One of the coolest hikes we have been on, we enjoyed this one a lot. What makes a great trail? A great view, features along the way, discovery of something new, history, wildlife, solitude all go into making a great trail. This one has some great features, steps (some carved in rock), slots between huge rocks, walking under shelves where people have walked for thousands of years. The petroglyphs were a special attraction. There were a few others on the trail, but not many. We were reminded of the history of this place passing a wall still standing from a house built 900 years ago. Toward the end you climb up out of the canyon onto the mesa top and walk along a gravel path that leads back around to the museum. It crosses what was once a great, flowing stream with a waterfall into the canyon right in front of Spruce Tree House, one of the great ancient ruins of the park.
Petroglyph Point Trail Difficulty: Strenuous Distance: 2.4 miles (3.9 km) roundtrip Elevation Change: 227 feet (69 m) Trailhead: Spruce Tree House Overlook, by the Chapin Mesa Museum
A rugged and adventurous trail with steep drop offs. Hikers traverse the side of Spruce Canyon, squeezing between boulders and descending narrow stone staircases to reach a large petroglyph panel at 1.4 miles (2.3 km). From here, hikers must climb a 100-foot (30 m) cliff, scrambling up rocks and uneven sandstone steps to the mesa top, before returning through pinyon-juniper forest on the mesa top to complete the loop.
We were lucky, very lucky to get a tour of Cliff Palace. We knew nothing about Mesa Verde, just that it was a national park, and I wanted to see the national parks and monuments. Perhaps it is fortunate I am writing this three weeks late.
Built approximately 1190, and added to until 1260, it was abandoned by 1300. It is the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and one of the most impressive. It was built late in the Pueblo III period, the most impressive building period. As we saw in Chaco Canyon, people traveled impressive distances, and trade products came from the west coast and Mesoamerica (Central America).
In 1888 Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason would rediscover it. The Wetherill family continuously moved before settling on the Mancos River, starting the Alamo Ranch. Alamo is derived from the Spanish word for cottonwood. Benjamin Wetherill had five sons, Richard being the oldest. The young men enjoyed searching the canyons in winter when ranch work was done. They had discovered minor cliff dwellings.
They had good relations with Indians, and although Richard had only a high school education, he read and studied a lot. “Meanwhile, they befriended the Ute chief, Acowitz. One day, twenty miles down the Mancos from the ranch, Acowitz walked up to Richard Wetherill as he stared at the twisting bends of Cliff Canyon, where he had never been.
At that moment, Acowitz chose to tell his cowboy friend something he had told no other white man. far up Cliff Canyn, near it’s head, he avowed, stood many houses of the ancientt ones. “One of those houses,” said Acowitz, “high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.” From: “In Search of the Old Ones”, by David Roberts.
Continuing: “Almost two years passed. On a bitter day in December 1888, with snow in the wind, Richard and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason rode horseback along the rim of Mesa Verde above Cliff Canyon, tracking cattle that had strayed far from their usual pastures. Twenty-five miles from the Alamo ranch, the cowboys knew they faced a cold bivouac under the pines before they could bring the cattle in.
A looping track drew the two men near the mesa’s edge, where a cliff dropped sheer to the talus below. They dismounted, walked to the rim, and gazed east across the head of Cliff Canyon. Suddenly Richard blurted out a cry of astonishment.
Half a mile away, in the cliff forming the canyon’s opposite wall, loomed an overhang that sheltered a natural cavern fully four hundred feet long by ninety feet deep. Inside it stood the pristine ruins of an ancient city, more than two hundred rooms built back-to-back of stone and mud, dominated by a round three-story tower. So this was the place Acowitz had told Richard about! “It looks like a palace”, murmured Mason.”
I love the way the original park buildings were made to resemble the cliff dwellings. The ancient ones were small, the women 5′ and men 5’5″, so doors were smaller. Windows were smaller before glass. Doors were smaller too, although they may have hung a rug or deer hide.
In 2015 the National Park lit luminaries in Cliff Palace for a centennial celebration. From the Durango Herald:
A store at the Morefield Campground has all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast as well as breakfast burritos starting at 7:00. two nice, older guys were working the kitchen. Their computer wasn’t working, so I went to the store to pay. I had the burrito and Martha the pancakes, both of which were very good.
We went down the mountain and turned west on 160, and found Suburban Propane Supply. They didn’t open until 8:00 and we were a couple of minutes early. Soon a man got out of his car and bid us good morning. He looked a lot like John, my great lab man. He was a retired Air Force airplane mechanic and was born and raised in Cortez and had returned after seeing a lot of other places.
He asked where we had been, and Martha told him. His eyes lit up when he heard Monument Valley. “Did you go to John Wayne Point?” He is a big John Wayne fan and has (or had) all of his movies until he got divorced. It seems his wife kept some of them. John Wayne was in 250 movies! He talked about the first one, where he just made an appearance.
He said the climate has gotten a lot more temperate here. When he grew up, the snow would get up to your waist, but they don’t have snows like that any more. We asked where a car wash was, and he told us “Third stop light, on your right.”
I gave the truck a much-needed wash, and will return with the trailer Sunday on our way to Canyon of The Ancients. Next up was a haircut. We went into Cortez Barbering where a father and son worked. The son had recently returned to town. Both are excellent barbers!
Next stop was Ace Hardware for a better mouse trap. We picked up a pack rat at Chaco Canyon, and our cheap mousetraps weren’t good enough. He was picking them clean without tripping the spring – at least I hope it is a he! I would learn at Mesa Verde that mice proliferated at these ancient places where they stored so much corn and other grains in rooms. Ancestors of these ancient mice are still there!
This is a big Ace Hardware with a lot of help all over the store. I went to the bathroom while Martha selected a couple of traps. There was one sticky trap that looked good. Our mouse jumps over a short wall into a recessed area, so it would be a good place to catch him.
We asked about breakers, since I might replace a second breaker that is heating up. James took us to the area with breakers, but I wasn’t sure if it was the same as the one I changed.
It was such a nice store, we wandered around looking for possible things we needed. We kept running into James, who was most helpful. Martha asked him about our mouse trap selections, and he offered to show us his favorite. He said the sticky one is good, but then you have to somehow kill the mouse. Good point.
He asked us where we were from and what we had seen. He worked for AT&T for his career, then moved here to be near the grandchildren. He told us to be sure to see the trading post down the street where they have high end Indian things.
Taking James’ advice, we walked a block or so to Notah-Dineh Trading Company and Museum. Notah is what the Ute tribe calls themselves, and Dineh is what the Navajo call themselves. It is a very cool store with high quality things and a lot of history. The best we could do was to take in as much as we could in an hour, because we had a tour at Mesa Verde at 2:30.
Established by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the park occupies 52,485 acres (21,240 ha) near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. With more than 5,000 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”, or more specifically “green table mountain”) is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
Starting c. 7500 BC Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians known as the Foothills Mountain Complex. The variety of projectile points found in the region indicates they were influenced by surrounding areas, including the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Later, Archaicpeople established semi-permanent rock shelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BC, the Basketmaker cultureemerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 AD the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture.
The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Rio Chama, the Albuquerque Basin, the Pajarito Plateau, and the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesa_Verde_National_Park
We went to the visitor’s Center for a more complete study. It was crowded, but we worked our way around exhibits and signs. Then we went for the mesa top loop drive, but getting there takes 30-40 minutes on a twisting mountain road and going through one tunnel. Several overlooks gave the big picture of the four corners area of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. We are driving “The Grand Circle” trying to see all the National Parks and Monuments. These parks house some of the most incredible stone, rock, field and cliff structures that were built around 1,000 years ago. All of these sites were abandoned around 1300. As the modern Indians say, “We are still here. We just moved.”
Mostly, they lived below the mesas, in the many natural alcoves that provided protection and cover. There was more water then, and they developed farming techniques and incredible building techniques. They are known for their beautiful bowls, rock art and baskets. So many questions run through my mind. Why did they live there? How did they live there? How did they climb those cliffs? Why was it abandoned all over the Colorado Plateau? What were they afraid of?
Early Anglo explorers of these dwellings were often so struck with these places, they became obsessed, like Richard Wetherill, Dominguez, Escalante, Jackson, and others. I am reading a book called, “In Search of the Old Ones” by David Roberts. He too became obsessed in his travels and study, looking for answers, but also just being in these sites thrilled him.
For the many tribes still living in these areas, these areas are sacred. They believe these were their original homes, and the spirits are still there. They are not interested in thousands of people walking through these places. They don’t want them dug up for archaeological study. Yet, they often let their cattle and horses graze the land.
Perhaps cursed by the spirits of Chaco Canyon, our pack rat licked the peanut butter off two mouse traps, so I put Swiss cheese on them.
The 17-mile drive out of Chaco Canyon is excruciating. Roads in the park are paved, but for five miles it is one of the worst roads I have ever driven, and I have driven some rough roads searching for trout. Five miles an hour was my average speed for those five miles. It took an hour and 15 minutes to drive the 17 miles. Even then the paved road was really bumpy. There had been reports of bad storms for our three-night stay, but we had near perfect weather. If bad storms come, you could be trapped in the canyon. There are several areas that could wash across the road, making it unpassable, especially if you are pulling a trailer. There is a wash that the road crosses. A sign instructs you not to cross if there is ANY water. There was a little water when we came in, and thankfully no water going out.
The road passes through Indian land, Navajo I think. This treasure of a park is beautiful and accessible. You can walk up to the ruins, around and above them. The campground couldn’t be any more pleasant, right up against the canyon walls with some ruins at the bottom. If that road was paved all the way in, tour busses would be lined up, putting at risk a delicate environment that is sacred to many Indian tribes. Although torture driving in and out, it is well worth it!
We stopped at a Safeway in Aztec to resupply. The parking lot was packed on a Monday. It turned out to be the best Safeway I have ever been in. They had everything we needed and all the employees were nice and helpful. We barely got everything in the refrigerator, but we did. Then back on the road, crossing a big mountain and down into the town of Mancos, Colorado. We needed a mouse trap. We had a pack rat get into the trailer in Chaco Canyon. I think I chased him out, but he came back in.
We stopped at a Family Dollar that also was one of the best I have been in, and also very nice help, who walked us right to the mouse traps. We drove on to the Mesa Verde Visitor’s Center. Unlike Chaco Canyon, you can’t walk to or through the ruins, you must sign up for a guided trip. A ranger told us everything was booked. Martha got right on her phone, searching for an opening and found two, one to Cliff Palace and one to Balcony House, two of the best sites. There are nearly 5,000 archeological sites in the 54,000 acres of Mesa Verde.
tarting c. 7500 BC Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians known as the Foothills Mountain Complex. The variety of projectile points found in the region indicates they were influenced by surrounding areas, including the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Later, Archaicpeople established semi-permanent rock shelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BC, the Basketmaker cultureemerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 AD the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture.
The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Rio Chama, the Albuquerque Basin, the Pajarito Plateau, and the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesa_Verde_National_Park
We drove up a steep mountain to Morefield Campground, where you can drive around and select your spot. After 3 trips around, we picked a nice, shady spot.