The Bizarre Disappearance and Discovery of Dale Stehling at Mesa Verde
Dale Stehling vanished without a trace for seven years after he wandered off from his family in the wilderness of Colorado. Within the southwestern United States, atop the arid red rocks and scattered forests of the Colorado Plateau, resides the highest concentration of archaeological sites in North America. At the core of this bygone society’s ruins is Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is the biggest archaeological preserve in the US at a massive 52,485 acres (21,240 ha). This World Heritage Site contains five-thousand archaeological sites, including six-hundred cliff dwellings, many watchtowers, petroglyphs, supposed “amphitheaters,” pit houses, granaries, and the mysterious, sunken, ceremonial structures known as kivas. Dale Stehling’s remains were found 7 years later but the National Park Service never said where or how he died.
The ancient Mesa Verde structures are highly sophisticated, and the geology is unique. The high Colorado Plateau is the point of centralization for meteorological systems which originate there and then deliver precipitation to the Central United States. Human habitation in the region stretches all the way back to the Clovis, Folsom, and the archaic periods, 9500 BC to 6000 BC, which allegedly culminated into the so called Basketmaker Culture around 1000 BC.
The Basketmaker Culture subsequently morphed into the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, about 900 BC. These later cultures are notable in the archaeological record for their master planning and the astronomical alignments of their villages, for their mysterious/sudden disappearance, and for evidence suggesting ritual murder and cannibalism.
Dale Stehling disappeared under normal circumstances, but it took 7 years to actually find his body. (National Park Service)
Dale Stehling and How He Disappeared In Mesa Verde, Colorado
On June 9 th, 2013, fifty-one-year-old Dale Stehling, his wife, and his parents were travelling from Texas up through Colorado, sightseeing. On that hot summer day, they experienced some car trouble and made an unplanned stop at Mesa Verde National Park. They arrived at the visitor center and at 4:30 pm.
Dale, an experienced hiker, went off on his own to view the Spruce Tree House ruins which were less than a quarter mile (402 meters) away and within eyeshot of the visitor center. These ruins are so close, and the visitor center so visible from them, Dale did not even bother to take any water. This was the last time his family would see him.
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On the approach to the Spruce Tree House ruins, there is an intersection with another, longer, and more dangerous trail known as Petroglyph Point Trail. This 2.4 mile (3.9 km) trail is a loop and while not a difficult hike, it is along a steep canyon and does have some exposure to cliff edges, going up in elevation to the top of the mesa where the petroglyphs cover the cliff-face.
The physical limitations of Dale’s wife and elderly parents prevented them from being going to the Spruce Tree House ruins, but Dale was an avid camper and outdoorsman.
Despite the steepness of the canyon ledges, the Petroglyph Point trail is not difficult, and typically takes the average person less than an hour to complete. Another family encountered Dale on the Petroglyph Point Trail. According to them, he was not distressed and made small talk, but that was the last time anyone saw Dale alive.
Though short the Petroglyph Point Trail has tricky sections like this one and it would have been possible for Dale Stehling to disappear here. (Billy McDonald / Adobe Stock)
The Disappearance and Search Effort
Because Dale’s family believed he would only be exploring the Spruce Tree House site, they reported him missing very quickly. When the park rangers realized he was not at the nearby ruins, they understandably figured he had taken the petroglyph trail. They were not alarmed, suggesting to the family that they wait an hour or two for him to return. But once two hours had passed since his initial departure, the family knew something was wrong and the search began.
This is an important aspect of this case because search and rescue operations normally do not begin in such an immediate, streamline way, with such a precise area to focus on. It’s also worth noting that while Dale did not have any water with him, he did have a cellphone, although the signal within the remote park may have been intermittent.
Immediately upon his vanishing, an intense search effort was launched. The intense search lasted for two weeks before being scaled down on the assumption that surely by then he had perished. At the height of the search, which again, was reached very quickly relative to how long he had been missing, included sixty searchers, two K9 units, specialized mountaineering units which rappelled down into the canyon, and even helicopter teams armed with FLIR technology (Forward Looking Infra-Red, cutting edge technology enabling searchers to distinguish living things from inanimate objects). Even with the head start, these highly trained searchers, and all these excellent resources, no trace of Dale was found.
Though Dale Stehling's remains were found, the only information provided by the authorities is that the body was discovered "west of Durango." But no one really knows what that means exactly! (karagrubis / Adobe Stock)
The Discovery of Stehling’s Remains And Lack of Details
In mid-September of 2020, supposedly, National Park authorities received an anonymous tip directing them to the remains of Dale Stehling. After seven years of searching, the remains were finally discovered on September 17 th, 2020.
Neither the National Park Service, ISB (Investigative Services Branch, the investigative arm of the NPS), nor the Montezuma County Police, ever revealed exactly where Dale’s remains were discovered. They did cryptically state that the remains were found 4.2 miles (6.8 km) from where Dale was last seen and that this was a remote and off-limits section of the park. They also indicated that there were no pathological indications of foul play.
Some media reports indicated that the anonymous tip came from a hiker, and some made reference to his remains being discovered “West of Durango.” It’s not difficult to imagine that a hiker exploring an off-limits area of the park would elect to remain anonymous. In fact, the vast majority of the enormous 52,485-acre (21,240-ha) park is off limits.
But the designation “West of Durango” is very strange because the town of Durango is thirty-eight miles (61 km) east of the park. However, the largest and most remote swath of the park (all of which is suspiciously off-limits) is in this section directly west of Durango.
The Mesa Verde terrain is varied and there are lots of places to hide in the darkness. (pattiphoto / Adobe Stock)
Many Unanswered Questions and Zero Answers
It is not at all uncommon for suburban folks, spoiled by their bubbles of material convenience, to go out into rugged areas with a somewhat cavalier attitude and end up succumbing to the harsh realities of nature. However, there are certain criteria which distinguish those incidents from truly bizarre cases like this.
If Dale fell off the trail and into a crevice, then the K9 units surely would have detected his pungent scent emanating from within, and his remains would not have been discovered so far away. This 4.2 miles (6.8 km) distance is troubling, given the geography of the park, because this could only have been to the west or south.
Towards the east would have lead right back to other paved road areas of the park with another visitor center etc., and to the north would mean he would have to have gone down into a canyon and scaled back up the other side, which was impossible. Neither south nor west would align with the reports that he was discovered “West of Durango.”
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Why wouldn’t the police or park officials be more forthcoming about where exactly he was found? It’s also not clear how Dale could have possibly veered off the trail, because if he didn’t fall into a ravine, then he must have gone off the trail one way or another. This makes little sense as Dale was an experienced hiker and camper, he had no water, and it was quite hot that day.
And if he was found several miles/kilometers away, not wedged in some ravine, how did the sixty searchers, and helicopters outfitted with FLIR, not find him in two weeks? Not to mention the additional seven years of less intensive searching. That distance is certainly within the initial, intensive search radius, and to be clear, this is not an indictment of search and rescue workers, who are brave, intelligent professionals, and who are experts at what they do.
Step House Pithouse, Mesa Verde National Park. (Dominic / Adobe Stock)
Answers & Anasazi Anomalies
Perhaps some insight can be gleaned by a more in-depth understanding of these ancient, mysterious ruins and the culture of their creators. All of the terms referring to these prehistoric inhabitants like Clovis, Basketmakers, Ancestral Puebloans, Paleo Indians and the Anasazi, are not what these people referred to themselves as, nor are they recognized by modern, Native Americans, with the exception of the Anasazi, which means simply “the ancient ones or the ancient enemies.”
The modern tribes of the area are the Navajo, Zuni, Paiute, and Hopi, but the tribe most closely associated with the ruins, are the Ute. The Ute were adamantly opposed to the so called “land swap” which enabled Uncle Sam to take possession of these ruins. So, there is significant anger, animosity and controversy regarding this entire region, which is associated with a wide range of strange, ancient stories.
In the late 19 th century AD, a family of local ranchers named the Wetherills established trust with the Ute who told the family “Deep in that canyon and near its head are many houses of the old people- the ancient ones. One of those houses, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there, it is a sacred place.”
In an insightful article written by explorer and author David Roberts entitled “Riddles of the Anasazi: What Awful Event Forced the Anasazi to Flee their Homeland, Never to Return?,” Roberts and his colleagues consult with archaeologists and explore normally off-limits sites in Colorado and Utah.
The remote cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park are mysterious and many continue to wonder why they were built in such inaccessible locations. (Jeff / Adobe Stock)
Why, And How, The High Ground?
In this article, Roberts addresses the overlooked (by archaeologists) issue of exactly how and why many of these cliff dwellings were built so high up in steep canyons.
“We were intrigued by the question of why the villages were built high in the cliffs, but we were equally fascinated by the “how”—how the Anasazi had scaled the cliffs, let alone lived there. During our outings, we encountered ruins that we weren’t sure we could reach even with ropes and modern climbing gear, the use of which is prohibited at such sites. Researchers believe the Anasazi clambered up felled tree trunks that were notched by stone axes to form minuscule footholds. These log ladders were often propped on ledges hundreds of feet off the ground. (Some of the ladders are still in place.) But they would not have been adequate to reach several of the dwellings we explored. I believe that archaeologists—who are usually not rock climbers—have underestimated the skill and courage it took to live among the cliffs. Beneath us, the cliff swooped 150 feet down, dead vertical to a slope that dropped another 450 feet to the canyon floor. The settlement, once home to perhaps two families, seemed to exude paranoia, as if its builders lived in constant fear of attack. It was hard to imagine elders and small children going back and forth along such a dangerous passage. Yet the ancients must have done just that: for the Anasazi who lived above that void, each foray for food and water must have been a perilous mission.”
Roberts, Riddles of the Anasazi
Connections have been made by some researchers between the cannibalistic peoples of Mesa Verde and the biblical Nephilim who had extra fingers and toes. (vrx123 / Adobe Stock)
An Elite Class Of Cannibals With More Than 5 Fingers?
Intertwined within the 400 miles (644 km) of ancient Anasazi “roads” are many structures, and among many of the obscure, seemingly secretive archaeological excavations of these sites have been found the remains of an elite class of hominins with extra fingers and or toes.
This trait was viewed with a certain degree of reverence, and some researchers, like those of Project Gutenberg, have speculated that in ancient times, a ruling class may have subjected the natives of the region.
Rogue anthropology professor Christy G. Turner of Arizona State University, in his refreshingly subversive and highly disturbing work Man Corn, has proven definitively, beyond any shadow of scientific doubt, that not only did a great deal of cannibalism occur here, but that it was on an unimaginable scale.
The scale of cannibalism was so great that Christy rejects the notion that this practice was a reaction to a starvation crisis, instead suggesting it was a form of psychospiritual/social control. Many of the Native American traditions regarding this area are taboo, and not up for discussion even amongst themselves, and even more so towards westerners.
However, the Paiute do have one well known legend which does revolve around an archaic, cannibalistic people who inhabited the region before them, and who they subsequently driven out by violent force. The Si-Te-Cah, according to Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, daughter of Chief Winnemucca, were a savage culture of large, red-haired natives who would execute nighttime raids on her people, abducting women and children to be devoured.
This may sound like the stuff of pure legend, but the reality is that every aspect of this story is supported by archaeological discoveries. Large skeletons (which have vanished) were indeed unearthed by guano miners within Lovelock cave along with smaller human remains which had been cracked open for removal of the bone marrow.
And despite the disappearance of these large remains, the mainstream academic community does not deny their existence. The archaeological site at Canyon de Chelly did in fact contain a huge collection of exclusively child remains.
Other articles have been published here on Ancient Origins that make note of restricted areas in the nearby Grand Canyon National Park, legends associated with them, and a potential connection between the biblical Nephilim, as they were described as an archaic, presumably extinct race of large humans, often with polydactyly features, and who practiced cannibalism.
We may never know what actually happened to Dale Stehling, but it doesn’t help if the National Park Service is hiding key information and evidence. (jelena990 / Adobe Stock)
We may never know what exactly happened to Dale Stehling. But it is not unreasonable to speculate that perhaps the reason the Ute never go near these places is the same reason so much of these ruins are off limits to exploration.
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Maybe it is not so much that they are “sacred” as they harbor echoes of horrific trauma. It is possible that the reason these answers escape us is because they defy our modern paradigms about what is real and what is not, but superstitions do not leave behind enigmatic ruins, or bone hoards of slaughtered victims.
If we really want to know, we will be forced to expand our understanding of our prehistoric past. This article is not intended to suggest that Dale was abducted and or cannibalized, but it is intended to shed light on this mystery and link the dark and oblique history of this region.
Furthermore, this incident is far from isolated. According to park authorities, five to ten people go missing from the park annually, and many more from other National Parks. While the majority of these incidents undoubtedly are mundane cases of misadventure, there are many others that fit the same bizarre criteria as Dale Stehling’s case and challenge our conventional worldviews.
Top image: Elevated view of Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde which was Dale Stehling’s destination on the day he went missing. Source: eunikas / Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
Bradley, Zorro. The Project Gutenberg E-book of Canyon de Chelly. Washington: Office of Publications, 2016. E-book.
Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Boston Stereotype Foundry, 1882.
Roberts, David. “Riddles of the Anasazi: What awful event forced the Anasazi to flee their homeland, never to return?” Smithsonian Magazine. July, 2003.
Sidder, Aaron. "Extra Fingers and Toes Were Revered in Ancient Culture." National Geographic 25 July 2016. ap.nationalgeographic.com.
Turner, Christy G. Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.
Wegner, Gilbert R. Story of Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde Museum Association. p77. 1980. 1991.