Virtual Mesa Top Loop Drive

Photos of pithouse, stone-masonry pueblo walls, and stone-masonry village in alcove. Include timeline.
Examples of a pithouse (left); pueblo (center); and cliff dwelling (right) along with a timeline of Ancestral Pueblo homes on Mesa Verde.

The Ancestral Pueblo people did not always live in cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. For the first 600 years they lived on the mesa top. As you take a tour along the virtual Mesa Top Loop Drive, you will see generations of changes in housing styles from pithouse, to pueblo, and finally to cliff dwelling.

Separation bar with black and white triangles

Stop 1: Pithouse (600 CE)

Illustration of a family in a pithouse. Additional caption of text follows on web page..


Open archeological showing outlines of the location of an underground pithouse
Archeological site of a pithouse on the Mesa Top Loop Drive.


Most visitors to Mesa Verde arrive in summer, when it’s hard to imagine snow on the ground or freezing temperatures. But Ancestral Pueblo farmers were used to the year-round cycle of seasons. Their first permanent homes were partially underground, so they were cool in the summer and warm in winter.

A family pithouse included a central fire hearth used for cooking, light, and warmth. It was protected by a deflector which reduced air drafts across the fire and onto people sitting, working, or sleeping on mats nearby. It also allowed smoke to rise straight up through the roof vent. Wing walls defined living spaces and may have offered options for privacy. Behind the wing walls were grinding stones, where women spent hours grinding corn into cornmeal, the basis of family meals. Baskets, pottery jars, and bowls held food such as shelled corn, wild fruit, seeds and berries, or stored water. Items such as burden baskets, cradleboards, and capes of twisted yucca fiber wrapped with rabbit fur or turkey feathers hung from the roof or main posts.

Illustration of building a pithouse and the needed tools. Additional caption of text follows on web page..



Why would a family build a new home? A marriage? Child? To be closer to a newly cleared field or garden plot? However it was decided, building and maintaining a pithouse meant a lot of hard work!

To maintain their homes, people repaired the mud covering after the summer rainy season—or perhaps after every heavy rainstorm—and then every spring after the snow melted. Wooden support timbers were replaced when the bases rotted. Today, experimentation suggests that pithouses were completely rebuilt every 10 to 20 years.

What Did it Take to Build a Pithouse?

Wood Water Tools
Wood beams were an essential part of a pithouse. About 30 trees provided most of the wooden components. Four upright posts with forked tops held horizontal beams to support the roof and complete the framework. Additional poles placed at an angle formed the walls. Small sticks and branches covered the entire structure, which in turn was protected by a covering of mud plaster several inches thick.

Water, stored in pottery vessels or pitch-lined baskets, is a vital ingredient needed to turn dirt into mud plaster. The plaster was packed along the walls and roof of the pithouse, and the inside surfaces were smoothed with it. Plaster work was probably often done in the spring when water is most abundant. Stone hoes, digging sticks, and many hours of manual labor were needed to dig a hole nearly 4 feet deep and about 18 feet in diameter. Baskets were used to remove the dirt and move it aside for later use. Stone scrapers were used to scrape the floor smooth and pack it hard. Stone axes cut the timber needed for roof and walls.

"Pueblo people live as a community. We are not orientated as individuals or individual family groups. We’re groups of clans, societies, and extended families. As a group, we’re a community. Pueblo people are about us and we, not about me, I, or myself.” -Peter Pino, Zia Pueblo

Separation bar with black and white triangles

Stop 2: Pithouses & Early Pueblo Villages (700 - 950 CE)

Illustration of people building a stone-masonry structure. Additional caption of text follows on web page.


Archeological site showing the outline of single-stone masonry walled building.
Archeological site of rooms within an early stone-masonry pueblo.


Over time, the Ancestral Pueblo people began constructing above-ground buildings. By then, families lived in homes that included several rooms. The rooms shared walls with each other, much like apartments do today. The earliest above-ground buildings were made of wooden posts, branches, and brush covered with mud. Several generations later, builders began to use rough stone blocks instead of just wood and mud. They placed the blocks together using a mortar made of clay. This created a strong, stone-masonry wall.

Although building masonry walls required a considerable amount of time and labor, people of this time clearly preferred them to wooden walls. Why? Was wood becoming harder to find? Had they seen too many disastrous house fires? Whatever the reason, the new masonry construction techniques were widely adopted and refined in the centuries to come, culminating in the massive Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.

“People should come to Mesa Verde with the thought of accepting differences and accepting the fact that there’s something to be learned here. Our people, our forefathers, were pretty sharp in figuring how to make tools from animal bones, how to make tools from stone, and how to build structures that last for centuries.” -Peter Pino, Zia Pueblo

Separation bar with black and white triangles

Stop 3: Sun Point View (1200 - 1300 CE)



Years of Activity

The move to the alcoves began around 1200 CE and by mid-century, there were more than 30 cliff dwellings in the Cliff and Fewkes Canyon neighborhood. Several are visible from here. Imagine these canyons filled with the sights and sounds of a bustling neighborhood—smoke from cook fires, children playing, men working in their mesa top fields, people going about their day. Well-travelled paths wound through cliffs and forests from one village to another. Ties of families, friendships, shared celebrations, and ceremonies brought neighbors together in this vibrant community.

"For 600 years, people lived next to the areas they farmed and walked to water. But during the 13th century, people began living by their water source and walking to their fields." -Mark Varien, Archeologist.

Years of Change

Children born in one of these cliff dwellings in 1225 CE experienced many changes in their lifetime. Over the course of roughly 75 years, they and their families witnessed the migration from mesa top villages into alcove communities; a significant peak in the area’population; and then the final exodus from the entire Four Corners region. By the end of the 13th century, these canyons were quiet again—filled with remnants of once thriving communities and a host of unanswered questions.

The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in this area for centuries. Archeologists don’t fully understand what prompted the final migration in the late 1200s. Many believe drought, resource depletion, and social conflicts may have played a role. Why do you think the Ancestral Pueblo people left?

“From a Pueblo perspective, it was their time to go. They did what they were supposed to. The ancient ones knew that in order for them to survive and sustain, they needed to leave.” -TJ Atsye, Laguna Pueblo

“The explanation in our migration story is that they had this desire to go south. They settled in different regions, always with the urge to go farther south.” -Peter Pino, Zia Pueblo

Separation bar with black and white triangles

Stop 4: Oak Tree House (1200 CE)

View of a ancient stone-masonry village with labels explaining each feature.



There are about 600 alcove sites in Mesa Verde National Park. About 90 percent contain fewer than 11 rooms. At least one-third are simply one room structures, probably storage rooms for a nearby cliff dwelling. There are only about a dozen cliff dwellings that contain 40 or more rooms, including Oak Tree House.

Oak Tree House is one of the larger cliff dwellings on Mesa Verde, and its residents lived in a busy neighborhood. Fire Temple and New Fire House are just up canyon, Sun Temple sits above on the canyon rim, and many other cliff dwellings are nearby. At least one spring flowed from nearby cliff walls to supply the residents with fresh water.



Multi-storied masonry walls
Oak Tree House contains at least 60 rooms. The well-built stone masonry walls supported multiple stories. The alcove itself was sometimes used as a roof for upper rooms.

T-shaped doorways
Doorways were either rectangular or T-shaped. The purpose of the T-shape remains a mystery. It may have been symbolic, eased entry into outer rooms, or signified public use rooms.

Oak Tree House has six kivas. Kivas were surrounded by several adjacent rooms. Each kiva and set of rooms may have been used by an extended family.

Storage Rooms
Additional storage was located on ledges within or nearby the dwelling. Within the dwelling, rooftops of lower story buildings allowed easy access to ledge rooms that today appear to be inaccessible.

Plazas were made, in part, from kiva roofs (now missing). These well-lit, open spaces were used for many daily activities.

Retaining Walls
Sloping alcove floors were leveled by filling in behind retaining walls, providing support for walls and work space for daily activities.

Refuse such as animal bones and broken pottery were often tossed below.

Separation bar with black and white triangles

Stop 5: Cliff Palace (1200 CE)

Interpretive panel showing ancient, stone-masonry village of Cliff Palace.



With at least 150 rooms, Cliff Palace is an exceptionally large cliff dwelling. It was constructed in a very special location, surrounded by a vibrant, active community. Several features suggest it was an important gathering place, perhaps an administrative or governmental center for the Ancestral Pueblo society that centered around these canyons. The people who lived in the area were familiar with dozens of footpaths that led from village to village and to storage structures, farming areas, water sources, and public buildings that included Sun Temple and Cliff Palace.

Although silent today, Cliff Palace is a reflective reminder of a people who settled among these cliffs, canyons, and mesa tops for a time, and then migrated to establish new communities and neighborhoods further south. Here, for 700 years, they passed their skills, traditions, artistry, and knowledge from generation to generation, forming the foundations of modern Pueblo culture. Through elaborate oral histories, most Pueblo people trace their ancestry back to the Four Corners region and occasionally return to honor their past, their ancestors, and their ancestral homeland.

“Even though we physically moved away, the spirits of my (our)
ancestors are still here. If you stop for a minute and listen,
you can hear the children laughing and the women talking.
You can hear the dogs barking and the turkeys gobbling. You
can hear and feel the beat of the drums and the singing. You can
smell the cooking fires. You can feel their presence, their warmth,
their sense of community"
-TJ Atsye, Laguna Pueblo


Last updated: May 16, 2020

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