Pot Creek: Best kept secret archeological site in Taos

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How about giving your holiday guests a sneak preview of Taos' least-known archeological site while it's still closed for revitalization? For 25 years or so this little gem has been closed to visitors. But while still officially closed, the Forest Service turns a blind eye to eager curiosity seekers.

So, if you want to give your guests just one more enchanting glimpse of ancient life in the Southwest, let me suggest this hidden little piece of ancient history. Actually, it is the only Anasazi site I know of around here. I'm going to lose friends by telling you about it.

For a number of years now, a few of us have enjoyed the privacy of an afternoon stroll back into Anasazi history. And they fear that wider knowledge of the site will attract others to spoil our little bit of archaic solitude. However ... being the cad that I am, I'm taking the risk to let you in on our little secret. It's the Pot Creek Cultural Site, which is concealed behind "Closed" signs on the entrance gates.

Discovery of Pot Creek Cultural Site

This is a site that was re-discovered by Luria Vickery in the early 1970s while doing work on an advanced degree in archaeology. In 1992 a Forest Service team, under the cultural guidance of a Picuris Pueblo representative Richard Mermejo, and a representative of Taos Pueblo, spent a considerable sum shoring up the remains of an ancient Pot Creek pueblo dwelling and kiva, making it available to the public.

It included a dozen interpretive signs spaced out along a hardened pathway with benches for contemplation at rest stops. The signs and benches are still there in surprisingly good condition after 25 years of neglect.

Back then, the Forest Service also developed a paved parking area with rest rooms, which sadly deteriorated beyond repair. A docent lived on the site at the time, providing information and guided tours. Of course, there is none today. Since then, the site has gone into serious neglect and has been closed for the past few decades.

In the footsteps of the Ancient Ones

There is archeological evidence that pueblo people dwelled here at least a thousand years ago. And, according to Southern Methodist University archaeologist Mike Adler, a peak number of inhabitants occupied the site in its heyday in the late 13th century A.D. Adler also told me about current Forest Service revitalization of the site. He said Rangers Paul Schilke and Craig Saums were having work done on the gradual revitalization of the visitor facilities at the site.

Adler said he hoped they'd be able to follow through with efforts to restore the kiva so that visitors will be able to once again enter [via] a replica of the traditional kiva ladder to explore it.

That's future-talk though. Today the kiva is closed, though its entrance is visible just a step or two from the pathway. I often visit the site and lately I've noticed more and more improvement and clean up of the site. The Forest Service is contracting bits and pieces of the project with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which is a local Americorps operation. They are doing carefully supervised professional-level work on the site.

I spent a few days this past fall with one RMYC group of youngsters who took on the heavy lifting to repair and harden the mile-long pathway through the site. They also rebuilt wooden bridges that cross several drainages on the grounds and cleaned up considerable rubbish around the site. These courteous and industrious young people camped on the site, living good-naturedly through a rainstorm on one of their workdays. Two of the youth, Sequoia Lefthand and Lake Romero from Taos Pueblo, discussed the site with me and their concerns.

Lefthand has an understanding that this particular site was more of a summer farming settlement for Pot Creek people, whose permanent residence was in a far larger community deeper in the forest.bShe said she'd heard that, in time, this site was abandoned and destroyed by fire. Lefthand told me that she might even be descended from these people, for they eventually migrated to either Taos or Picuris Pueblos.

Surviving the monsoon

I admired how nonchalantly the young people spoke of their night [spent] in the big summer rainstorm. One of them, Ricky Reid from Taos, pointed to his sleeping bag he'd hung in a tree spread out to dry. It had gotten entirely soaked during the night. Others had less dramatic dealings with the downpour, Lefthand claiming she had slept through it completely dry and comfy.

Their ages range from 18 to 24. Crew leader Alex Rendon, 24, had worked previously on other RMYC projects. He and Derek Gallegos both came up from Española to work on the project. Nate Romero was there from Mora and two others, Jared Aragon and Sydney Dunton, were from Taos.

How to get there

Drive six miles southeast of Paseo de Pueblo Sur on State Road 518 east of the stop light at Ranchos de Taos, until you see a signed and closed gate on the left. There are two gates to the site spaced a couple of hundred feet apart. They each have parking spaces in front of them that can accommodate two to three vehicles. If full, drive on another 50 feet or so to where there is another closed drive which can accommodate another two or three vehicles. Duck under the gate with the "closed" sign and follow your nose.

The pathway begins on the opposite side of the large paved parking area. The path winds out and around the site through a forest of pinon pine and cedars, making a full circle back to the other side of the parking area. The path is hardened sufficiently enough for wheelchair use.

Today's peaceful forest was not there in the Pot Creek dwellers' days. The site at that time was a wide-open farm field. The forest has grown up over the past four to five hundred years, centuries after the pueblo peoples departed. It is also a fine place to bring your guests to acclimate, without getty dizzy, to hiking at our mile-and-a-half high altitude. It is so close to town that you can probably go hike around the site, dawdle a bit here and there, and be back in town before lunch.

And please, promise you won't tell anyone about what you've read here, sparing me loss of too many friends.

William Kemsley is the founder of Backpacker magazine and co-founder of the American Hiking Society, the only representation for hikers at the federal government level. At 89, Kemsley still hikes daily. He is also active with other hiking leaders to get Congress to close the gaps on the National Trails. The Appalachian Trail is the only one of the 11 National Trails that is continuous from one end to the other. Visit williamkemsley.com.

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