Day 81, Thursday, October 4, 2018
Mesa Verde National Park, Chapin Mesa
Can I just say that I love Mesa Verde!? I visited this park once before in 2014, and I was so excited to come back and explore more. I wrote about the history and my visits to Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Cliff Palace, as well as seeing the wild horses that live in the park, if you want to take a trip down memory lane…
On Thursday morning I left camp about 8 am, and on the way out I saw several Mule Deer – there were about a dozen of them! I stopped to take photos from my car of these beautiful animals with their huge ears.
I drove up to the Chapin Mesa, and did the loop road to visit the various viewpoints and overlooks. The various stops show the different time periods of habitation in the park, from the period when the Puebloan people constructed pithouses, which were partially sunken in the the earth and had poles erected with mud covering them.
Over time, they began building pole and mud homes directly on the top of the mesa. Later still, their most advanced construction came along; the cliff dwellings that these people are most known for. The cliff dwellings were first built on top of the mesa, beginning about 1200 they were built into alcoves in the cliffs to provide protection from the weather (and possibly from other ancestral tribal people). They were elaborate dwellings made from handmade bricks and support timbers. Some of the largest cliff dwellings here had dozens of rooms, and may have been home to hundreds of people.
Each stop along the tour has interpretive signs, so you can see the progression of the society. In all, the Puebloan people lived here between 550 and 1300 A.D., but the period of time when they lived in the cliff dwellings was the shortest period – only about 100 years. By about 1300, these dwellings were deserted and the inhabitants had moved on. Researchers do not know why.
My favorite stops are at Spruce Tree House, which is the best preserved cliff dwelling, and also one that you were able to hike down to when I was there in 2018. Unfortunately, it is current closed to visitors due to falling rocks above. I also really enjoyed the Sun Point Pueblo, Sun Temple and the Fire Temple. From the Fire Temple you get an excellent view across the canyon of one of the cliff dwellings in the park. I went on a tour of Cliff Palace in 2014, so I didn’t do the tour this time around. There is an excellent downloadable audio-tour available on the Mesa Verde National Park website if you would like to learn more!
Square Tower House is another cliff dwelling that you can tour during brief periods during the year. It wasn’t open for tours when I was there, but there must have been researchers there, because when I looked down from the overlook there were people there.
While I was on my driving tour of the viewpoints, I almost got caught in a huge hail, thunder and lightning storm, but luckily I made it back to my car just in time! The sky had looked pretty ominous and I had been watching it, so I’m glad I got under a roof quickly when the sky looked like it was going to open up! I sat in the car to wait it out, there was water running everywhere!
After my tour of the loop road, I went to the Cafe at the Chapin Museum for an early lunch. I had a steak salad; it was good, but the steak was a little tough.
Next I did one of my favorite hikes of the trip; the Petroglyph hike! This 2.5 mile hike was definitely on my bucket list. The trail starts at Spruce Tree House, but is considered a back-country hike and you are supposed to sign in at the Museum so they know who is out there.
Sadly, a man named Dale Stehling disappeared on this trail in June 2013. Although the area was extensively searched, no trace of him was found. In fact, Stehling remained missing until September 2020, when a hiker called in an anonymous tip. Stehling’s bones were finally found with his identification in a remote canyon that is closed to the public, about 4.2 miles from where he had gone missing. This area had also been searched in 2013, so there are certainly more questions than answers.
Despite the tragedy, the Petroglyph hike is an amazing hike. It is remote, despite being so close to the Chapin Museum, one of the most heavily populated parts of the park. It leads to a panel of Petroglyphs about 1.4 miles from the trailhead, with about 30 petroglyphs. It is fascinating to see this language left by the people who lived here over one thousand years ago. The hike is a bit strenuous, winding through the canyon at the base of a cliff, often with steep dropoffs on the other side. The trail isn’t always super obvious, and I could see how easy it would be to get lost if you weren’t paying attention. I was alone for the entire hike.
The most challenging part of the hike is where you have to use the foot and hand holds that are carved into the rock to scale the cliff and return to the top of the mesa. I was pretty nervous to try this part, but I also didn’t want to double back! I really had to psych myself up but I managed just fine, and I was so proud of myself! It was amazing! Once you are back on top of the mesa you just walk around the canyon to get back to the museum. It was such a fun hike!
That evening I took a shower a the campground facilities, and was treated to my first, “don’t poop in the shower drain,” sign. This friends, is why you always wear shower shoes when camping! EWWW!
That evening I got to bed about 10 pm, because I had to be up early for my Long House tour in the morning! I was awakened at 2:12 am by a coyote howling, but managed to get back to sleep after he stopped. There’s nothing like camping in a National Park!