History in our back yard

Windy Ridge quartzite quarry was vital to early American Indians

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One hundred centuries ago, a modest rock outcropping overlooking the divide between North Park and Middle Park was a focal point for hunter/gatherer tribes throughout the region.

The fine-grained quartzite that could be dug out of the ground on Windy Ridge was ideal for knapping atlatl points that could in turn be used to bring down big game. In a harsh environment where agriculture was a challenge, the stone quarry on Windy Ridge represented survival for indigenous peoples. From Paleolithic Indians right up to the modern day Utes who hunted around the headwaters of the North Platte River as well as in the Yampa Valley, people have used Windy Ridge.

Forest Service archaeologist Angie KenCarin said projectile points that originated at Windy Ridge turn up in distant sites.

"I can immediately recognize Windy Ridge (quartzite)," KenCarin said. "It's all over the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest. I'll bet it was a trade item."

A visit to Windy Ridge isn't visually stunning -- there aren't projectile points strewn across the ground -- people aren't even likely to find points. Instead, the most visible evidence of the work that took place there over the centuries are the hundreds of small pits that represent the quarries.

Windy Ridge is accessed via U.S. Highway 40 and lies roughly on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass. The roads closest to Windy Ridge are in Buffalo Park. There is no signed trailhead, and although there is an informal trail, the site is difficult to locate for unguided adventurers.

Although the season for visiting Windy Ridge is winding down, KenCarin invites private groups to contact her to arrange tours.

"I love to take people there," she said.

In the spring, summer and fall, the nonprofit nature organization Yampatika also guides groups to Windy Ridge.

KenCarin said the earliest projectile points found at Windy Ridge were relatively large, signaling their intended use on darts flung by atlatls. The size of the early points is in contrast to smaller-point arrows meant to be shot from more modern bows. They are surprisingly uniform in conformation, she added.

Early Paleo-Indians are believed to have used deer and elk antlers to strike the quartzite at the precise angle necessary to knock flakes from the rock.

"It's just an incredible feat," KenCarin said.

Later points are smaller and have side notches, suggesting they were attached to the shafts of arrows.

For the most part, the people who dug quartzite out of the ground on Windy Ridge did not make finished projectile points onsite, KenCarin said. Instead, they broke the rock down into "blanks" that could be easily transported to permanent villages.

A study performed by scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that over the centuries, native people reduced the height of Windy Ridge by 3 feet with their excavations.

A visit to Windy Ridge offers a profound glimpse at the early history of Northwest Colorado.

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