Mesa Verde National Park: Petroglyph Point

Our splendid day, Saturday, August 28, continued with an afternoon on Chapin Mesa, where we filled in some of the gaps of the 700 Years Tour we’d been on the day before. The centerpiece of the afternoon was our hike to see the panel of Ancestral Puebloan rock art at Petroglyph Point and making a few trail friends along the way.

As we drove down to Chapin Mesa from the lodge area I took note of how long it took. We’d have an early morning arrival time the following morning for our much-anticipated tour of Square Tower House. Happily, it was really barely a fifteen-minute drive from the lodge.

We stopped at Square Tower House to have a look at it from above. During our mesa top tour visit the previous morning, there’d been an emergency situation with someone on the tour down to the cliff dwelling, so our group had stayed out of the way and gotten back on the bus. Now we had a chance to go and have a look.

Square Tower House

Square Tower House is easily the most beautiful of the cliff dwellings we saw at Mesa Verde, situated as it is just so in a shallow alcove.

Square Tower House

In its center is a four-story tower that is the highest structure in the Park, and for centuries would likely have been one of the tallest structures west of the Mississippi River.

Square Tower House

I again warily eyed the ladder, step, and trail system down the cliff of Spruce Canyon. It would be our route down to Spruce Tree House in the morning.

After our brief visit to Square Tower House we continued on the Mesa Top Loop and stopped at Sun Point Pueblo, which we’d bypassed on the tour.

Tower foundation

Sun Point Pueblo was one of the final mesa top villages to be constructed (around 1200). It was situated around a multi-story tower next to a kiva, with a subterranean tunnel connecting the two.


The kiva-tunnel-tower connection calls to mind the Pueblos’ foundational spiritual belief of emergence from one world to the next. Emergence from the kiva calls back to the peoples’ original emergence into our world.


Image: Sean M. Santos

Above is an example of what Ranger Drew had been talking about on the Mug House tour: a young Ancestral Pueblo man is depicted as all but naked, which was quite probably an unusual circumstance. But here it is reinforced on an interpretive illustration.

Sun Point Pueblo did not fall to ruin in the way we contemporary folks might think. In a centuries-old tradition, it was dismantled and its stones repurposed into nearby cliff dwellings, quite possibly in Square Tower House.

Cliff Palace

We continued on to have another look-see at Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace

It was still early enough in the day that the overhang of the alcove cast deep shadows on the cliff dwelling. We decided to return later when the light was better.

Then we rolled into the nearby historical administrative district, where our tour had concluded.

We used the restroom and got ready for our hike to Petroglyph Point.

Hey there, Stephen Mather.

Spruce Tree House

Petroglyph Point Trail is a 2.4-mile loop that drops from the historical district into an offshoot of Spruce Canyon, past Spruce Tree House and then along the canyon wall to the petroglyphs. Then it climbs up onto the mesa and through the piñon-juniper woodland back to the historical district.

Spruce Tree House is currently closed to the public because the Park Service has discovered that the entire 200-ton overhang of the alcove is unstable and could fall onto the cliff dwelling.


Not far down the trail we came to a fork. To the right, the trail continued along the bottom of Spruce Canyon, eventually looping back to the mesa top to the west of the historical district.

Our route took us left, immediately ascending via stairs to a fairly strenuous trail along ledges in the cliff.

As we hiked along, we watched for evidence of human use. And also gazed out at the canyon.

We didn’t see much evidence—any really—of Ancestral Puebloan presence along the trail.

Spruce Canyon

Northern Plateau Lizard

Human made or naturally occurring grooves?

Although we noticed no ancient presence, we definitely heard a contemporary presence. Someone ahead of us on the trail was jabbering loudly enough that the voice echoed, particularly as we entered an amphitheater-like section of the canyon. Sean remarked at how noisy they were and kept saying, “Shush” to the air.

Everything began to look like a potential petroglyph, but no.

Finally we spied some Ancestral Puebloan architecture along a ledge beneath a large alcove.

It felt like we were getting close to the petroglyphs now. We were quite high on the canyon wall, and it felt like we were running out of canyon before the curve where this side canyon fed into Spruce Canyon proper. According to the map, the petroglyphs were before that point.

The views to the northwest up the main part of Spruce Canyon had opened up considerably.

Then suddenly we came upon the talky people. Rather, we came upon the talky person, Olga, a registered nurse who had emigrated from Russia a few decades ago. She was hiking with two companions. The fellow was a retired Honolulu firefighter and long ago emigrant from The Philippines. His significant other was a retired psychiatrist and professor, originally from the Bay Area, who now lived in Longmont, Colorado.

Olga and the couple were hiking companions in the sense that they had met each other earlier on the trail and had decided to hike together. Sean and I decided to hike with them. So now we were a jolly group of five.

Spruce Canyon

As we hiked along chatting, the psychiatrist fretted that we had missed the petroglyphs. Sean and I said that we hadn’t seen them either, so hopefully we hadn’t.

Then suddenly there they were. Sean and I were bringing up the rear of our little group, and our three companions were about to walk past the petroglyphs when we shouted, “Stop! Stop!”

The psychiatrist observed that they would definitely have walked past them if we hadn’t been there.

A petroglyph is an image pecked or engraved on a rock surface. According to one Hopi elder, this petroglyph, found on Mesa Verde’s Petroglyph Point Trail, may tell the story of two clans (the Mountain Sheep Clan and the Eagle Clan) separating from other people and returning to their place of origin. Notice the boxy spiral shape…This likely represents a sipapu, the place where Pueblo people emerged from the earth (believed to be near the Grand Canyon)…

Like many petroglyphs, this panel seems intended to communicate the oral stories that keep Native American cultures alive. Sadly, some ancient petroglyphs at Mesa Verde have been destroyed by recent fires. On the other hand, many tribes believe that human creations such as these were meant to fall back to the earth rather than to be preserved beyond their natural life. The stories and interpretations of them change over time, much as stories do that are passed down in your own family and culture.

– National Park Service

To say that the panel was well worth the hike would be a huge understatement. Unlike the abstract petroglyphs that we had seen at Lava Beds National Monument, these images had clearly recognizable figures.

Bighorn Sheep.

Mountain Lion.

Wild Turkey.

In addition to human figures and a sense of narrative flow.

Our companions offered to take our photo. Thanks, Roland, the retired firefighter!

After we had all had a chance to gaze at and admire the art, we continued on.

Spruce Canyon

Past the petroglyphs, the trail ascended almost immediately up to the mesa top in a steep scramble. Our new psychiatrist friend observed that the trail had been more rugged than she had been expecting.

Once up on the mesa, however, the trail became a broad, flat, graded path through the piñon-juniper woodland back to the historical district. As we walked along, we chatted some more. The nurse was on a solo adventure in the West. The couple was on a weekend getaway. They were envious of how much we were enjoying the lodge in the Park. Their accommodations were a bit disappointing.

The psychiatrist and I actually covered a lot of conversational ground on our walk: politics, gentrification, aging parents, water policy, the mental health benefits of nature, the benefits of starting one’s own business, how great retirement is. Sean teases me that I do love chatting with “a woman of a certain age.” Someone who could be played by Diane Lane, say, in a movie.

Spruce Canyon with Sleeping Ute Mountain

Plains Prickly Pear

As we neared the historical district and the end of the trail, Olga the nurse touched a prickly pear and got some spines embedded in her hand. Good thing she’s a nurse?

Spruce Tree House

As the trail curved around the upper end of the little side canyon, Spruce Tree House came back into view.

Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House

The trail had taken us around and backset from the alcove overhang. It was frightening to think that all that rock was actually unstable.

The hike had take about ninety minutes. It was now just after 5pm. We said farewell to our new trail friends and headed back to the car.

Cliff Palace

We left the historical district and drove the short distance over to the Cliff Palace overlook.

Cliff Palace

At this point in the afternoon, the sun was angled enough that we had a much better view under the alcove into the massive cliff dwelling.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

Even though we weren’t able to tour it that year, it was special to get to see it an photograph it without tour groups.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

After I was done taking photos, we climbed back into the car and drove off of Chapin Mesa to the lodge.

In our room, we showered and fussed about beginning to pack and gather things together for our departure in the morning.

Then it was time for our final dinner reservation in the dining room. We did not have our favorite server, Brian, from the night before. But we said hello to him.

Sean reiterated how much he was enjoying Mesa Verde. Even though we would be moving on the next day, we had one more adventure left in this special place.

After dinner, we did a little bit of “laundry,” rinsing out our quick-drying hiking clothes while we had access to a shower. We’d be camping for the rest of the trip until we circled back to Denver.

We spent the rest of the evening reading and relaxing before bed.

After we’d turned out the lights, we heard coyotes howling nearby, marking the end of a truly splendid day in the National Parks.

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