|Great Kiva of Casa Rinconada|
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, a short segment of rock scrambling necessary
Access: Poor dirt road to Chaco Culture NHP; Chaco Culture NHP entrance fee required, self-issue backcountry permit required
South Mesa is perhaps the least frequented of all the backcountry trails in New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which preserves the landscape at the heart of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization in the American Southwest. As Chaco Canyon is already a park that's a bit off the beaten path, South Mesa sees very few hikers. This hike has fewer archaeologically important sites than the nearby hikes to Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, and Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it has the best views of the San Juan Basin of any hike in the park and offers close up looks at an unexcavated Chaco great house and the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon. Besides visiting the great house of Tsin Kletsin and the villages and great kiva of Casa Rinconada, the hike also passes through the more traditional Southwestern scenery in the box canyons along the trail.
There's a short stretch of scrambling on this hike in which you must climb through a crevice between two rocks. Most hikers in reasonable shape and have some rock scrambling experience will find this segment of the hike to be doable.
If you plan to hike this trail, I advise that you pick up the Backcountry Trail Guide at the Chaco Culture NHP visitor center, which gives detailed descriptions of the sites of archaeological interest along this hike as well as on the Pueblo Alto, Penasco Blanco, and Wijiji Trails; it's well worth its $2 price.
I hiked to South Mesa during the second day of my two day stay at Chaco Canyon. The park is a three hour drive from Albuquerque; the easiest way to reach it is to take US 550 northwest from Bernalillo, turning left at Road 7900 just past the Red Mesa gas stop a few miles before reaching Nageezi. Signs directed me to the park from US 550, taking me first down a nice paved road (Road 7900) and then down a decent gravel road (Road 7950) that then turned into a bumpy, washboarded dirt road that required driving through a wash. During dry weather, the road is probably doable for most vehicles, though it is not an easy drive; if water in the wash is high, the park may be inaccessible. The road became paved again at the park entrance; I turned right for the Park Loop Road just past the visitor center and followed the one-way road past the turnoffs for Pueblo Bonito and Penasco Blanco to the parking lot for Casa Rinconada. I parked here, filled out a self-issue backcountry permit, and started my hike.
Two trails branch out from the parking lot, different branches of a short loop hike through Casa Rinconada. I started by taking the trail to the left, which led to a number of former villages inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people. Unlike the other famous archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada is not a great house: this site consists of a few villages and a massive great kiva. The great kiva lies along the return trip; on my way out, I checked out the villages. One of the most easily apparent features of these villages was that their walls were constructed to the same degree of sturdiness as the walls of the great houses: comparatively, these walls were quite thin. While contemporary scholarship on Chaco Canyon holds that the great houses of the canyon had relatively small populations and did not serve as cities, the canyon population of the Ancestral Pueblo is still estimated to have been between three and ten thousand, mostly in villages such as the ones at Casa Rinconada.
|One of the villages at Casa Rinconada|
The third village lay at the foot of the south wall of the canyon. At this village, the South Mesa Trail branched off from the Casa Rinconada Trail; I left the wide path through Casa Rinconada and followed the South Mesa Trail as it immediately began an uphill climb. After making an initial switchback, the trail arrived at the foot of a rock wall; the trail followed a narrow crevice between two rocks to surmount this obstacle. This section required some rock scrambling; the space in the crevice is quite small so I'm not sure that everyone can make it through easily.
|Scramble through rock crevice|
|Casa Rinconada great kiva, Pueblo Bonito, and New Alto from South Mesa|
|Box canyon on the north side of South Mesa|
|La Plata Mountains in the distance, New Alto faintly visible in the foreground|
Leaving Tsin Kletsin, I chose to follow the long route, 2.5 mile route back to make a loop, heading left at the trail intersection with the South Mesa Trail. The trail began to descend gradually through the saltbrush top of the mesa and came to some beautiful views of the vast expanse of the San Juan Basin to the south as the angle of descent on the mesa steepened. I also enjoyed views of the colorful sandstone cliffs along the south side of West Mesa.
|San Juan Basin|
|Box canyon on the west side of South Mesa|
Once out of the box canyon, the single track trail from Tsin Kletsin joined a wide dirt road leading through South Gap back into Chaco Canyon. This dirt road parallels the roads that the Ancestral Puebloans built through South Gap from Pueblo Bonito. Current archaeological interpretations of Chaco Canyon's role as a regional ceremonial center might have meant that pilgrims to Chaco Canyon would have walked this same route through South Gap en route to the grandest great houses at Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.
The great kiva of Casa Rinconada is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon at about 20 meters in diameter. It's unique in that it stands alone from any great house: the canyon's other great kivas are part of larger complexes at Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Kivas, which are still used as ceremonial structures today by the modern Pueblo peoples, likely filled a ceremonial role for the Ancestral Puebloans as well. This kiva could have fit as many as 400 people, all under a massive roof made of wood and earth. Huge T-shaped doors bookend the kiva, with stairs leading up from the subterranean kiva's ground floor up to the elevation of the mound outside. The kiva's excellent condition is due more to reconstruction efforts than to some miracle of preservation.