Acting Superintendent opens up Mesa Verde’s backcountry

By Andrew Gulliford

For a teacher, there is no greater success than to have your students succeed. So when I learned that a former student of mine was Acting Superintendent at Mesa Verde National Park, I was delighted. Bill Nelligan did well in a graduate historic preservation program in Tennessee and is now working on new ways to benefit Mesa Verde National Park visitors.

I remember helping Bill begin his National Park Service (NPS) career with an internship at Stones River National Battlefield. I also remember his poignant e-mails about the Gulf War where he served as a 1st lieutenant rifle platoon leader in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne Division. Nelligan retired from the U.S. Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel, and with significant National Park Service experience, he brings a unique perspective to the park. His new troops, the NPS rangers, love him.

Bill Nelligan understands leadership and mission focus, and he supports the NPS mission to “preserve and protect for the enjoyment of future generations.” His military background dovetails nicely with the Park Service’s mission and culture. He states, “I believe in management by walking around — boots on the ground. I know that if I take care of the staff they’ll take care of visitors and the park.”

“The resources are fabulous,” he says, “and the staff is very good, which makes my job easier. Mesa Verde National Park is in a great part of the country.” Nelligan is excited about the new Visitor and Research Center currently under construction which will house the park’s collection of over 4,000,000 artifacts in a state of the art facility. Under his leadership, three new backcountry tours are open to Mug House, Spring House and Wetherill Mesa, and in conjunction with the Mesa Verde Foundation, prominent artists recently had a day to paint plein aire style at Long House.

Nelligan worked at the Midwest Regional Office of the NPS and at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey and he thinks Mesa Verde should host special events and have more of the park open for longer seasons. Nelligan hopes to better utilize the Chapin Mesa Amphitheatre, and “to broaden the appeal of the park” so that visitors stay longer and see more. Park rangers are all for it. They yearn to walk the well-built Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) trails designed in the 1930s to access backcountry ruins. Nelligan states, “Some of these old CCC historic trails are fabulous. We need to open them up for the public,” and he’s starting to do so.

This summer I hiked into Mug House with ranger Jeff Brown. My first time along the primitive trail, I was astounded to see potsherds just like in the days when the Wetherill brothers found three mugs tied by yucca cord and named the ruin. Mug House is great early in the morning in deep, cool shade with plenty of cliff swallows and time to study the ancient walls. Rangers enjoy these backcountry tours because it gives them most of a day with visitors and no one is rushed. Brown explains, “It’s nice because you can take time and answer numerous questions which is a real treat.”

Backcountry tours will be available until September 30. The 21 rangers who trained for these special tours give each tour their own personal focus, and in a five day work week they lead one backcountry tour, which is limited to a maximum of 14 visitors per ranger to ensure low site impact. Reservations can be made online at

The Spring House tour is eight miles round trip with 3,000 feet in elevation gain, so in summer heat it is not recommended for your average couch potato. For skilled hikers with proper footwear and carrying adequate water, it’s a rare experience. I enjoyed the hike, the vistas, and the special touches the CCC boys made to the trail more than six decades ago. The dwelling itself is barely stabilized so visitors approach it but do not enter. Visiting the site leaves one with a sense of awe and a compelling desire to learn more of Mesa Verde’s history.

Strenuous backcountry hikes will test your heart rate, increase your thirst, and make you sweat. NPS rangers have had special backcountry training and visitors are warned that in a medical emergency help would be delayed an hour. This is also a great chance for rangers to teach “Leave No Trace” ethics in the field and to give extended plant talks on amaranth, Utah serviceberry, prickly pear cactus, big sage, wild rose, mutton and rice grass. Visitors will see rare petroglyphs and granaries, glimpse untouched dwellings like Kodak House, walk on old fire roads and learn about springs and hidden reservoirs.

As the Acting Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Bill Nelligan says, “What is missing from our visitor experience is the quiet and the solitude. We need to get out and see it as the Ancestral Puebloans saw it. Visitors need an uncrowded experience.” He’s right. And that’s why backcountry tours beckon. If you haven’t been to Mesa Verde in a while, it’s time to return.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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