Friday, 20-June – Hiking on Chapin Mesa in Mesa Verde National Park
Trip miles: 50 miles
Route taken: Mesa Verde Park Road to Chapin Mesa
Average Gas mileage: 27.9 mpg
Weather: cool (50F) in the morning, warmer (83F) with light breezes in the afternoon
Elevation: 7827ft -> 7000ft via 8572ft at Park Point
- glimpsing 3 young elk bucks on the Farming Terrace trail
- hiking the Petroglyph Trail on Chapin Mesa
- visiting the Spruce Tree Cliff-dwelling and Museum
We slept well last night with the cooler temperature, but it wasn't so cold that it was difficult to fix breakfast. Perfect camping weather. Today's agenda was flexible. There were several trails on Chapin Mesa that we still had not hiked but we were not sure which ones we would choose. On the way up the road to Chapin Mesa we stopped to view the Cedar Tower structure and hike the short Farming Terrace Trail to see how the early Puebloans built small checkdams and terraces to improve their crop production. While on the trail we spotted 3 young elk bucks a short distance ahead. Unfortunately they also noticed us and didn't pose for good pictures. They appeared to be well-fed and happy. Later in the museum there were displays of the large squash gourds and variety of corn cobs grown in these terraced fields. For their time (1200s AD) their farming methods seemed quite successful and the Puebloan's preservation methods were so good that corn left behind from 1000 years ago was still edible.
Further up the road we walked the paved path to the Spruce Tree House, one of the best-preserved cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde. From the end of that path we hiked the 2.8 mile Petroglyph Trail loop and were back at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum by noon. We debated about hiking the 2.4 mile Spruce Canyon loop trail. Unlike the Petroglyph Trail there were no ruins or artifacts or especially unique views to see along this trail; it was just a trail down to a canyon floor and back up again – similar to many we had hiked in the past few weeks. By noon there was not much shade on the Spruce Canyon trail so we opted to tour the museum instead. I was very happy with our decision!
The small Archaeological Museum was so interesting we spent an hour studying the displays. The dioramas depicting Puebloan life during the various historic periods were all hand made – everything from the human figures to the miniature pottery. They made it easier to understand the progression of skills these early people acquired. The displays of artifacts found in the Mesa Verde area were also curated in such a way as to highlight the advancements of skills here and the interactions with other Puebloan groups from nearby areas. Unlike the image we might have of isolated Pueblos tucked into each canyon, it is clear that the Puebloans ranged over large areas to trade with and learn from each other in order to succeed in this environment. Mesa Verde has over 5000 historical sites, not all of them accessible by the public. It is a veritable Disneyland for archaeologists!
From the Museum we drove back to the Far View sites, a grouping of several walled ruins forming a densely populated community of more than 50 pueblos between 900 and 1300 AD. The community included a reservoir and water collection system from the surrounding mesa area for domestic use by all the pueblos. The most interesting feature of these ruins was that they were reused and expanded during three different historical periods, pre-dating the cliff-dwellings by about 200 years. It is supposed that the Ancestral Puebloans followed a Matriarchal hierarchy in which women inherited land and husbands joined the wife's family collective. Even after some of the people moved to the cliff-dwellings, many people remained in the Far View communities on Chapin Mesa. These sites are well worth a 30-minute stop to explore.
Our final stop for the day was at Park Point Overlook. At 8572 ft of elevation, this is the highest point in Mesa Verde National Park. From the fire lookout there is a 360 degree view of the surrounding area for up to 100 miles. The placards name several of the mountain features seen on the horizon. This is also one of the few places with some cell phone service in Mesa Verde.
It was only 14:00, but our picnic table was already in the shade. Popcorn seemed like a good idea. We took our time snacking on the popcorn and looking over maps in the cool shade of the very quiet campground. Later, until it was time to make dinner, I sat in the nearby laundry room, which very conveniently had a bank of outlets above one of the long laundry folding tables -- recharging stations for electronic devices. Hubby stayed at the campsite and read his book. We considered hiking a 2-mile trail out of the campground when it cooled off, but by then we were too comfortable and relaxed to get up and go again.
With a black bear reported in the area, we took our usual bear country precautions, flushing the dirty dishwater down the toilet and being careful to not spill or drop any food or juices in our campsite. It took us a little longer to clean up using this method but we didn't want to be responsible for getting a bear killed because he found easy food to scrounge at our campsite. This particular bear was even reported to be chewing RV water hoses to get a drink.
Petroglyph Loop Trail – This 2.8 mile trail is much more interesting than its description in the park brochures. A self-guiding trail brochure is available at the trailhead. The lower half of the loop is more strenuous, making its way along the mesa wall just below the south rim. Although the trail provides rock steps and is reasonably 'manicured', there are some narrow passageways between rock walls and is strenuous in some places. The trail passes one small alcove ruin. At the far end of the loop is the large rock panel with an impressive variety of petroglyphs. From here the trail climbs to the rim and returns to the Museum via a very easy, flat trail. To see the petroglyphs without having to hike the strenuous lower section of the trail, walk out and back on the rim section. Near the museum is a dam structure illustrating how the Ancient Puebloans controlled water flow to improve crop production.
Spruce Tree House – This .5-mile paved trail leads down 100 ft to an alcove where this well-preserved cliff-dwelling is open for easy public access between 8:30 and 18:30 during the summer. A self-guiding brochure is available at the site and a Ranger is on-site to answer questions. Spruce Tree House is the third-largest alcove dwelling in Mesa Verde, with 130 rooms and 8 kivas. Because this pueblo is so sheltered under the alcove overhang at the head of Spruce Canyon, it does not have as much weather damage as other sites.