There are few places in western North America richer in Paleo-Indian archaeology than Middle Park, the valley that forms the headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. Within Middle Park, the Barger Gulch area preserves an impressive amount of evidence from early humans, with sites dating from roughly 12,900 to 10,000 years ago. Barger Gulch is a small, spring-fed tributary of the Colorado River, flowing south to north, draining an area east of Junction Butte, and joining the Colorado River about four miles east of Kremmling. In all, eleven Paleo-Indian localities have been documented along this drainage. Artifacts in the Barger Gulch area span the Paleo-Indian period with one exception— no Clovis archaeology has yet been found in Middle Park, though Folsom, the period that follows Clovis, is abundant.
If you were to visit the Barger Gulch area today, you would find it to be a nondescript and fairly uninviting area. The high, flat surface that begins on the margins of the Colorado River Valley and slowly slopes upward to the south is covered with a sea of sagebrush and grass with an occasional isolated juniper or Douglas fir on north-facing slopes. It is one of the driest parts of Middle Park. Barger Gulch has a modest flow and has cut deeply through Miocene Troublesome Formation bedrock. As inhospitable as the place appears today, the archaeology suggests that it was a good place to live more than 10,000 years ago because people in that period returned to the area time and again. One of the attractions comes straight from the bedrock—Troublesome Formation chert, used to make stone tools.
During the Miocene, approximately 20 to 5 million years ago, the valley of Middle Park was filling with sediments, and one major source of sedimentation was volcanism. Some of the ashy sediments that filled the basin later were transformed into a fine-grained silicate rock called chert, ideal for the manufacture of stone tools. Large amounts of Troublesome Formation chert, also known as Kremmling Chert, can be found in the Barger Gulch area, and all of the nearby archaeological localities are dominated by this material. Chert was one clear attraction.
The most intensively studied part of the Barger Gulch site is called Locality B, a large Folsom campsite dating to around 12,760 years ago. Locality B is remarkable for its large numbers of chipped stone artifacts, with an assemblage totaling more than 75,000 pieces. The types of nonlocal lithic raw materials recovered show that people moved into Barger Gulch from areas east and west of the Rocky Mountains.
Paleo-Indian peoples are renowned for the distances they moved in their seasonal rounds, but occasionally, and likely seasonally, they settled down in one spot for an extended duration of time. Barger Gulch is one of a handful of sites that show this less mobile side of early Paleo-Indian life. In the winter, large mammals are snowed out of high-elevation regions, and their density in winter grazing areas in valley bottoms increases dramatically. Current evidence suggests that the Barger Gulch site represents one or multiple cold-season occupations by Folsom hunter-gatherers, who probably camped in the valley bottom for several weeks to take advantage of bison herds wintering in Middle Park. During the winter, Folsom hunter-gatherers camping in the Barger Gulch area would have had easy access to water, stone, wood, and large game.
Because the Barger Gulch site has a relatively high density of artifacts and well-preserved spatial patterning, archaeologists have used it to examine several poorly studied aspects of human lifeways at the end of the last Ice Age in the Rocky Mountains. The site preserves at least four hearth features, three of which sat within households. This allows for studies of the differences in the use of interior and exterior space. For example, it was found that early-stage flintknapping—the removal of large flakes from the outer portions of chert nodules—mostly took place in exterior spaces. Later-stage knapping, such as the fluting of projectile points and resharpening of tools, occurred inside. There is also evidence for artifacts produced by novice flintknappers at the site, most likely children.
The Barger Gulch site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.