The family of a hiker missing in Mesa Verde National Park since June 9 is urging park rangers to continue search efforts and keep his picture out there.
Mitchell Dale Stehling, 51, disappeared after telling his wife and mother he was going for a hike to the Spruce Tree House ruin, accessible by a steep ¼-mile paved trail.
When he had not returned two hours later, a two-week intensive search began that at its peak included 60 searchers, two dog teams, helicopter surveillance, and rope teams rappeling off cliffs in the Chapin Mesa area.
But not one physical clue has been found related to Stehling, who left with no water on a sweltering day that reached over 100 degrees.
The hike was supposed to be short, but he ended up on a longer, more remote trail.
Relatives from Goliad, Texas, and elsewhere, have been persistently looking for their loved one in the rugged, steep terrain of the park, but to no avail.
Park officials have scaled down the search, and say they will continue their efforts with regular ranger patrols.
Denean Stehling, Dale’s wife of 33 years, recently returned to the area and has been meeting with park officials.
She is encouraging them to inform park visitors of her missing husband.
Fliers with his picture and other details had been removed at one location, she said, but have been put back up, according to park officials.
“My main concern is to keep up the attention on finding Dale, to keep his picture out there and in the media,” Mrs. Stehling said in an interview Sunday in Cortez. “It’s been four weeks and is devastating for everyone, especially his children. God knows where is. If he is dead, we want to find the body and have some closure.”
The Stehlings and their relatives were on an “adult-only” 21 day vacation visiting national parks, she said. The Mesa Verde trip was the fourth day, and they had visited Four Corners National Monument the day before.
“It was my first time to Colorado. Next we planned to go to Arches, then Glacier ... ” Denean trailed off, distraught.
She recalled that after watching the park video late in the afternoon, her husband decided to explore the Spruce Tree House ruin, visible from the museum above.
“I snapped his picture and said, ‘I’ll see you in a little while.’ That was the last I saw him,” she said.
Searchers soon learned that Stehling had veered off onto the Petroglyph Point trail.
The 2.5-mile backcountry loop trail follows a cliff base before ascending to the mesa via a series of steep, switchbacking sections with steps cut into the rock.
An unidentified family saw Dale twice that day on the trail and spoke to him.
“They saw him resting under an alcove and he asked them how far the panel was,” Denean said. “Then they saw him at the panel, and he left and they stayed. They did not see him again.”
They family figured he had continued up and around when they did not see him again, and they contacted rangers when they heard he was missing.
The petroglyph panel is approximately at the two-mile mark, reached by hikers after a winding, up-and-down trail on an uneven rock surface.
“They said he seemed fine, and I know Dale would have wanted to try and make it to the panel,” his wife said. “He has to take a lot of breaks, but is the type of guy who is motivated to keep pushing a little further. He does not take crazy risks, though.”
Stehling, a retired butcher, was not an avid hiker and has had several back surgeries. But his health was generally good, his wife said. He got around well, loved the outdoors and enjoyed camping with family.
“They were his everything, and he dedicated his life to them.”
Scent dogs showed “interest” in the area below the petroglyph panel where Dale indicated he was heading, Denean said.
Last week, high-resolution aerial photos were taken of the vicinity and analyzed in a lab, park officials reported.
“The hidden fissures along the cliffs were not visible, so rescuers rappelled into them but [found] nothing,” Denean said.
The couple has five children and four grandchildren.
Son James has been in the area searching for his dad for weeks, Denean said.
“They were really close. Dale’s life was his kids and grandkids. James is retracing the tracks of the searchers. He told me, ‘When I see where the rangers turned around, I look further.’ He is exhausted.”
Denean said she is satisfied with the overall search effort by park staff and rescuers.
They responded quickly and put significant resources toward finding her husband.
“When they put me up for the night, I said my prayers and honestly thought they would find him in the morning. At that point, I hadn’t even called my kids yet.”
The family hopes the Park Service will keep the missing poster up where visitors can see it, and also will improve hiker awareness.
“Please keep his face back out there. Let people know. They might see something — find a shirt or shoe — they can alert rangers,” she said.
The Stehlings also feel more trail information for hikers is needed in that area and suggest maps along the route detailing exactly how far a hiker is relative to the panel. Advising hikers to wear bright clothing is another suggestion.
“The map makes it seem like the panel is closer than it is. It is a very winding two miles of up and down before you get there, and I don’t think people realized how far it is,” Denean said.
She added that a cadaver search dog team has been contacted to survey the area.
The Stehlings are expecting the worst, but still hoping for a miracle.
“In my heart, I feel he is alive. If he is in heaven, then he is in a better place.”