Natural Seeps, Springs, and Alcoves

Illustration showing how seeps and springs are created. Precipitation from above falls onto Cliff House or Point Lookout sandstone and percolates down until it hits a shale layer such as the Menefee Formation, and emerges as a seep spring.

Hydrology of Springs. Where is the Water?

Side profile of an alcove that has carved a c-shaped arch. A pool of water lies on the surface of the alcove floor.
Seeps and springs are found where the water emerges from the cliff face.

Water is within the rock, particularly the Cliff House Sandstone and Point Lookout Sandstone Formations. As seen in the illustration above, water from rain and snow slowly percolates downward through porous layers of sandstone until the water reaches a non-porous layer of shale, through which the water cannot penetrate. Prevented from moving further down, the water travels sideways along the shale surface. Water can travel for years through the rock until it emerges through a canyon wall.

Seeps and springs are found where the water emerges from the cliff face, directly above a shale layer. Here, water has made its way downward through the Cliff House Sandstone from the surface above, emerging onto this shale surface.

Without permanent lakes or streams on Mesa Verde, seeps and springs are as essential to life today as they were to the Ancestral Pueblo people centuries ago.

Two photos. One showing carved, round depressions in a stone floor. The second show a small depression filled with water.
Example of small, hand-carved depressions used to channel water from a seep spring.

The Ancestral Pueblo people likely knew the location of every seep spring on Mesa Verde. They often managed the flow of water emerging from a cliff face by carving small depressions into the shale floor, channeling the water into small pools from which to collect the water. Some, like these, were made just the right size to fit a pottery ladle.

Separation bar with triangles - black and white


Landscape of canyon with a deeply arched-shaped space in the cliff wall. An ancient, stone-masonry village lies within its shelter.
Notice the alcove in which Cliff Palace was built.

Alcoves are large, arched recessions formed in a cliff wall. (An alcove is not a cave. Caves are underground chambers, which are not found in Mesa Verde.) The majority of alcoves within Mesa Verde are small crevices or ledges, able to accommodate only a few small rooms. Very few are large enough to house a dwelling the size of Cliff Palace. But alcoves have protected all sizes of cliff dwellings for centuries and largely contribute to their spectacular preservation.

Sandstone cliff face with a square chunk of rock that has fallen away into the canyon below.
Large blocks of sandstone falling away from the cliff face.

Alcove formation is assisted by water that is absorbed into and percolates through pores in the Cliff House Sandstone Formation. Beneath and within the sandstone are layers of shale through which moisture cannot penetrate. Water is in constant contact with the sandstone in these areas and dissolves the calcium carbonate that holds the sandstone together. In winter months, when moisture within the rock freezes and expands, chunks of sandstone crack and loosen. Eventually these pieces weaken, collapse, and fall away from the cliff face in blocks. Over time, this process forms alcoves within the cliffs.

Pieces of sandstone, created during the formation of alcoves, was often the source of building material for the Ancestral Pueblo homes.

Last updated: July 25, 2020

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