Spruce Tree House

Saturday, July 13

While in Hesperus for Genae’s family reunion, I had a few free hours to attempt a hike in Mesa Verde National Park. After a nice breakfast with the family, I headed to the park. I didn’t have the means to pack a lunch, so I resigned myself to making a detour to the Subway in Cortez. When passing through Mancos, though, I spotted a grocery with a deli and saved myself some time and miles. I got a turkey club sandwich, a triple decker made out of Texas toast. I wondered how I’d open my mouth big enough to eat it.

I stopped in at the visitor center. It’s a new facility just outside the gates of the park. There, I consulted with a ranger. Mesa Verde is built more for people driving around than walking. There aren’t that many hikes in the park, and they really want you to stay on the trail. This makes a good deal of sense – the plateau is riven with canyons, and every one featuring a sheer sixty foot drop. This time of year, it’s also sunny and quite warm. There isn’t any water on the plateau and not much shade, either.

I decided the best option was the Petroglyph loop at the Spruce Tree House. This ruin is self-guided, where Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House required tour tickets. There is a seven mile loop hike available, but it doesn’t feature any ruins. So the Petroglyph hike it was, at 2.4 miles.

First stop, though, was a quick tour through the Spruce Tree House. It’s a bit smaller than the the Cliff Palace, but quite striking nonetheless. A forest fire burned here last year, and was within yards of the ruins. The trees are all piƱon pine and scrub oak. Even the best of the trees in the area looked half dead before the fire. Where it burned, there are a few dead trunks standing but only grass otherwise. Most of the road atop Chapin Mesa goes through the burn area.

The trail from the parking lot to the ruins goes down one side of the canyon and up to the ruins from below. The trail switches back several times and is paved with asphalt. In the morning the ruins are cool and shady. It’s only a couple hundred yards from the parking lot to the site, but lots of people were having difficulty. There’s a kiva that you can climb down into, but for the most part you are restricted to the area directly in front of the ruins and entry is forbidden.

The Petroglyph Point trail starts below the ruins and runs beneath the sheer slab of the rock formation that forms the top of the mesa. Sometimes flat rocks are stacked to make staircases, in other places steps are hewn from the living rock. The trail was not very crowded. It had rained the previous evening and it looked like only a couple dozen people had walked here since. It didn’t take long for me to pass a couple groups stopped at the various markers, reading the guide.

It was much warmer than I’m used to, and I went through water at about four times my normal route. After about a half mile, I was as secluded as I could get there. I could hear the group behind me yelling and laughing. The trail follows the bottom of the cliff along the inside of the canyon, neither climbing nor descending; a circuitous route.

A bit less than a mile along the trail are the petroglyphs. I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. The first time I saw petroglyphs was on a week long rafting trip down the Green River in Utah. We stopped for lunch one day and took a short hike up the canyon to see them. I remember them as being quite vivid, and on a large scale. These were subtle and small. The sign was almost bigger.

Just before arriving there, I’d been hearing voices ahead of me on the trail. I thought I had caught up to another group. Turns out they hiked out on the loop backwards to where it descends the cliff. This loop is one way, though, and they didn’t go down. I wouldn’t have gone down those steps myself. No problem going up, but not my cup of tea to go down. They hollered down at me: “Is that the petroglyph?”

Before coming up, I saw them a few yards away at the top, posing for pictures. From below, it very much had the sense of “Hold my beer and watch this!” One false move and they’re a splash of color on the rocks below.

The return part of the loop goes along the edge of the canyon, just above the trail below. There some places you can see the trail on the opposite side of the side canyon; I could hear hikers below me. Near the end of the loop, the trail crosses through the burned area just above the ruins. There I saw one giant flower; it was the only bright color in sight in any direction. Bees had found it and were going about their work. Who knows how far they have to fly each day? Not exactly a field of wildflowers.