Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Although it is not known exactly why the Anasazi left the area around 1300 A.D., the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are an excellent example of passive solar design utilized by those who came long before us.

Located in Southwestern Colorado, the Mesa Verde National Park cliff dwellings highlight the southern-facing cliff villages that were formerly inhabited by the ancient Anasazi culture.


Cliff Palace photo Courtesy of Wikipedia, Credit – Lorax


The Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, shows how the rock overhang provides summer shade that keeps the entire structure cool from the hot, desert sun.



Diagram showing how an overhang is used to block the summer sun at the Zion Visitor's Center

The sun rotates a higher arc in the sky in the summer. The overhang will block the sun in the summer, but allow the sun to heat the bulding in the winter.

The southern facing structure demonstrates the principle of passive solar cooling showing how the higher rotating summer sun is blocked by a the utilization of an overhang.

The workmanship of the Cliff Palace also features more than 200 rooms and exquisite stone work, with some rooms plastered on the inside.  The use of thermal mass helps to moderate the building’s temperature.

When I was young, I recall visiting Mesa Verde in the summer.  Because we were in school, we visited this hot desert area in July. We stopped along the way and made sandwiches for lunch.  I remember taking the sandwich materials out of the cooler, and vividly recall that within minutes, the intense, dry heat in the desert made the sandwich bread hard, as if it were toasted.   We made jokes about this as we ate our dry, tree bark-like sandwiches.

While it was blazing hot in the summer, I also remember that the cliff dwellings were surprisingly cool in the shade.  This is due to the inherent beauty in passive solar design.

A passive solar dwelling is designed to be cool in the summer, if it faces south, and in the winter, because the sun travels a shallower and lower path, the housing complex is also ideally situated to absorb the sun’s heat energy throughout the day in the winter.

The photo below shows the Cliff Palace in the Fall.  At that time, the sun will not rotate as high in the sky, so the sun’s heat can be absorbed by the building.  In the winter, the cliff dwelling can potentially absorb the sun’s heat energy all day.

This photo was taken in the Fall, on Sept. 12th, near the equinox.  At that time, the sun is no longer high in the sky, but is ‘traveling’ a lower arc.  Photo Credit: Andreas F. Brochert, Wikipedia.


Passive solar design was utilized by the Ancients as they relied on the sun to warm them in the winter, yet the overhang, material and the building’s orientaion were utilized to keep them cool in the summer.


Balcony House, Mesa Verde, in the shade of the summer sun

Balcony House, Courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park


Pictures of the Balcony House and the Spruce Tree House also show how a southern facing rock overhang will provide summer shading from the hot the summer sun.


Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park

Not only is the passive solar design and building aspect fascinating, but there many other interesting facets to be learned about ancient culture when visiting Mesa Verde.   Learning about socio-political structure and other ways of living hundreds of years ago helps to spur our curiosity of other ways of living.

The cliff dwellers also farmed corn, beans and squash and supplemented their diet by hunting rabbits, deer, turkeys and other game.

There are many, many other different types of ruins throughout Mesa Verde.  Some of the ruins are located on top of the desert plateau, surrounded by the pinion and juniper trees.

This article has focused only on the passive solar aspects of the cliff dwellings.  To visit Mesa Verde and visit the cliff dwellings on your own, plan a visit to southwestern Colorado.

The closest cities are Cortez and Durango.  The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are located off Highway 160.  See the park website for more information on Mesa Verde National Park.





Keya Lea

Keya Lea likes to spend time outside, enjoying the sun.

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2 Responses

  1. tsanko says:

    Wonderful ..thanks a lot for posting a good informitive blog

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