MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, COLO. — Usually at this time of year, Mesa Verde National Park is covered under a foot or two of snow, and park employees loan out free snowshoes to visitors.
But unseasonably warm weather this year means visitors can lace up their hiking boots now to explore the archaeological preserve.
Park Ranger Sean Duffy, who has worked in the park for 12 seasons and lived in the area for 26 years, said this is the warmest February he has experienced.
The sunny weather allowed the Petroglyph Point Trail to open earlier than usual. The trail is a particularly interesting way to check out the park's largest petroglyph panel.
"During the winter months, we normally shut down the lower section (of the Petroglyph Point Trail) because of snow," Duffy said.
Mesa Verde, which Spanish for "green table," spans more than 52,000 acres of the Colorado Plateau in the southwestern part of Colorado.
Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, running parallel to each other at the southern end of the park, boast the majority of almost 5,000 archeological sites that were home to the Ancestral Puebloan people for about 700 years. From A.D. 600 to 1300, the civilization flourished, leaving signs of farming, worshipping, creating art and using tools for today's archaeologists to study.
The roads through Mesa Verde run along various pit houses, where visitors can leave their motors running to check out a kiva, a room the Puebloans used for religious ceremonies. Spruce Tree House, the popular cliff dwelling pictured on Mesa Verde postcards and T-shirts, can be easily reached on a paved, half-mile trail.
The Petroglyph Point Trail is a 2.4 mile loop that begins and ends at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Because large stones make up the majority of the trail, mud doesn't affect it as much as other trails in the park. Still, Duffy suggests hiking the trail in the morning at this time of year to avoid mud, since the ground is more likely still frozen.
"(The trail) is popular because it brings you through microhabitats and lots of archeological sites," he said.
The trailhead shares the path of Spruce Tree House, and the cliff dwelling can be seen through the trees as the hike begins near the bottom of the forested Spruce Canyon.
Along the Petroglyph Point Trail are 34 markers that correspond to a trail guide hikers can pick up at the park's museum or visitors center. The majority of the markers point out plant species, and the guide explains their relevance to the Puebloans.
Although the main highlights of Mesa Verde are condensed closely into one area, the park is large and offers lots of other things to do.
In warmer months, locals enjoy hiking the Prater Ridge Trail, Knife Edge Trail and Point Lookout Trail, known as the Morefield Trails, at the north end of the park for their views of the Mancos and Montezuma valleys.
The park also boasts a large campground that rangers say never fills up, with amenities like a camp store and showers.
Go to nps.gov for more information.
Among the markers is the petroglyph panel and a couple other sites which, Duffy said, are commonly missed by hikers focusing on the trail.
Centuries-old Douglas firs make their presence known along the trail, especially to New Mexicans who are normally surrounded by juniper and piñon bushes.
The Douglas fir has stood tall in Mesa Verde's history, providing building material for the Puebloans to create their dwellings. The trees also played a role in the park's more recent history. In 1888, two ranchers discovered what is now called the Spruce Tree House while searching for lost cattle, according to the National Park Service's website. Coming upon the ruins from the top of the mesa, they climbed down a Douglas fir — then referred to a spruce tree — to reach the dwellings.
On Saturday afternoon, friends Maeve Kaarhus, of Durango, Colo., and John Brzovic, of Cortez, Colo., mostly had the trail to themselves as they climbed between large boulders to the top of the plateau.
The climbing, they said, is partly what attracts them to the trail, especially as it navigates the uneven ground on the canyon's side. The two reached an enormous sandstone surface reaching out into the canyon and decided to stop there to have a seat and take in the view.
"The views, the petroglyphs are wonderful, remarkable," Kaarhus said.