Steamboat Springs Whatever it is, the circle of stones in northwestern Moffat County is not a "medicine wheel." But there is every indication that it was deliberately built by an ancient civilization to help its members understand the changing seasons.
"Medicine wheel is an Anglo term," Henry Keesling said. Rather than building the stone circle for spiritual reasons, it's more likely the members of the Fremont culture built the wheel to guide their agriculture.
Keesling is an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Craig. The Fremont Indians were a largely unknown culture believed to have populated the Great Basin of the American West between A.D. 350 and 1385.
"They weren't just out here mooning and killing rabbits," Keesling said. "They were horticulturalists. They had to know when to plant the corn."
He said experts in astronomic archaeology have studied the wheel in Moffat County's Vermillion Basin and determined that the points of the wheel line up reasonably closely with celestial events like the equinox and solstice.
The ability to recognize the vernal equinox each spring would have given the Fremonts a better chance to plant and germinate their corn after the danger of the last killing frost had passed, Keesling explained.
Still, no one can verify the wheel's authenticity for certain.
"The empirical evidence is that it's really something," Keesling said. "This is one of the best preserved ones, if it really is one."
The wheel, about 20 feet in diameter is made of indigenous stones, which are half-buried in the ground. It describes a nearly perfect circle and is bisected by two lines of stones that form a 90-degree cross through the center of the circle.
Scientists cannot use carbon dating on the stones they aren't organic. But there is at least one indication that the wheel is not a recent fabrication. There is a complete absence of any lichens on the underside of rocks that were unearthed by research scientists, Keesling said.
The wheel lies on a flat bench just above Vermillion Creek, about 80 miles west of Craig and 20 miles north of Dinosaur National Monument. It's a region of arid badlands formed from eroded sandstone canyons and upthrust layers of limestone.
The predominant vegetation consists of saltbush and sagebrush. But there are significant plant communities, including intermingled areas of bluebunch wheatgrass with shadscale saltbush.
This time of year, there are many blooming cacti.
The BLM has identified Vermillion Basin and nearby Irish Canyon as "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" for their delicate plant species and fragile remnants of Indian civilization. A portion of the surrounding area has been proposed for wilderness designation by conservation groups based in Colorado. That possibility has received stiff opposition from the Moffat County commissioners.
Rock formations in the vicinity of the wheel bear further witness to the Fremont culture. Visitors who look closely at the rocks flanking either side of the wheel will spot Fremont petroglyphs of human and animal figures carved into the sandstone.
Keesling said despite its remote location, the wheel is showing the impact of human visitation.
"We are in the process of loving it to death," he said.
The wheel is just downstream from Vermillion Canyon. But Beverly Rave of the State Land Board office in Craig cautions visitors that most of the canyon is within a tract of privately controlled land leased by her agency. Although the boundary is unmarked, entering the middle reaches of the canyon constitutes trespass, Rave warned.
Vermillion Basin is a vulnerable landscape that demands the respect of conscientious hikers with a desire for solitude in a remote landscape.