|Penasco Blanco rises above Chaco Canyon|
Difficulty: Moderate; potentially difficult/dangerous crossing of Chaco Wash may make trail impassable
Access: Poor dirt road to Chaco Culture NHP; Chaco Culture NHP entrance fee required, self-issue backcountry permit required
Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, New Mexico's Chaco Canyon was the heart of a civilization built by the Ancestral Pueblo people. On the floor of this sandstone canyon, the people of Chaco developed architectural and engineering techniques to build multistory masonry great houses spanning acres, recorded astronomical events on the canyon walls, and conducted trade with settlements throughout the Southwest and with cultures based as far away as Central America. While the great houses of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl are likely the best known and most impressive of the canyon's many archaeological sites, many more great houses in various states of excavation and a pictoral record carved by the Ancestral Pueblo can be found on the trail to Penasco Blanco, the longest backcountry hike in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The trail visits four great houses: Pueblo del Arroyo, Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, and Penasco Blanco. Some of the highlights of this hike, though, are the pictographs and petroglyphs: the segment along the Petroglyph Trail visits the most extensive collection of rock art in the canyon and the trail passes by the Supernova Pictograph, a depiction of the 1054 formation of the Crab Nebula.
This trail is flat for most of the way, with all of the more difficult parts of the hike near its end. The hike can be difficult or dangerous and impassable if there is any water flowing in the Chaco Wash. Although the wash is dry for much of the year, rainstorms or snowmelt can create a temporary river and make access to Penasco Blanco inadvisable.
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, South Mesa, and Wijiji Trails; it's well worth its $2 price.
I hiked to Penasco Blanco during the first of my two days 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 out to the turnoff for the Pueblo Alto/Penasco Blanco Trailhead. Here, I turned right again and followed this spur road to the parking lot at its end.
I filled out a self-issue backcountry hiking permit before leaving the trailhead. Instead of heading directly off on the trail to Penasco Blanco, I chose to first visit Pueblo del Arroyo, a great house that lies right next to the trailhead parking area. A short gravel path led to the great house, then circled around and through the structure. Pueblo del Arroyo was built in sight of two other Chaco great houses, Pueblo Bonito and Kin Kletso, and had perhaps as many as 300 rooms, making it one of the larger great houses at Chaco. Its name translates to "village on the wash," which makes sense due to the great house's location adjacent to the Chaco Wash. Similar to Pueblo Bonito, the site has been fairly thoroughly excavated, meaning that much of the remaining structure is visible. Pueblo del Arroyo was built during the 11th century, well after the construction of Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida. If you're simply looking for a great house in decently well-preserved state with most features visible, you don't need to travel far from the trailhead: there are many more cleanly excavated kivas and rooms visible at Pueblo del Arroyo than at any other of the great houses along this hike.
|Pueblo del Arroyo|
|Hoodoo along the trail|
|Penasco Blanco viewed from floor of Chaco Canyon|
Although the Ancestral Puebloans built the great houses of Chaco, they were long gone by the time European American explorers arrived in the area. Instead, the Navajo, a nomadic people related to the Athabaskans of Canada, migrated into the region around the sixteenth century. Early European forays in the area usually included Navajo guides, who relayed to them Navajo names for the land and its people. Anasazi, which was the previously common academic name for Ancestral Puebloans, was a Navajo word that meant "ancestors of our enemies," referring to their more recent clashes with the modern Pueblo people. In the mid-1860s, it appeared for a while that the Navajo would also lose their homelands in this region: during the middle of the Civil War, Colonel Kit Carson launched a fierce scorched earth campaign against the Navajos to uproot them from their lands. When the Navajo chose to go into hiding rather than surrender to the United States, Carson rampaged through the Four Corners, burning Navajo villages and destroying whatever food supplies and agricultural fields he found. In the spring of 1864, the Navajo surrendered to Carson and were led on the Long Walk of the Navajo, a brutal forced march through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico to internment camps at Bosque Redondo, on the Great Plains in eastern New Mexico.
Conditions at Bosque Redondo were horrid, with the Navajo held on the same land as hostile Comanche and Apache peoples. By 1868, conditions were bad enough that even the US government recognized that the situation was unsustainable, and the Navajo were allotted 3.5 million acres and allowed to return to their homeland. Through this traumatic experience was born a sense of Navajo identity, an identity strong enough that the Navajo Nation today holds over 16 million acres, more than any other of the United States' indigenuous peoples.
Half a mile past Casa Chiquita, the trail branched into two parallel paths, with the Petroglyph Trail leading off to the right. I followed the Petroglyph Trail, which closely stuck to the base of the north wall for the next half mile, providing close up looks at the most extensive collection of petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon. I referred frequently to the Chaco Culture NHP Backcountry Trail Guide (available at the visitor center) to identify and learn about the rock art along this portion of trail. Many of the petroglyphs were fading into the rock, subject to centuries of weathering and erosion. One remarkably preserved petroglyph lay on the underside of an overhanging rock 35 feet above the canyon floor and showed a kachina.
|Ancestral Puebloan Petroglyph|
|Ancestral Puebloan Petroglyphs|
Here's a case of not doing as I do: the wash had low flow when I came to it, so in spite of warnings, I decided to cross anyway. After establishing that the mud in the river was much too sticky for a wading ford of the wash, I chose to jump the creek instead, making it safely across. You should really, really not do this and instead just turn back if you see water flowing here.
Safely across the wash, I found myself at the base of the south wall of the canyon. The Supernova Pictograph lay high above me, painted on the bottom of an overhanging section of cliff that has protected it from the elements for nearly a millenium. On July 4, 1054, a new light appeared in the sky from the constellation Taurus. A dying star some 6500 light years from Earth had exited its stardom with a supernova, releasing an explosion of stellar material that lit up the night sky. The supernova was visible even during the daytime for 23 days and was visible in the night sky for about two years. Astronomers in Song Dynasty China and the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, the world's most scientifically advanced civilizations at the time, made detailed note of this "guest star." The Crab Nebula, which is not visible by the naked eye, is a cloud of interstellar gas and dust that is the last reminder of that event.
Ancestral Puebloans would have seen this supernova light up the night sky as well. Archaeologists examining this pictograph have interpreted this pictograph as a record of that supernova, with the star and the crescent moon recording relative positions of the two celestial objects. The supernova occurred during the height of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization and would almost certainly have been noticed by a people who meticulously tracked the movements of the sun and the moon and built their great houses to align with the movement of heavenly bodies.
|Caves along the trail to Penasco Blanco|
|Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo visible|
|Moonrise over Penasco Blanco|
|View from Penasco Blanco|