Sunday, May 8, 2011

Falls Creek Archeological Area

The Falls Creek Archaeological Area is a 1500 acre section of the San Juan National Forest in a hidden valley on the northwest side of Durango in southwest Colorado. The trail head is in the Junction Creek area, reached by a west turn at 25th Street off of Highway 550. After the road name changes to Junction St, there is a north turn on County Road 205. At the north turn, there is a sign pointing out Falls Creek.

This 1500 acre area of the forest preserves archaeological sites from the Ancestral Pueblo Basketmaker period of 1500 to 2500 years ago. The area is divided in half by County Road 205 with the western half closed to all activity including hiking. There is a network of trails open in the eastern half of the area. I started my hike at the interpretive sign, but there are other pullover places along road 205 where hiking or mountain biking could start.
The valley floor is very flat and grassy with impressive cliffs on both sides near the trailhead. After a short distance, there is an option to hike on the east shoulder above the valley floor. At the top of the east shoulder, there are some views into the main Animas Valley area that is north of Durango.
The most obvious feature of the closed area is a large alcove in the cliffs above the grassy fields. A sign along the road says there is the Basketmaker Trail going up, but it is only used during special tours. Brief information on the Forest Service web site says there are two rock shelters, but only one is obvious.

Many artifacts from the shelters were found during excavation, but it isn’t mentioned where these artifacts are now. It is mentioned that the rock shelters have pictographs on the back walls.
In the north segment of the trail, the route descends steeply from the shoulder down to Falls Creek. The forest along the early segment of trail is mostly Pinon Pines and Junipers with Gambel Oaks. There are a couple of small bridges to cross the creek. In the creek area, there are more Ponderosa Pines and I saw one spruce. I continued a short distance further north into Ponderosa Pine forest and turned around after 1:00 hour of hiking.
The north part of the valley floor area includes a wetlands area. The interpretive sign at the trail head mentions that the Basketmakers grew corn and squash in addition to hunting deer, rabbits, turkeys, and porcupine, and gathering.

While hiking, near the wetlands, I could hear the continuous croaking of frogs, but didn’t see any ducks. There would have been Pinon nuts and acorns to find here. Native grasses and Yucca fibers were used to manufacture baskets, rope, sandals and bags.
There is some additional information on the Falls Creek area at the Animas Historical Museum, located nearby at 31st Street and West 2nd Avenue. The Museum is itself an historical site, the old Animas City School built in 1904-05. The school served until 1967. Restoration began in 1978 and is ongoing.
The Museum information mentions that the shelters were discovered in 1937. In addition to the two rock shelters, there is a talus slope village site. From the hiking area, one of the shelters is clear, but the second shelter and the talus slope locations are vague.

The sites were excavated by Dr. Earl Morris in 1940. Dr. Morris is also known for work around Mesa Verde and the Ute Mountain Park area. One of the hikes offered at Ute Mountain visits the Morris 3 site.

The people here were identified as from the Basketmaker II era and evidence of house construction was uncovered. The house description sounds like the interpreted early pit houses that are on display on the Mesa Top Tour at Mesa Verde.
There are a few artifacts on display at the museum. The people manufactured tools from the local stone and bone resources that are mostly still visible. There were also materials, like obsidian, lignite and shells found that are not locally available and could only have been traded into the area.

These imported materials were often used in making beads and pendants for personal use. These personal artifacts were considered important as giving clues to the spiritual and emotional life of the residents.

My hike from the introductory sign to beyond Falls Creek lasted for 2:00 hours on a 70 F degree early May day. I saw one other hiker and several mountain bikers during my hike.

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