Cliff Palace vs Balcony House: Which Tour Should You Do?

In this post, we’re breaking down the details of visiting Cliff Palace vs Balcony House, and which Mesa Verde dwelling tour is right for you.

A rock dwelling with old prehistoric buildings with groups of people looking throughout the area underneath a rock wall with lots of trees in the front of the people.

Mesa Verde National Park is a truly special place – one that preserves the history and culture of the Native Americans who lived here hundreds of years ago.

While the nature in Mesa Verde is pretty, the park was created to preserve human creations, not natural wonders. This was the first national park, and one of only a few even today, with that aim.

The Pueblo tribes lived here for nearly 700 years, from around 600 AD to 1300 AD. Unfortunately, they eventually abandoned their communities in Mesa Verde after enduring a 40-year drought and relocated down to New Mexico + Arizona.

Over 6,000 Pueblo Native Americans lived in the Mesa Verde area and the surrounding regions at its height, and were spread out among thousands of settlements and cliff dwellings.

These cliff dwellings are honestly pretty shocking – structures are built in cracks and caves on a sheer cliff face. They are a testament to human ingenuity. It’s absolutely wild to imagine people regularly scaling cliffs to make it down to the caves and up to the plateaus.

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How to See the Dwellings of Cliff Palace or Balcony House

While you can see many, many cliff dwellings on walks or from roadside stops in the park, there are only a few dwellings that the public can actually enter and walk through. The two main dwellings open to visitors are Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Both of these dwellings are only accessible by going on a tour with a specific time slot (and fee). There are quite a few similarities between the two locations and tours, and it can be hard to figure out which one you should do!

We did both tours on our most recent trip to Mesa Verde National Park, and we have lots of thoughts and opinions to share with y’all.

In this post, we’re going to give a full breakdown of what each tour is like. We’ll also compare and contrast the different benefits and features of each tour to help you make your decision!

A rock dwelling within the ground fire circles. This is the main highlight of Mesa Verde.

How to Get a Tour Reservation

Reservations for tours open up two weeks in advance, at 8am MT. You will need a account to make a reservation, so I would recommend making sure you have an account and remember your password at least a day or two ahead of time.

Because there are many tours every day, tickets are usually not gone within 30 seconds of them becoming available like some other tours I could mention (*cough* Fiery Furnace *cough*).

However, time slots are mostly gone within about 30 minutes. Morning time slots go faster than afternoon time slots. Once you select a time slot, you have 15 minutes to complete the reservation. 

We did afternoon tours for both hikes on the hottest day of the year in 2023, and honestly, it wasn’t bad at all. Once you get into the cliff dwelling, you’re almost completely shaded, and the temperatures are then very manageable.

Practical Details

  • Fee: Whether you visit Cliff Palace or Balcony House, the fee is the same. It costs $8 per person for anyone ages 3 and above. Infants (2 and under) are $1
  • Tour Length: 1 hour
  • Time to Get from Entrance to Tour Meeting Point: At least 45 minutes. The park is long, and these cliff dwellings are at the very far end of the park. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the tour parking lot from the parking entrance.
  • Tickets: You must bring either a printout or a download of your tickets to the tour – there’s no cell service to pull up your email and they won’t have a list – so a physical or saved digital copy is essential.

Important Rules About Visiting the Dwellings

The most important rules for visiting Cliff Palace or Balcony House are to not touch or sit on the structures, as this will damage the fragile sites. You are also not allowed to bring any food or drink besides water into the dwelling.

Just be respectful in general of the dwellings. Remember, these sites are sacred to the Native Americans. There are 21 Pueblo native tribes that currently live near Mesa Verde and they regularly come into the dwellings to perform spiritual rituals in the kivas. These are important spots for them.

Balcony House vs Cliff Palace: An Overview of Each Cliff Dwelling Tour

In this next section, we’re going to give a detailed description of what each dwelling, and each tour, is like.

In the two dwellings (and in any dwelling you observe in Mesa Verde), you will see the regular buildings and towers, and then kivas. Kivas are the circular shaped structures that are dug into the ground. They are very culturally significant structures used for religious ceremonies and political governance.

Cliff Palace

A rock dwelling with old prehistoric buildings with groups of people looking throughout the area underneath a rock wall.

For this tour, you’ll meet a ranger at the Cliff Palace Viewpoint – you actually get a great view of the dwelling from this overlook. The ranger will go over some precautions and rules and then send you on down.

You’ll descend down a metal staircase, and then several sets of uneven stone stairs to reach the cliff dwelling.

Groups of people walk down to the level with the dwellings on it.
People walk down carved stone rocks onto a path leading them to the dwellings.
Three girls stand on a wooden ladder leading up above the dwelling

For the morning tours, the tour is structured and guided, with the ranger taking you personally through the dwelling the entire time.

In the afternoon, the tours are unstructured – you get the briefing at the top, but then you are free to roam around as you please. However, there is a ranger in the dwelling who is available to answer questions, but it’s not a “guided tour” per se.

A rock dwelling with old prehistoric buildings with groups of people looking throughout the area underneath a rock wall.

Cliff Palace is large and sprawling – there are over 150 structures and 21 kivas in the dwelling, and it feels extremely grand.

The dwelling is absolutely spectacular – the cove in the cliff is tall and deep. There are all sorts of towers, ladders, structures, and kivas on different levels and in various shapes and sizes.

There’s a lot to look at, and it’s all very visually stimulating!

A large dwelling with almost 15 buildings and a stone path that leads through them.

Despite the fact that you see many rooms and structures in Cliff Palace, there were only 20 families living in the complex at one time. Most of the rooms were not occupied year-round. 

Instead, Cliff Palace functioned as a religious and administrative center for the many dwellings and habitations around Mesa Verde. It was almost like a capital city. Different groups would come to Cliff Palace to perform their religious ceremonies in one of the many kivas, or have important political meetings.

A white stone dwelling with an underground fire circle.
A large stone dwelling with parts eroding off.

If you’re doing an afternoon unguided tour, toward the end of your time, the ranger will do an informal presentation about Cliff Palace and the surrounding area, and describe the significance of the structures and kivas found there.

A woman stands on a sandy gravel path next to the old stone dwellings.

Getting information from the ranger is incredibly interesting and enhances the experience immensely, so I’d definitely recommend asking them some questions and hanging around until they’ve done their presentation.

When you’re done, you will walk back up 4 flights of stairs and then up a ladder to reach the top. Overall, you’ll ascend/descend 110 feet from the viewpoint to reach Cliff Palace. 

Carved steps into the stones leading up the rocks to the different paths.
A wooden ladder leading up the scattered rocks

Balcony House

Unlike Cliff Palace, where there is a fantastic overlook of the actual cliff dwelling at the meeting point, the meeting point for Balcony House is right above the dwelling and there is no viewpoint. In fact, the only viewpoint of Balcony House in the entire park is from the Soda Canyon Loop.

On this tour, you’ll go with the ranger through the entire cliff dwelling, and they will give you an in-depth background and explanation of the dwelling, the structures, the history, the Pueblo Indians, and a lot of other fun facts. 

You’ll first descend a metal staircase and walk along a path under a rocky overhang. You’ll pass by a small seep spring that the Native Americans used for water to build their dwellings, and of course for drinking and cooking.

Girls walking down metal stairs onto a cement path next to the tree line.
A group of people walking down metal stairs onto a stone path leading along the steep valley

Entering the Dwelling

People climbing up the fifty foot ladder to a rock dwelling

Then you’ll arrive at the very tall, 32-foot ladder that takes you up into the dwelling – it’s a long way up, but very sturdy and nailed into the canyon wall.

A short ladder leading up from the ground into the path and dwellings

Once on the ledge at the top of the ladder, you’ll walk through a short but narrow tunnel and up another small ladder to take you to the first room. This room is fairly small, but it’s notable for having a building with a “balcony” on it – which gives the dwelling its name. 

A short ladder leading up onto a slick rock into a stone dwelling.

Juniper trees were the main wood used in dwelling construction because it was hard, solid, and fairly straight wood. Thanks to these trees, scientists can use dendrochronology to date how old the wood is, which helps with dating the dwellings and creating timelines.

Main Area

After the Balcony Room, you’ll walk through a small passage to reach the main area with the kivas and structures. Here, you’ll observe 2 kivas, as well as many other one-story rooms, and a natural spring running at the back of the cliff. The presence of the spring is actually why Balcony House was built.

Two girls climb into a tunnel between the rock wall and dwellings
A stone underground fire circle with a stone room in the background.

The walls of most of the non-kiva structures and rooms here are in partial ruin, with their front walls collapsed, and you can see into the rooms. Interestingly, many of the buildings were used for grain storage, not necessarily for people to live in.

A woman stands in the front of the stone dwellings in the crevice in the rock and trees in the back.

In this area, you’ll also see the evidence of early archeological excavations – numbers on the walls, reinforcing beams, etc. 

Exiting Balcony House

After this room, you’ll climb on hands and knees through a small, narrow tunnel that’s 18 inches wide and 12 feet long.

A short and skinny stone tunnel with a rock in the middle .

While it might seem like a freaky thing to go through, it’s really not a big deal. It actually is wide enough that the vast majority of people can make it through without a problem, and the tunnel is not scary at all.

Also, it isn’t narrow and short the whole 12 foot length. You go through the 18-inch opening, and in the middle the tunnel expands and you can stand up. Then you crouch down again to exit. Plus, light shines through and you can always see where you’re going.

A woman crawling through a very small rock tunnel

After the tunnel, it’s back up another tall ladder. Make sure you pay attention to the rock wall next to the exit ladder, as you can actually see the little hand and toe holds (known as moki) that the Native Americans used to scale the walls.

A girl in a yellow shirt and brown shorts climbs a 50 foot ladder up the steep rocks.
Stairs carved into the rock with metal rails and fences implanted into the rocks in front of a large valley
A rock wall with finger prints from thousands of years ago

In fact, if you put your fingers into the holds, you can feel their finger grooves still there!

Pros and Cons: Balcony House vs Cliff Palace

Okay, now that we’ve done a thorough breakdown of what each dwelling tour is like, let’s breakdown the pros and cons of visiting Cliff Palace vs. Balcony House.

Cliff Palace

The big pros of Cliff Palace are the incredible up-close views of the entire dwelling that you get as you walk through, and also the enormity of the complex. It’s well-maintained and in pretty good condition overall.

If you go in the afternoon, you don’t have a formal guided tour, and it’s a very loose and self-directed experience. This could be a positive or a negative, depending on your preference.

Either way, you are more in control of how much time you spend in the dwelling, so it may be the better choice if you are short on time or are with kids who might not make it through an entire hour-long tour.

This is also the best place for an epic photo, as I think Cliff Palace has the most visually impressive structures in the entire Mesa Verde area.

However, you really can’t walk through and explore all the buildings and passages. You can walk down the main pathway in front of the dwelling, and then up into one small area, but you aren’t allowed to wander through all the structures and kivas.

Balcony House

Pros for the Balcony House tour are that you get a guided, expert experience on every tour, with a ranger telling stories and sharing detailed information about the structure. You also get to experience a dwelling that not many people see (since there aren’t a lot of easy overlooks like there are with Cliff Palace).

It’s really the only spot you’ll get to observe the seep springs that were crucial for Native American life. 

Unlike Cliff Palace, you get to really be in the middle of the structure, instead of just walking along the edge of the structure. Finally, the adventure aspect is strong here – with the ladders, the passageways, and the tunnel.

However, you don’t get the same kind of cool photo op like you do at Cliff Palace, and the dwelling is definitely not nearly as big. You do have to stay with the tour group in a more structured setting – again, maybe a pro, maybe a con, depending on your preferences. (We really liked hearing the stories and historical information)

Cliff Palace or Balcony House – Which One Should You Do?

Three of our four girls preferred Balcony House, with the oldest child (who is 12) preferring Cliff Palace. The little girls were a bit disappointed to not be able to roam and explore through the dwelling at Cliff Palace and liked that we could do that a lot more at Balcony House.

I think I would have to give a slight preference to Cliff Palace – I loved the sweeping views and large complex.

Really, you’re not going to have a bad experience on either dwelling tour, so it really comes down to personal preference. If you’re more interested in the fun of climbing up the tall ladder, going through tunnels, and being in the middle of the dwelling, then go with Balcony House.

If you are more interested in seeing a “big city” with a lot of structures, or getting the best photo op, then do Cliff Palace. Also, if you want to go through the tour faster, then a Cliff Palace afternoon tour is probably a better option.

A woman in a pink tank top in front of a spiritual fire circle with stone dwellings in the background.

Can You Do Both Cliff Palace and Balcony House in One Day?

Yes, definitely. Both tours last an hour, so there is plenty of time to visit other viewpoints and points of interest in Mesa Verde, do a hike or two, and also do both dwelling tours.

If you do decide to do both tours, it’s recommended to give yourself 2 hours between the start times. (So, for example, one tour at 11am and the next at 1pm).

And whether you are just visiting for one day or several, I would recommend doing both of the tours! Each one is unique and distinct enough from the other that you are really getting a different experience.

While there are lots of other cliff dwellings to view from the road or from overlooks, it’s not even close to the same as actually being *in* the dwelling. These are really the best experiences you can have in Mesa Verde National Park.

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