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Hikers climb the trail to mesa top for a ranger-led tour. (Photo by Kris-Abu-Hantash)

Alibates Flint owes it colorful nature to trace minerals, such as manganese and iron, to give it blues and reds. (NPS photo)

The garden at Alibates Flint is spectacular in full bloom. (NPS photo)

ranger talks with visitorsHomepage photo: Petroglyphs, or rock art, dot the cliff outcroppings near the ruins. (NPS photo)

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Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

For more than 13,000 years, people have used colorful flint from a mesa in the heart of the Texas Panhandle. Archeological traces of prehistoric Indians' homes, workshops, and campsites dot the entire Canadian River region of the Texas Panhandle, but few sites are as dramatic as Alibates Flint Quarries.

This 1,337-acre monument protects a mesa-top literally covered in a carpet of Alibates Flint chips, a lithic scatter so thick that you can't walk without treading on it. These days, collecting is not allowed, but you can pick up and examine the flint, even taste it, as long as you put it back.

Actually an agatized, or silicified, dolomite, the flint is distinctive for its many bright colors. It's scattered across a 60-square-mile area surrounding the monument, but is most concentrated on about 100 acres atop a mesa in the heart of the Alibates Flint Quarries site.

The quarries were dug between 1150 and 1450 CE (common era) by Plains Village Indians, ancestors of the Caddo, Pawnee and Wichita, who lived in large permanent villages and smaller outlying farming and gathering communities in the region. Tools made from Alibates Flint have been found in many places across the Great Plains and Southwest. Its use dates from 13,000 years ago to about 1870.

If you time your visit right, you can witness an arrow point being crafted. A volunteer flint knapper (who jokingly says he makes “little rocks out of big rocks”) is on site almost every week to share stories and shape flint into usable tools right in front of your eyes.

To see any of the more than 700 quarries where flint was dug by hand, you'll need an escort—reservations are required for hiking in this protected area, and all tours are ranger guided. Tours provide historic insight about the quarries, which are sometimes hard to spot; wind and rain have carried soil to fill sites that were once four- to eight-foot deep.

The one-mile treks to the top of the mesa include a moderately steep ascent and generally start once a day, at 10 am, with an occasional afternoon tour starting at 2 pm. You should plan at least two hours, wear closed-toed shoes, and bring at least pint of water. Be prepared for wind (a constant in the southern great plains!) and in summer for temperatures up to 100 degrees by noon. In winter a biting cold wind with chills below 25 degrees is normal, though an occasional 70-degree day is possible.

You might be asking; "Well then, when is the best time to go?" Consider the shoulder seasons for optimum conditions. Starting in the second week of September through the end of October, cooler temperatures and diminishing winds prevail. Following the winter months, from the second week in March through the second week in May, temperatures are mild. But be prepared for strong winds, notorious on the High Plains in spring. The month of May brings out the wildflowers, a spectacular treat if enough precipitation has fallen.

You can experience the park best by making a reservation, watching the 11-minute award-winning film, then starting the trek to the top of the mesa. If you're not up to the hike or simply don't have the time, ask one of the rangers for an on-site presentation after the film. They might even have some flint samples (from private property outside the park) for you to take home. Nearby Lake Meredith National Recreation Area offers a variety of camping and recreational opportunities.

Less than an hour drive from Amarillo, Texas, Alibates Flint Quarries is open seven days a week from 9 am to 4 pm, closed only on New Year's, Thanksgiving, and Christmas days. Check the website to get ready for an amazing getaway.

By Marten Schmitz, Park Ranger, Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Editor's note: If you're in the area on October 4th, plan to attend FlintFest, an annual celebration that takes place on the first Saturday in October. This year, 2014, there will be several “don’t miss” highlights including the knap-in, featuring some of the best flintknappers from around the area demonstrating the skill of making stone tools and weapons.