At 4:30 p.m. on June 9, 2013, Mitchell Dale Stehling set out on the quarter-mile-long hike to Mesa Verde National Park’s Spruce Tree House ruin. He never returned, sparking a massive search that never yielded any evidence of what happened to him.
After the National Park Service received an anonymous tip on Sept. 16, search and rescue crews found human remains the next day at the location described by the tip, which also indicated that the body might be that of Stehling.
Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers told The Durango Herald he is “99%” sure the remains are that of Mitchell Dale Stehling because of items found at the scene: a driver’s license, credit cards, and a Social Security card that had Stehling’s information on it.
Barring that 1% possibility that somebody else died in the park but somehow ended up with Stehling’s possessions, this puts an end to one of the strangest mysteries in the modern history of Mesa Verde.
Stehling, his wife, and his parents, of Goliad, Texas, were on a road trip visiting national parks when they stopped at Mesa Verde.
The Stehling family had originally planned to stop at just the lookout points and admire views of the ruins from a distance, but after watching a video on it, Dale decided to explore the Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best-preserved ruin in the park.
When he left his family for what should have been a short hike, he was wearing a khaki-colored “Mesa Verde Museum Association” baseball cap, sunglasses, a brown t-shirt, khaki shorts, and brown walking shoes. The only items he was carrying were his cell phone, cigarettes, and his wallet. He also left without water on a day when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees.
Dale had his phone on him, but authorities were unable to get a signal from it after his disappearance. According to phone records, he tried to access his voicemail at about 7 p.m. on the evening of his disappearance.
After his wife reported him missing, searchers learned from witnesses that Stehling had veered off onto the Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.5-mile loop that branches off of the Spruce Tree House Trail. The trail he wound up on features a lot of steep switchbacks, narrow stairways, and areas where hikers have to scramble over stones, leading to a panel of petroglyphs about two miles into the hike. After that point, it ascends to the top of the mesa and becomes a simple gravel trail that circles back to the trailhead.
The family that reported that they had seen him saw him twice on the trail, the last time at the petroglyph panel itself. A team of scent dogs showed interest in the area beneath the petroglyphs, but were unable to locate any evidence of what happened to Dale or point search teams in a new direction where he might have gone. At the peak of the intensive two-week search that followed, between 60 and 70 people were searching the park for the missing hiker.
Jodi Peterson, a writer and editor for High Country News, wrote that she hiked the Petroglyph Point Trail the day after Stehling went missing and heard a man in distress. “After an hour of walking, I suddenly heard a weary male voice call ‘I need some help,’” she wrote. Peterson reported what she heard to the park.
The remains found on Sept. 17 were “quite a distance away” from where Stehling was last seen, Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer told the Herald. The area, in a remote part of the park, which took search crews about two hours to reach, was searched in 2013 when Stehling went missing.