May 2005

Is too much of Mesa Verde off limits?

By Jim Mimiaga

Hikers looking to explore the vast backcountry at Mesa Verde National Park have few options, a criticism often heard from locals but defended by archaeologists as necessary to protect the park’s fragile historic resources.

But with the park’s 100-year anniversary approaching next year, officials are considering opening long-closed trails temporarily, and may build a new permanent one at the Far View Visitors center.

Most of Mesa Verde’s extensive, ruins-rich wilderness is closed to the public, including employees — a strict policy rarely seen on the usually access-friendly public lands in the nation.

Rather, the park experience is focused on controlled, guided tours of several famous cliff dwellings that are pre-arranged, often crowded, and strictly forbid leaving the beaten path, which is paved.

These educational tours, along with scenic drives to pullouts with canyon views of distant Puebloan ruins, are more popular than hiking excursions for most of the park’s more than half a million visitors each year, according to a 2001 exit survey.

But for dedicated neighborhood hikers looking to explore their local national park, there are only a handful of hikes that do not require a guide, most of which are under two miles long. Others register at a half-mile or less.

The exceptions are the Prater Ridge and Petroglyph Point trails. Prater tops out at five miles, a nice loop with a steep switch-back climb and good views, albeit through charred forests reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project. (Since 1994, there have been a six major wildfires that, all together, scorched two-thirds of the park’s signature pinon-juniper canyons and mesas.)

The other longer trail is the popular Petroglyph Loop, which spans just over two miles.

Hikers are supposed to check in with rangers before embarking and are not allowed to stray from designated routes. There are no overnight backpacking trails and dispersed camping is not allowed in the 52,000-acre park. For the hearty hiker, the non-guided trails feel like barely a warm-up when the end quickly arrives.

“It is all off limits, you can’t go anywhere,” stated Anne Berg, an avid hiker from Dolores and former park tour guide. “It is definitely not a hiker’s paradise because it is so minimal, and the ones that are open to the public don’t go to any ruins, except Petroglyph, which is cool but it is a short two miles. So, yes, I would like to see more trails.”

Duane Daniels, owner of Canyon Sports in Cortez, gets lots of queries about where to hike in the area, “but I don’t send them to Mesa Verde because there is not much to offer up there. Depending on their skill level, if they want desert hikes I usually suggest the Cedar Mesa or Comb Ridge area (in southeast Utah) because it’s convenient for car camping, and there are different canyons with ruins and petroglyphs to explore.”

Recognizing this, officials at Mesa Verde are considering opening up some historic trails to the public to celebrate the park’s Centennial birthday in 2006, said Supervisory Park Ranger Kathy McKay. But in part, it is also to offer access to locals who’ve already seen the major attractions many times.

“There are not a lot of trails compared to other national parks and I know that locals would like a lot more opportunity to get out there and explore more of the park,” she said.

For example, centennial celebration planners are considering offering guided half-day hikes and horse rides to Spring House, a cliff dwelling currently closed to the public. Access would be on an established trail, closed in the 1930s, that accesses the ruin and Wetherill Mesa via Spruce and Wickiup Canyons.

Other hikes proposed for historic trails during the centennial year are down Rock Canyon, also near Wetherill, and from Petroglyph Point to Square House, which passes by another ruin called Little Long House.

“I think this would encourage people to see the main cliff dwellings one day and then stay overnight and plan for a longer guided hike the next day,” McKay said, exactly the “Stay another day” theme pursued by tourism promoters.

A permanent new trail is proposed to connect the Far View Center and Lodge to the Far View ruin, a mile and a half away, McKay added. The trail would be a first for that area and especially a bonus for lodge residents looking for something to do like a morning jog or a nice sunset hike, she said.

Surprisingly, though, a 2001 exit survey done by the University of Virginia statistics bureau showed that 77 percent of people interviewed did not consider the limited hiking trails a problem.

“So what that tells us is that the average visitor is really focused on the cliff dwellings,” McKay said.

But besides the main focus of an archaeological experience, hiking is also rated as a high priority for visitors, reports Lynn Dyer, director of Mesa Verde Country, which promotes tourism for the Four Corners region. She cites a 1999 survey that showed hiking as the number one recreational activity.

“Our hiking brochure is by far our most popular,” Dyer said. “It is distributed throughout the county and it is the one we re-print and replace most often. It goes fast.”

When visitors at Mesa Verde request suggestions for more hiking, often the answer is Sand Canyon, in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This popular trail located in McElmo Canyon is practically under siege, especially on the weekend when several dozen cars, trucks and horse trailers crowd the limited trail-head parking.

Known for striking red-rock canyons interspersed with Anasazi dwellings tucked into overhanging cliffs, the area was designated a national monument in 2000, further adding to its popularity.

Hikers, runners, bikers and horseback riders enjoy vistas and rolling trails in a climate that is pleasantly arid most of the year. During the week, buses from Crow C a n y o n Archaeological Center and area schools drop students off for unique educational tours on human history.

While not as spectacular as Mesa Verde’s main attractions, Sand Canyon offers an equally profound perspective of what life was like for the first Americans 700 to 1,000 years ago.

But its near-overwhelming popularity and lack of ranger staff have led to more impacts, reports monument manager LouAnn Jacobson. Trail counters show that visitation in Sand Canyon jumped from 5,490 people in 2001 to almost 7,000 in 2003. Likewise, nearby East Rock Canyon saw visitation go from 5,509 visits in 2001 to 7,500 in 2003.

“We're seeing very high use and have been having problems with usermade trails,” she said, new paths that spring up from overcrowding. Already there are established but unofficial trails along East Rock Canyon, and a slickrock trail that connects to the Sand Canyon trailhead known to locals as Little Moab.

To help disperse the load to other trails and sites, Jacobson and her staff urge visitors to first visit the Anasazi Heritage Center and museum near Dolores. This way staff there can suggest other sites such as Lowry Ruin, Hovenweep National Monument and Painted Hand Ruin to ease pressure at Sand Canyon. With sensitive ruins, vandalism can be a problem whether inadvertent or in the overt form of looting. That’s the reason there is only one unguided trail to a cultural site in Mesa Verde.

“Petroglyph trail is the one trail where we say ‘go ahead, we’re not going to monitor you’ and we do have a problem with graffiti,” McKay said, noting that people policing the historic resource themselves does not always work without adequate training.

“People on their first visit don't necessarily know what is supposed to be there or what is legitimate, and Petroglyph Point is so remote, if we did get a report (of a vandal) it would be hours after it happened and likely too late to catch them,” she said.

“Looting is always a concern, and is why many of the historic trails were closed to the public back in the ’30s.”

But public monitoring can work, especially with educational training in the form of site stewardship, reports Victoria Atkins, supervisory interpretive specialist for Canyons of the Ancients.

Monument officials have re-routed visitors to Painted Hand ruin, an area that has been improved to handle more visitors.

Trained volunteers from the San Juan Mountains Association inform visitors of the fragile condition of ruins and proper etiquette such as not pocketing potsherds (it is a crime), or the destructive results of climbing on or in ruins.

“The volunteers help to answer questions and encourage visitors to leave no trace,” Atkins said. “It is very informal, but the extra eyes help where there is increased visitation and there have been no immediate signs of vandalism at Painted Hand since we started sending people there.”

Tourists not familiar with Southwest ruins “may not have gotten the word about the ethical messages,” she said. “So it is important to educate them, but government cannot do it all, nor do we want that. When locals invest their time, then to me that is the best kind of protection because it is local ownership that is valued, not because it is the law.”

Increased awareness has also helped to save what remains of cultural sites in the Grand Gulch Area of southeast Utah, rangers there report. Hiking and backpacking is allowed there, but is now on a permit basis and it is closely monitored by on-theground rangers.

At Banister Ruin, for example, extra monitoring has helped save a wide variety of unique pottery pieces that at one time covered the area but began to rapidly disappear in the years before the increased patrols.

A compromise that allows access to cultural sites on public lands, but with increased monitoring and education, could be the answer to critics who believe the preservationists have gone too far.

“Mesa Verde seems like an over-protected area for archaeologists to do their research,” argued Mancos resident Dave Sipe, who sells sculptures and art work on Highway 160 near the park entrance.

“A lot of people would enjoy more access to our public lands. The researchers have had their time, now it's time for it to be a more true public park.”