The Manitou Cliff Dwellings
As one of the oldest attractions in the Pikes Peak region, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings has been a staple visit for generations of visitors. Hidden from view in its lifelong location on Highway 24, the attraction has welcomed thousands of families, even more local school children and the occasional wolf to explore the hands-on exhibit tucked away in the cliffs behind Manitou Springs. More than a simple roadside attraction, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings are a very rare opportunity for everyone to banish the phrase “look, but don’t touch” from their vocabulary while exploring a timeless piece of indigenous history.
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings: The Early Years
The dwellings were established in 1904 by Virginia McClurg and William Crosby. According to McClurg and Crosby, the Ancestral Puebloan ruins were collected and moved from their original location in Southern Colorado in an effort to protect the artifacts and architecture from being plundered and destroyed by vandals and antiquities thieves. The move was a massive effort, as was the reconstruction of the ruins when they finally arrived in Manitou Springs. Fortunately for modern visitors, the extensive reconstruction is what has made them safe for exploration by present-day visitors. The reinforcement has also helped the Dwellings remain preserved for the last 115 years since it first opened to the public in 1907.
McClurg and Crosby may have been the first operators of the site, but they were not the last. That honor goes to a single family line that acquired the dwellings during World War II and have maintained the attraction ever since. According to Michele Hefner, General Manager of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, family founder Peyton Priddy was so taken with the attraction as a child that he brought his family back to visit once he was an adult. According to the early history of the Cliff Dwellings, Priddy and his wife Dolly came for a visit to the Dwellings and found them closed (due to the aforementioned war). Determined to resurrect the ruins to their former glory, Priddy decided to sell his family movie theater in Oklahoma and purchase the Dwellings as a family business. More than 76 years later, the attraction is still family-owned and operated, with each new generation finding their own role in running the operation.
Priddy wasn’t just smart. He was lucky. Within a few years of taking on the Cliff Dwellings with his family, Highway 24 became a paved route to the west — and consequently, a very busy one. The family made the strategic decision to relocate the entrance to the attraction so it sat right alongside this revamped road. It was a smart way to capture the maximum interest of passerby and tempt them to stop. And stop they did. Thousands of visitors have visited the attraction in the decades that followed. In fact, both the Cliff Dwelling Museum and gift shop (filled with Native American art, pottery, jewelry and educational resources) have both sized up considerably over the years to meet the demand. Most westbound travelers frequently encounter a fair bit of traffic along Highway 24 as visitors queue up for their chance to tour the ruins.
Present Day: Thriving and Growing
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings have become a fan favorite for visitors and locals alike. While the supporting structures like the museum and gift shop have changed dramatically, the ruins themselves have, fortunately, remained steadfast. Visitors can explore the ancient structures and learn about the Ancestral Puebloans who once dwelt within them all year long. The sturdy walls and doorways have stood strong through thousands of curiosity-seekers wishing to explore a piece of ancient (almost 1,000 years old) history.
One of the main groups of visitors to the Dwellings are busloads of local school children on annual field trips to learn about the indigenous peoples of Colorado and explore the ruins. For Michele, it is the most magical parts of operating a legacy attraction. Michele notes that the welcoming, interactive atmosphere is a huge draw for any visitor, not just excited schoolchildren.
“We offer a fun, family friendly outing that is full of culture and history. Exploring through the dwellings and grinding corn with grinding stones — the hands-on experience is memorable for all ages,” say Michele. All species, too, apparently. According to Michele, well-behaved, leased pets are frequent and welcome visitors to the location, too. “We are pet friendly too, welcoming many dog breeds and even some exotic pets. It’s not abnormal to see a cat, ferret or even a rabbit on a leash.”
A lot of famous folks have also found their way to the Cliff Dwellings. Hefner says that in addition to many unconfirmed celebrity sightings, the site has welcomed Nelson Rockefeller (of the Rockefellers, Adam West of Batman fame, actor Andy Garcie and Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller. One of the most unique famous visitors has to be Dee Snider, lead singer of metal band Twisted Sister. We can only hope Snider was decked out in his stage gear, although we’re pretty sure he likely went as incognito as that distinctive blonde hair would allow.
It hasn’t always been an easy run for the Michele family. The Pikes Peak region has been fraught with catastrophe in recent years, including wildfires, frequent floods, mudslides, hailstorms, road closures and, like every other city, an economically devastating global pandemic. The work the Hefner family has put in to keep the attraction alive through the chaos has been a true labor of lasting love.
Says Hefner, “We always seem to pull out of these tough times staying the course and doing our best.” She also points to more personal tragedies that have affected the business, including the loss of two generations of owners to age and illness. Still, the Michele family has made the care of the Dwellings a life’s work to be celebrated, even through tragedy. They see it as their contribution to supporting a community they love and instilling an appreciation for history, exploration and learning for generations to come. Michele is a huge fan of the Pikes Peak region, naming hiking and animal watching as her top Colorado-related activities.
“The Pikes Peak Region offers so many iconic places to visit,” says Hefner. “The opportunities are endless to have a memorable experience packed full of history, culture, and adventure.” She add, “Enjoy the great outdoors with clear blue skies, fresh mountain air, scenery and landscapes for miles and miles. Keep your eyes open for wildlife anywhere you go. Take on the summit of Pikes Peak or a deep dark hole for your luck in striking gold at the mine.”
The Future of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Exciting things are afoot for the future of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. Hefner says that the attraction plans to open a new cafe in the summer of 2023. For those of you reading along, that’s this summer. If you’ve been wanting to pay this location a visit in recent years, you’ll be able to have yourself a nice lunch you can enjoy in the picnic pavilion — another new addition to the canyon that will only make it more appealing to its loyal fans and new visitors. Hopefully, you’ll be one of them.