One of several hikes I took over the Fourth of July weekend, this post covers both the Balcony House tour and the Soda Canyon overlook hike, which lets you see Balcony House from across the canyon. The former has a distance given of 1/4 of a mile, though it feels a bit longer than that. The latter has a given distance of 1.2 miles roundtrip, though it also seems perhaps a bit longer.
As always, clicking on the pictures gives you a larger version of the image. Most are still reduced in size for faster uploading, but the last picture is a slightly larger file, just to give you a big enough view to see some of the details.
Mesa Verde is obviously known for its ancient (ca. 1300) cliff dwellings, although there are older (ca. 1100-1300) archeological sites on the mesa tops, as well. Most of the cliff dwellings can only be seen up close via a National Park Service tour. Tickets are currently $8 each, and can be reserved up to two weeks in advance.
Practically-speaking, early summer, and, especially on a holiday weekend, they will sell out within minutes of when they go on sale, at 7am Mountain Time, two weeks before the tour date. So I made sure to be on line and ready, with a recreation.gov account, promptly at sale time, two weeks before this tour, and before the Cliff Palace tour I also wanted to be on.
You need to select your desired tour location and time and number of tickets, then place it in your "cart." Then you have fifteen minutes to complete your purchase. If you don't, the slots are released back into the pool, and someone else can try to get them. This means that, again, in my experience, within five minutes of 7am, all but the occasional single slot is in someone's cart. However, since I suspect several people in groups will simultaneously log on and try to save spots for various times, with the first or best times for the group are purchased, and the remaining spot purchases are not completed, so spots will start returning (BRIEFLY!) to the pool by about 7:16am. Here, they were snapped up promptly. So start checking a few weeks or days before your desired time goes on sale, just to get an idea of demand. And if they're going instantaneously, don't dally on your login day!
Additionally, as people's travel plans change, some slots will continued to be returned to the pool as people cancel their reservations for a partial refund. Again, if you find some, don't dally. Also, single slots are more common than large groups, so if it's just a few of you, you might wish to take the single slot when you can, and return to find additional singles at the same or adjacent times.
[Note as I check today for slots into September, I find lots of slots available for most days, so apparently it's less of an issue in late summer. Also, the dwelling tours here were not available last year due to road construction, so there may have been pent up demand.]
Tours start at the top of the cliff above Balcony House. You can't actually see Balcony House from there, of course; the cliff is in the way! You walk a bit on a paved path, then come to a gate, which the ranger will have to open. Then there's a hell of a lot of metal steps down, to another paved walk way. That brings you to a tall, 30-40 foot tall wooden ladder.
The ladder takes you to a beautiful "patio" view, with cliff dwellings on one side and the canyon on the other. There's a four foot tall wall separating you from the cliff.
On the "left" side of the patio is a wall with windows, where you can see where the second landing area will be. After hearing the ranger describe what's on your side, you'll go up a short ladder, along some rocky steps, and through to that other dwelling area. Large kivas are on that side.
More information there, then the exit. This entails a little scuttle along some rocks, then crawling along a passage between a pair of walls. The description of it being a passage, 18-inches wide and 12-20 feet long is not literal, since you can stand at least partially up as you go between the two walls.
You exit on to another "patio," a fair-sized flat area. Only way out from there is a ladder, so you'll have to do some climbing, again. At the top of that first ladder, you then scuttle along some steps, carved into the rock. There's a secured chain to keep you from plummeting to your death.
From this perspective, you'll see a narrow wall constructed between the cliff and a large boulder. The residents used existing "walls," where practical.
Next, there's another significant ladder, followed by more trail, either paved or over rock. Then, another gate. Another ranger will be there to let you out.
There's a fun little video of this tour, here.
It's not really "Indiana Jones," but it definitely not just a walk. Obviously, if you have an issue with heights or confined spaces, this tour is not for you.
Balcony House is well-preserved, but not as large or well-preserved as "Cliff Palace," the other nearby cliff dwelling where tours are possible. Currently, "Spruce Tree House" cannot be visited, due to the danger of rockfalls.
After walking along the top walkway back to our car, we continued along the Mesa Top Ruins Road to the Soda Canyon trailhead. As previously-noted, it's a reported 1.2 mile out and back hike to an overlook, where you can see the Balcony House Ruins face-on. If you click on that last photo in the post, you'll see the ascending ladder below and to the right of the ruins, and the final exit ladder up and to the left of the ruins, on the other side of that big, partially-separated rock slab.
Returning to the ruins road, a short drive takes you back to the Spruce Tree House area. The trailhead for the Spruce Canyon and Petroglyph Point trails is here, as are a museum, flush toilets, gift shops, and a cafe.
The Navajo tacos in the cafe are far from authentic, but good enough for a hungry version of me.
There are numerous other overlooks to other cliff and mesa top dwellings on this branch of the loop, which you will likely want to visit, either coming on going. The Square House Ruin, in particular, was neat, because when you finally do see it, it's closer than the other cliff dwellings you can see from the cliff top.
From the Fourth of July weekend trip, I still need to blog the Cliff Palace tour, some of the mesa top ruins and other short hikes, and Navajo National Monument.