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Phil Meyer

Cliff Dwellings: Icons of the Southwest

© Matt Blaisdell
© Matt Blaisdell


But this wasn’t the slithery, scaly variety we’d seen nearby. Ancient hands had pecked it deeply into the black desert varnish of a boulder. And it seemed to point straight into the narrow canyon slicing the cliff in front of us.

What born-and-bred desert rat, much less devoted photographer, could resist following a pointer like that?


We picked our way along a faint trail, here and there scrabbling over rocks, then ambling along sandy bottoms graced by cottonwoods and a trickle of water. The rise was so gradual there was little sense of climbing.

A half mile later we broke into an amphitheater in stone.  Fully five acres in extent and littered with boulders from the surrounding cliffs, it glowed in the morning sun.

To our right loomed an overhang with piles of rubble and debris forming “teeth” in its black jack-o-lantern smile against the rock wall. But a second look revealed crumbling walls and doors peeking from the cascade of stone and soil.

Cliff dwelling!

The trail ended at a rock shelf in which we could see more pecking in the rock, this time forming scattered steps to ease passage up to the ruin. If there’s a more exciting moment than discovering a new cliff dwelling, I’m yet to experience it.

But each discovery stirs mixed emotions.

© Matt Blaisdell
© Matt Blaisdell

Easy Access

The southwestern US is riddled with cultural sites including petroglyphs, pictographs and cliff dwellings, whether obvious or faint traces invisible to all but the processional eye. Many are within national parks and monuments where they are tightly managed for viewing with access often closed to the public.

Ruins in the national parks are ideal for first-time visitors to learn more about the cultural heritage of the region. In sheer numbers of interpreted cliff dwellings, none is more extensive than Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. Hovenweep National Monument also in Colorado and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico are other great opportunities to see, learn and photograph.

Many more are on public lands outside the parks, yet closely managed for public access and viewing.  Improved trails and viewpoints are provided with interpretive signs to help define what you are seeing, but at a distance. Information on thirteen such sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Utah can be found at this site.

Off The Beaten Path

But interpreted sites with controlled access account for only a tiny fraction of the thousands dotting public lands in the Southwest. You won’t find them on maps, and the only indications they’re known sites are small signs reminding visitors that it is illegal to damage, deface or remove cultural objects.

With or without the signs, it is certainly illegal to disturb or deface a site, or to remove anything you find. Yet there’s not a fence in sight, and there are no public employees nearby to guide your steps and interpret what you’re seeing.

By the tracks in the fine dust that coat the sites it’s clear that previous visitors have explored them, often walking freely within ruins for closer looks.

Is that right? Can you actually do that?

Some sites require special permits or are closed to the public, but visitor access is not restricted at most of them. It’s up to you to know which are closed, as well as how to visit any open site without causing damage. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 or ARPA (PDF) spells out what you can and can’t do in and around cultural sites. Reading and understanding the law are the best way to prepare for visits to unprotected sites off the beaten path.

The BLM's Site Visit Ethics (PDF) is a great two page summary of ways to visit the sites without causing damage, and even to camp in the vicinity without impact. And this Cultural Resources PDF is a handy two-page description of the types of cultural resources managed by BLM.

Here’s a handy one-page summary of how to visit sites without harming them called Discover, Enjoy and Protect our Heritage Resources: .

In a nutshell, the ethic of “take only photographs and leave only footprints” applies strongly to cultural sites wherever you encounter them. It’s one thing for the managing agency to provide easy access while limiting where you can walk and what you can touch. But you bear lots of personal responsibility when visiting sites that are not controlled.

© Hank Pennington
© Hank Pennington


Time of day is fairly critical for the best photography of cliff dwellings. Because many are in narrow canyons, they are likely to be shadowed well past sunrise and before sunset occurs in the surrounding terrain. While this is ideal for hiking in daylight, it also dictates when and how you shoot for specific lighting effects.

I try to arrive at a site before it receives direct sunlight and remain until it falls back into shadow.  In between I might read a good book or enjoy a nap, or explore the surrounding terrain for additional cultural resources or landscape photo opportunities. But in general terms I have best results when I devote an entire day to a single site.

Overcast days are terrific for control of shadows and highlights, but you lose the warm tones from indirect sunlight. And even at midday if you confine the field of view to shadowed areas, longer exposures often result in wonderful lighting as the sun reflects into the ruin from colored rock outside the shadowed overhang.

Lenses fall into two “extremes” of focal lengths.  Cliff dwellings can be in such close quarters that it’s difficult if not impossible to shoot a distortion-free view from the site itself. You have to move back, even completely across the canyon, to capture the whole ruin in a frame. And as distances stretch you need longer and longer lenses. I’ve used everything from 200mm in smaller canyons to 500mm for shooting across the wide canyons of Mesa Verde.

Wider lenses are certainly useful from a distance to include large sweeps of the surrounding landscape and sky. But beware the challenge of including both bright skies and shadowed canyons in the same exposure.

Wide- and ultra-wide angle lenses really come into their own when you move close to the cliff dwelling. Low ceilings, sweeping curves of rock, and important detail from your feet to the far side of the overhang spell wide-angle coverage with plenty of depth of field. I have the best luck with lenses at least as wide as 20 mm, and wider is often better.

Depending on your interests, you’ll also find lots of uses for macro lenses. Everything from potsherds in the dust to ancient corncobs and ancient fingerprints in the mud walls lends itself to close-up work. Petroplyphs shot close enough to reveal the individual strikes of the rock that pecked them can be quite dramatic.

It goes without saying that for long lenses, long exposures and close-ups your tripod will be a good friend. Since I’m not usually standing for hours behind the tripod, I’m happy to trade in my full-sized models for short, lightweight “travel” versions such as the Gitzo 1541T.

A final piece of photo gear will be very useful when applied carefully and skillfully, but worse than useless when over-used or misapplied. I’m talking about a strobe. I’ve used mine for everything from shadow fill to full illumination, but always with care and restraint. As a matter of course I’ll “bracket” shots with and without the strobe, and with the strobe adjusted over a range of power settings. The LCD and histograms on a DSLR will help you zero in on combos that hold promise, but inevitably the extra size of your computer monitor back home will be needed to decide which result is best.

© Hank Pennington
© Hank Pennington

Kiss and Tell

If the remote and little known cliff dwellings are such great photo opportunities, why aren’t more people visiting them?

In fact, they are. And that’s becoming a serious problem. Agencies responsible for managing and protecting the sites simply don’t have the finances or personnel to keep up with increasing pressure from visitors.

Modern technology including portable GPS units, posts to Google Earth, and widely-read posts on the internet are providing explicit instructions to more and sites. The protection offered by their anonymity is rapidly eroding.

If you are tempted to post site locations along with your photographs on web sites and elsewhere, you have to realize that not everyone who reads your directions shares your concern for the care and wellbeing of cultural sites. Over and above careless visitors, there are individuals inclined to malicious destruction and even excavation for sale of artifacts. You’re likely to encounter their destruction in more and more sites you visit.

When you see damage and destruction, you have an important tool right in your camera bag. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 spells out that you should report it to the relevant management agency, and what could be better for that than you camera and photo skills?

Returning Home

The large number and diversity of cultural sites in the Southwest are certainly worthy of your visits and photography, but also your care and effort to help preserve them.

Without question one of the best measures for their protection and preservation is their continued anonymity. Certainly share your photos, but don’t Kiss and Tell by publishing their locations along with your photos.

See more images in the album "Southwest Cliff Dwellings".

About the Authors

The article and photographs presented here are the joint effort of long time TPN charter member Hank Pennington and TPN moderator Matt Blaisdell. Click the links on their names to see their TPN profiles and learn more about these gifted and curious photographers.

by Hank Pennington

Alaskan Hank Pennington has been a photographer for over 40 years, and with his wife Jan has run a successful photography business for the last 20 years. In spite of busy schedules they manage frequent travels to other locations with an emphasis on photography.

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