|Pueblo Bonito viewed from above|
Difficulty: Moderate, multiple areas of rock scrambling necessary
Access: Poor dirt road to Chaco Culture NHP; Chaco Culture NHP entrance fee required, backcountry self-issue permit required
The meticulous architectural design of the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon is nowhere more evident than when viewed from above. The geometric shapes of the great houses, the mazes of rooms and kivas, and the sheer size of the complexes is much more obvious from a bird's eye view. The Pueblo Alto loop skirts the north rim of Chaco Canyon above the two most celebrated Chaco great houses, Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, providing an astonishing view of the heart of this ancient civilization. Hikers who make it out to this corner of New Mexico for this loop will also get to visit the great houses of Kin Kletso, Pueblo Alto, and New Alto, and see a variety of alterations that the Ancestral Puebloans made to Chaco landscpe. The hike requires a few sections of rock scrambling and squeezing through narrow cracks in rock, and may be inappropriate for those uncomfortable with rock scrambling or heights. If you have time for only one backcountry hike at Chaco Canyon, make it this one; I consider this to be one of the best hikes covered on this blog.
For cultural and historical background on the great houses of Chaco Canyon, especially of the two great houses viewed from above on this hike, check out an earlier post on the short hike through Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. The Chaco Culture NHP visitor center sells a Backcountry Trail Guide that covers interesting features of this hike, as well as the South Mesa, Penasco Blanco, and Wijiji Trails, for just $2- it's a good investment to get more out of your hikes.
I hiked this trail early in the morning, leaving the campground before first light and arriving at the gate for the Park Loop Road at its opening time, 7 AM. Once the gate was opened, I proceeded down the one way road and turned right at the turnoff for Pueblo del Arroyo and backcountry hikes parking. I parked at the end of the spur road, filled out a self-issue backcountry permit at the trailhead, and started down the wide trail behind the gate. Chaco Culture NHP is in a fairly remote area of New Mexico; it's easiest to arrive at the park from Albuquerque via US 550. Detailed directions are on the Pueblo Bonito hike description.
The first 0.3 miles of the hike were along a flat, wide unpaved road that is also open to bicycles. At the end of the 0.3 miles, the trail came to Kin Kletso, which means "Yellow House" in the Navajo language. As the Ancestral Puebloans left no written record, the original names of the great houses of Chaco are unknown; all modern names are either in the Navajo language or Spanish. When I arrived at Kin Kletso, the walls of the house were bathed in sunrise light, giving them an almost unearthly glow.
|Sunrise light on Kin Kletso|
At Kin Kletso, I took the right fork, leaving the trail that continued down the valley for the trail that circled to the back of the great house. Behind Kin Kletso, I came to a second junction: here, the Pueblo Alto Trail broke off from the path around Kin Kletso and began climbing quickly up the base of the cliffs. I followed the Pueblo Alto Trail, scrambling at times as I ascended to the foot of sheer sandstone cliffs. Here, it seemed momentarily as if the trail disappeared: the, looking to my right, I saw the path run through a narrow crevice between two massive sandstone walls. I squeezed and scrambled through the crevice, taking a little over a minute to climb through the crack and reach the rim of the canyon.
|Scrambling route to reach the top of the cliffs|
|Kin Kletso's elevated kivas viewed from above|
|Pueblo del Arroyo and South Gap|
Other signs marked a stone circle likely left by the Ancestral Pueblo and pecked basins carved into the sandstone that undoubtedly resulted from human activities. One sign indicated that I should have been able to see masonry terraces built by the Ancestral Puebloans, but despite looking everywhere I couldn't see anything that looked like artificial terraces.
A mile into the hike, I came to a four-way trail junction. Here, the Pueblo Bonito Overlook spur headed slightly downhill to a viewpoint, while the two halves of the Pueblo Alto loop split with the counterclockwise approach heading straight ahead and the clockwise approach that headed directly to Pueblo Alto branching off to the left. I took the right fork first and hiked a hundred meters slightly downhill to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook. The D-shaped layout of the great house was very apparent from this lofty viewpoint. The great house's two great kivas, wide plaza, and many smaller kivas and rooms could all be seen. At the time of its
|Pueblo Bonito from the Pueblo Bonito Overlook|
|Kivas and rooms of Pueblo Bonito|
|Chetro Ketl viewed from above|
|Scrambling route to the top of the mesa|
|Rincon along the trail|
|Fajada Butte and Chaco Canyon|
|New Alto, Chuksa Mountains in the distance|
Gazing out over the landscape of the Great North Road from Pueblo Alto, I could see as far as the La Plata and San Juan Mountains to the north and the Jemez Mountains to the east. Huerfano Mesa's peaks poked above the desert to the northeast. Nestled between these mountains was the San Juan Basin, the large flat desert valley of the San Juan River that holds Chaco Canyon at its heart.
|La Plata Mountains and the landscape of the Great North Road|
|Unexcavated kiva at New Alto|
|Walls of New Alto|
This hike's points of archaeological interest and the good views of the great houses make it an essential part to any Chaco Canyon trip.