We woke up with the sun, but relaxed on our luxurious mattress pad for a good while before getting up, and driving out of Mancos State Park, marveling at our camp’s mountain view. I snapped a picture of the mountains, which we later recognized in the distance at the overlook in Mesa Verde National Park.
After stopping briefly at the visitor center, which was already packed with families at 9:30 a.m., we decided we didn’t really want a guided tour after all. We drove farther into the park to take in the scenery. We stopped at Geologic Overlook to get our first views. If you look closely in the picture above, you can see the same snow capped mountains from our camp in the background, almost blending into the clouds. Stopping for the short trail at this overlook also gave us an opportunity to view the smaller wonders, like the wildflowers and insect wildlife. The grasshoppers here were an important food source for the Ancestral Puebloans, who built the famous cliff houses while they lived here from 550 to 1200 AD.They also farmed squash, corn, and beans on the mesa tops. I wonder if they planted all three in the same plot using the Three Sisters method. This brilliant farming method takes advantage of sturdy corn stalks for the beans and the broad squash leaves for keeping the soil cool and moist, which would have been especially important for this arid region.
We didn’t feel like taking a crowded tour of Cliff Palace, the most famous set of buildings here, so we went to go see Spruce Tree House and walk the Petroglyph Point Trail. The paved part of the trail leading to the self-guided tour of the house was crowded with families, but once we got off the paved path, we saw far fewer people and got to really enjoy the wildness. Lizards were everywhere. There were many unusual plants, including this lovely blue grass that painted the fields on top of the mesas with swaths of burgundy.I captured a picture of this sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus) after he darted along the rock beside us. He was easy to identify because of the grey-blue stripe down his back. But without my camera’s magnificent zoom, I don’t think I would have been able to see him clearly enough to look him up in a field guide later.
The trail guide, which was made by the national park to describe the historical and natural features along this trail, mentioned that the dark streaks are called desert varnish, and caused by iron oxide and manganese oxide dissolved in the water that flows over the rocks. There are so many gorgeous geological formations in the park that there is a whole booklet about it from the park service.
The trail guide also mentions this white chalky powder on the rocks. Morgan and I both guessed that it was calcium, but neither of us expected it to crumble when we touched it. Specifically, this mineral/chemical is calcium sulfate, which is currently used as an ingredient of plaster of Paris. The ancestral Puebloans could have used this substance for cementing the stones of their houses together. Calcium sulfate is readily available here, because it dissolves into the water flowing through the rock, then the water evaporates leaving fresh chalky markings behind. The natural patterns left by the minerals are cool, but the petroglyphs this trail was named for are even more impressive. They were chiseled into the rock, not painted like pictographs, which has helped them stand the test of time.According to a group of Hopi men, the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, the carvings tell about the people emerging from the earth and settling in different regions. The simplified sketch on the back of the trail guide is lettered for easy reference.
Looking at the petroglyphs was awe inspiring. I wish we knew more of stories of the original Americans, but the tragic loss of the oral history and knowledge of the people who knew this land best were wiped out by European greed for more land and more gold, without consideration for the harder obtain and more valuable human knowledge of the land. The knowledge of what lichen to use for a toothache, what tree sap to use for waterproofing a basket, and what flower to use to stop bleeding is much more difficult to acquire than the land itself. Owning the land, without knowing how to live on it, without having a sense of how the living and non-living beings all interact, is empty of true value, because the resources close at hand are ignored and forgotten, in favor of resources from distant lands that must be shipped in or cultivated outside of their native range. The amount of knowledge about the American landscape that has been lost makes me deeply sad, but the Petroglyph Trail Guide I picked up in the park for the price of a 50 cent donation gave me hope, because nearly every entry about a plant discusses how it was used by the Ancestral Puebloans.People aren’t the only carvers in Mesa Verde. Beetles also carve at the trees, making intricate patterns of their own. Perhaps these are carvings from the infamous mountain pine beetle that has killed so many trees in the Rockies by promoting a fungal infection. Colorado’s parks are doing all that they can to encourage people not to transport fire wood from one region to another to prevent the spread of the beetles who stow away in logs. I hope piñon pines, like this little one bravely clinging to the side of the cliff don’t die off from the effect of the beetles.As expected, there are many cacti in Mesa Verde, but I was surprised by the number of wildflowers, grasses, and even ferns that lived in this arid environment.Desert plume (Stanleya pinnata) blooms beautifully and profusely along the trail, thriving despite small amounts of rainfall.Not everywhere in the park is short on moisture. In order for these two rock ferns to grow, there must be a steady source of water. Another clue that this part of the trail frequently has water is the amount of black desert varnish covering the sandstone. If I was lost out here and thirsty, the ferns and then the color of the wall would be indicators that I would be likely to find a seep spring as a source of water here. The Ancestral Puebloans must have also used clues like this to help them decide which alcoves to build in.As we followed the trail to the top of the mesa, we were treated with a grand view of the deep green pines, firs and junipers against the tan background of the stone.As we approached the end of the trail, we saw one last lizard, a Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris). Probably the most beautiful species I have seen in my life, and this large individual was a stunning, brightly colored specimen, who was an absolute ham about having his picture taken. It is hard to tell exactly how big he is from the picture, but he must have been longer than my arm, tail included.My final pictures from this hike remind me of the natural history of this place millions of years ago, when an inland sea stretched up across the center of America. You can see the preserved ripples from that time in some of the stones.Even some of the plants continue to look prehistoric. This is a very ancient place whose stone bones have seen the rise and fall of an ocean and an ancient people who lived with this land.