened with water, formed and allowed to dry.

Clay Kiva Floor. Mesa Verde National Park, Montezuma County, near Cortez, Colorado.

Cliff Palace

In this wall the poles rotted and crumbled, leaving behind these characteristic holes.

These architects excelled with adapting to the materials at hand.


The walls demonstrate an enormous variety around basic patterns.

Copyright 2023 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Kiva, Sipapu, Omphalos

Place Sense


How many of the Mesa Verde 23 kivas can you identify in this panorama? You many need to read this post before answering.

Cliff Palace panorama from two images

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What is a Kiva?

A kiva is a space used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings, many of them associated with the kachina belief system. Among the modern Hopi and most other Pueblo peoples, “kiva” means a large room that is circular and underground and used for spiritual ceremonies.

The Square Tower with four Kivas

Similar subterranean rooms are found among ruins in the North American South-West, indicating uses by the ancient peoples of the region including the ancestral Puebloans, the Mogollon, and the Hohokam.

A portion of Cliff Palace including many Kivas, the round and square towers.

Those used by the ancient Pueblos of the Pueblo I Period and following, designated by the Pecos Classification system developed by archaeologists, were usually round and evolved from simpler pit-houses.

Two Kivas, one with broken wall.

For the Ancestral Puebloans, these rooms are believed to have had a variety of functions, including domestic residence along with social and ceremonial purposes.

The entire Cliff Palace from the overlook, from a single wide-angle image.

During the late 8th century, Mesa Verdeans started building square pit structures that archeologists call protokivas. They were typically 3 or 4 feet (0.91 or 1.22 m) deep and 12 to 20 feet (3.7 to 6.1 m) in diameter. By the mid-10th and early 11th centuries, these had evolved into smaller circular structures called kivas, which were usually 12 to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.6 m) across.


Mesa Verde-style kivas included a feature from earlier times called a sipapu, which is a hole dug in the north of the chamber that is thought to represent the Ancestral Puebloans’ place of emergence from the underworld

Here is a close-up of the kiva floor of the Balcony House. 

Balcony House Kiva

The sipapu is the smaller pit in the floor to the left (north side) and partially blocked by the kiva wall. The larger is a firepit. The small wall to the right is placed to deflect airflow from a floor vent.

Balcony House Kiva, to the right is the floor vent in wall and deflector stone. There is the firepit and a tiny portion of the sipapu at the left edge.
I count 14 Kivas in the Cliff Palace panorama, including some with broken walls.

What is the Connection, if any, between Omphalos and Sipapu?

The global coordinate system was known to ancient Greeks, in fact they are credited with the discovery a system to locate any place on earth, an insight contained in myths of how Zeus founded Delphi as the “center of the world,” the place from which divinity irrupts, by setting two eagles at opposing ends of the world to fly, starting at the same time, same speed, the central world point identified by where the eagles’ paths crossed.

Bronze Coin from the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, reign of Ptolemy VI 2nd Century BC with the head of Zeus on one side and double eagles riding a thunderbolt on the other

To signify Delphi as this center a religious stone artifact, called an omphalos, was placed.

Most accounts locate the Delphi omphalos in the adyton (sacred part of the temple) near the Pythia (oracle). The stone sculpture itself  (which may be a copy) is there to this day.  The surface is a carving of a knotted net, the center hollow and widening towards the base. The omphalos represents the stone which Rhea wrapped in swaddling clothes, pretending it was newborn Zeus, in order to deceive Cronus. (Cronus was the father who swallowed his children so as to prevent them from usurping him as he had deposed his own father, Uranus).

The omphalos stone was believed to allow direct communication with the gods.  Historians theorize the stone was hollow to allow intoxicating vapors breathed by the Oracle (priestess) to channel through it. However, understanding of the use of the omphalos is uncertain due to destruction of the site by Theodosius I and Arcadius in the 4th century CE.

That leaves us with the word, omphalos. In Greek the original meaning is navel, the anatomical reminder to humans of their source.

Comparing and contrasting these terms used by cultures separated widely by geography and time:

sipapu is a religious symbol of the place ancestral peoples irrupted, born, into this world, emerging from the earth. From my readings, the word sipapu is a direct reference to the symbol. There are many sipapu, small holes in the floor of kivas (timetimes a hole in a wooden plank), representing a single place.

omphalos is a religious symbol of where the divine irrupts into the world, from the earth, with direct linguistic natal (birth) associations. A single omphalos stone designates a single place.

Copyright 2023 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved