Chaco World Heritage: Two backcountry hikes visit ruins and rock art

Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 9:42 PM
Pueblo Bonito, an immense D-shaped great house, was the center of the Chacoan world. Cardinal directions are embedded in the architecture. It is located at the juncture of Chaco Wash and the South Gap.
The Pueblo Alto Loop Trail, shown in black, incorporates two Chacoan passageways. The Peñasco Blanco Trail, depicted in blue, passes by petroglyph panels along Chaco Wash before ascending to Peñasco Blanco.

In a remote canyon in northwestern New Mexico, at the center of the San Juan Basin, lies the remains of a complex agrarian society.

Transitioning from a loose aggregation of Basketmaker communities, building began along Chaco Wash on a monumental scale in the mid-800’s. Chaco Culture is distinctive for its superbly crafted kivas and great houses. Pueblo Bonito is the largest prehistoric structure on the Colorado Plateau.

By 1175, the great houses of Chaco Canyon were deserted. Architectural marvels and vast treasure then lay buried under silt and sand, undisturbed for seven centuries. In 1896, the Hyde Expedition led by Richard Wetherill excavated 190 rooms and kivas at Pueblo Bonito. Railcar loads of artifacts were shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act to protect prehistoric sites on public lands. A year later, Chaco was designated Chaco Canyon National Monument and subsequently renamed Chaco Culture National Historical Park. A triumphant crowning of human achievement, Chaco was named a World Heritage Site in 1987.

More archaeological research has been conducted at Chaco than any other location in North America. And yet, of the estimated 3,600 archaeological sites within the park boundary, only a small percentage have been excavated. The greater Chacoan community covered roughly 60,000 square miles.

Planning Your TripIdeally, spend several days exploring the park based from the campground. Chaco is an International Dark Sky Park. Spend the night in true dark and see the Milky Way and vast regions of space shot with stars. Short on time one day last February, I drove from Durango, hiked the Pueblo Alto Loop Trail and still had time to tour Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada. Two of the four backcountry trails in the park are described. Both hikes begin from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot.

Pueblo Alto Loop TrailPlan to spend three to four hours on this six mile stem-and-loop with 400 feet of elevation gain. Head northwest toward Kin Kletso on a dirt road that parallels Chaco Wash and the canyon cliffs. The valley floor is thick with big sagebrush, four-wing saltbush, greasewood and blackbrush. Cottonwoods edge the arroyo.

Members of Durango’s Seniors Outdoors hiking club descend a Chacoan passageway to the valley floor on the Pueblo Alto Trail.
Courtesy of Thomas Holt Ward

The trail splits off to the right at Kin Kletso and approaches what appears to be an impenetrable wall. The well-armored escarpment is broken by a two-foot-wide crack, an ancient Chacoan passageway. It is a delightful scramble up and out onto a wide stone bench.

Follow cairns across sandstone sheets bearing southeast. Pass pecked basins, fossilized shrimp burrows, masonry terraces and stone circles.

Pueblo Bonito OverlookTake the short spur to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook at one mile. Pueblo Bonito is a five-story, superbly crafted terraced great house with 650 rooms and 35 kivas in a half-circle geometric tucked against the walls of Chaco Canyon.

Seven corner doors in Pueblo Bonito serve as astronomical markers. Masonry techniques were unique for the time and evolved over the centuries.
Courtesy of Thomas Holt Ward

The plaza is bifurcated into eastern and western halves by a room block aligned with true north. The epicenter of the Chacoan world, Pueblo Bonito was constructed in stages over three centuries.

Pueblo Alto ComplexReturn to the main trail and begin the gentle climb to the Pueblo Alto Complex. A Chacoan Road linking Pueblo Alto to Bonito was cleared in the 1970s but it is hard for the untrained eye to detect. Look for stacked rock curbs. Masonry steps were constructed between tiers of sandstone.

At 1.8 miles, take the left branch to visit New Alto. It is a two-story great house with rooms arranged symmetrically around a central kiva. Walk around the structure and then take a cut-across trail to Pueblo Alto, the literal highpoint of the hike at elevation 6,440 feet. It is the largest structure in the complex and the only one that has been excavated.

Will Rietveld converses with another visitor in the plaza at Pueblo Bonito. Find the subtle intersect between the great house walls and the Cliff House Sandstone from which they were constructed.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

The hilltop site has a full-circle view of the endless horizon. The Jemez Mountains are east; Mt. Taylor is south; the Chuska Mountains are west; the San Juan Mountains and La Plata Mountains are seen in the north. The Puebloans communicated great distances using signal fires. A fire box was found at Pueblo Alto. A repeater signal sent the message from Huerfano Mesa to Chimney Rock and from there to Mesa Verde.

Pueblo Alto was the first great house built on the Great North Road. At an opening in the north wall, several roads radiate to northern outliers, including Salmon Ruins 50 miles away on the San Juan River and Aztec Ruins on the Animas River.

Jackson StairwayWalking is flat and easy heading east on a dirt path hemmed in by ephedra, prickly pear and native grasses. Watch for the precipitous Jackson Stairway on the opposite wall of a box canyon. The stairway was carved into the cliffrock to enhance travel between the valley floor and Alto Mesa.

Walk to the south end of the mesa rim and squeeze 25 feet down a boot-wide crack. From an overlook, gaze into the Chetro Ketl great house. An arc of rooms encloses an elevated courtyard and tower kiva. Close the loop at the spur to Pueblo Bonito Overlook.

Peñasco Blanco TrailThis hike is 7.8 miles out-and-back with 300 feet of elevation gain. Total hiking time is four to five hours. Share the track with the Pueblo Alto Trail to Kin Kletso. Then, continue down Chaco Wash on a historic Navajo wagon road used to shuttle goods between Wetherill’s Pueblo Bonito Trading Post and points west.

A petroglyph panel with a supernatural being mask is on a wall 35 feet above Chaco Wash on the Peñasco Blanco Trail.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

Keep a keen eye out for petroglyphs on random boulders at the base of the scarp. Chaco Canyon has the most Basketmaker sites found anywhere, dating from the sixth century. The sites are contiguous in the canyon and so is the rock art.

The Petroglyph Trail begins at 1.5 miles. It runs along the cliff adjacent to the main trail. There are Puebloan, Navajo and cowboy inscriptions. High above the canyon floor is a well-known panel with a bighorn, anthropomorph and katsina (supernatural being) mask.

Rejoin the main trail and walk on the floodplain. After crossing Chaco Wash, the trail abuts the cliff. The Supernova Panel is located here, three miles from the trailhead on the ceiling of a small overhang. The red pictographs include a star, crescent moon and human hand.

The Supernova Panel is on the ceiling of a small overhang above Chaco Wash. The red pictographs depict a star, crescent moon and human hand.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

On July 5, 1054, Chinese astronomers recorded the explosion of a supernova in the constellation of Taurus. The Crab Nebula is the remnant. It was as bright as the full moon, visible mid-day for a month. This occurred when the great houses of Chaco were at the height of power. The pecked and painted solid sphere with two concentric circles may represent Halley’s Comet which passed 12 years after the supernova.

Peñasco Blanco is 0.8 mile farther. The trail steps up cream-colored sandstone and tops out on a mesa. The great house is located at the terminus of several roads at the western gate to Chaco Canyon. Blanco is in line of sight with Bonito and Pueblo Alto, the signal fire location.

Peñasco Blanco remains chiefly unexcavated. The great house with its unique oval layout was constructed over a 300 year period and different masonry styles are evident. Walking around the lofty pueblo, I feel a sense of timelessness and shared human experience. The creation of these magnificent structures speaks to traits within us that yearn for excellence in beauty, purpose and execution.

For a brief discussion of Chacoan archaeology and many more images, see:

Travel basics

Travel: From Durango, travel south on U.S. Highway 550 for 82 miles. Just south of mile marker 113, turn west on San Juan County Road 7900. Turn right onto County Road 7950, 5.1 miles from the highway. Pavement ends at 8.1 miles. The gravel road is wide and swift at first. Farther on, the road is vulnerable to deep ruts and may be impassible when wet. The road is paved upon entering the park at 21.2 miles. Four-wheel drive recommended but, when the road is dry, two-wheel drive with good clearance should suffice. Allow 2 hours, 15 minutes from Durango. There is no fuel available in the park.

Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle or Interagency Annual Pass

Gallo Campground: $15 per night. There are 48 sites which may be reserved. Picnic table, fire ring, tent pad and restrooms with non-potable water. Drinking water is available at the visitor center.

Time: Spend the entire day or multiple days in the park.

Difficulty: Trails; navigation easy; no exposure; backcountry hikers must carry a permit, available at the trailhead; little or no shade; carry plenty of water.

Trail Guide: The informative Backcountry Trail Guide with maps is available at the visitor center.