Chaco: Pueblo Alto Loop

(click on any photo to enlarge)

The Chacoans pecked these basins into the rock on top of the cliff. There is lots of speculation, but we really don't know their purpose.

I am blessed by two coyote serenades in the wee hours.  This time I am not fooled by the moonrise and wait until the actual sunrise to start my day.  Breakfast is chipotle beans over rice.  The beans were pre-cooked and frozen, but the ice in the cooler has melted and I figure the sooner they are eaten the better. I take a leisurely breakfast, cook a Garden Patty for a lunch sandwich, pack water bottles in the bike, then reconsider and decide to drive to the trailhead.

Before they left, the Chacoans sealed openings to their buldings, removed the roof, and set them on fire. Why? It is part of the mystery of Chaco. This partially sealed opening is in Kin Kletso.

The plan for the day is to hike the Pueblo Alto Loop (about 5 miles) and then the South Mesa Trail (about 4 miles).  I figure that should take most of the day.  I stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a backcountry trail guide and overhear that there will be a special program at Pueblo Arroyo at 4:00.  That goes on my list and will replace the South Mesa hike if time runs short.

This is a trail? You must be kidding.

The trail up the face of the cliff is not as hard as it looks. And it looks harder in person than in this photo!

I fill out the backcountry hiking permit at the trailhead and circle the Kin Kletso great house before starting the climb up to the mesa.  The trail follows a Chacoan path up the face of the cliff.  My goodness!  Those ancient Chacoans must have been half mountain goat!  Except for the trail markers, it was nearly impossible to see a trail at all.  The Park Service has done a superb job with this trail.  Without being too dangerous, it provides a great challenge.  Up top, the trail is marked by rock cairns.  It provides a bird’s-eye view of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

On top of the cliff, the trail is marked by rock cairns.

At this stage is is possible to return, but I decide to take the Pueblo Alto Loop.  This adds another three miles to the hike and takes in Pueblo Alto and New Alto before circling back to an overlook of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.  By the time I circle New Alto and get to Pueblo Alto, all unexcavated Chacoan cities are starting to look alike.  I don’t spend any time at Pueblo Alto and continue on the hike.

Sometimes the trail can get pretty challenging. It takes some scrambling, but I didn't think it was particularly dangerous.

For reasons that are not understood today, the ancient Chacoans built a network of roads (almost) connecting numerous sites.  By some counts, there may be as many as 150 Chacoan sites in the Southwest.  Chacoan roads are known for being 30 feet wide, straight as an arrow, and not deviating for obstacles.  Sometimes a road will end at a natural feature such as a bluff or canyon; sometimes a road will change direction for no apparent reason.  Most of the time a road will continue in a straight line regardless of obstacles.  There are many examples of a road ascending a sheer cliff by means of ramps, ladders, and stairways.

One gets a good view of Pueblo Bonito from atop the cliff.

The Pueblo Alto Loop includes several Chacoan construction features.  Along the bluff are stone circles and pecked basins.  Up on the cliff I see masonry walls thought to be water diversion structures.  On the way to New Alto I pass an excavated portion of a Chacoan road, including a small staircase carved from the rock.

The Chacoans constructed earthen ramps to aid in scaling the cliffs in the path of their roads.

By far the most impressive Chacoan artifact on the hike is the Jackson Staircase, named after the National Geographic photographer who popularized it.  I am on the way back from Pueblo Alto when I meet a pair of hikers going the other way.  They tell me the Jackson Staircase is just around the corner.  When I see it, I am impressed.  I see the remains of an earthen ramp leading from the canyon floor up to meet a series of steps carved from the sandstone of the canyon wall.  The Chacoans did not let small obstacles such as sheer cliffs stand on the way of their roads.

An earthen ramp leads up to the cliff. There was probably a wooden ladder connecting the ramp to the Jackson Steps carved into the cliff.

I follow the trail around to an overlook of Chetro Ketl and then further around to the original overlook of Pueblo Bonito.  From there I backtrack the trail to the path down the cliff.  I turn on my iPhone video camera and make the descent with the phone in my hand recording the adventure.

Video: Descent from Pueblo Alto

New Alto is not as covered with sand as is Pueblo Alto. This location is where several Chacoan roads from the north converge.

Back on terra firma, I retrieve my lunch from the car.  There are a couple picnic tables at the trailhead where I can eat in the shade.  By the time lunch is over, it is nearly 3:00.  That is not enough time to hike the South Mesa before the tour of Pueblo Arroyo at 4:00.  I pass the time reading and playing games on the iPhone.

From atop the cliff one can see both Chetro Ketl (foreground) and Pueblo Bonito (background). Note the Great Kiva in Chetro Ketl on the left, and the multi-kiva on the right. This is a structure where one kiva after another was rebuilt on the same spot.

The Sun Dagger is located on Fajada Butte. The Chacoans constructed a ramp to ease access.

The tour leader at Pueblo Arroyo is Elissa, the SCA intern who had led the tour at Pueblo Bonito the day before.  Much of the material is similar to that presented at Pueblo Bonito, though there are enough differences to keep it interesting.  After the tour I head back to the campsite.

Even a Turkey Vulture has to rest sometime.

I make inroads on the rest of the watermelon, which is surprisingly good for being in a cooler without ice all day.  A woman is walking past the campsites.  We exchange waves and she comes toward my site.  I meet her and find out she’s in a group of three women on a road trip.  They are camped in the RV area because all the tent sites are taken, and she invites me to see their camp.  Bandhu likes to sleep under the stars, but Sor’a has a unique european-design tent that is tricky to set up.  Through some trial-and-error, I help her get the tent put together.  Meanwhile Gayle has her tent set up and is inflating the air mattress.

This is how I met Sor’a, Bandhu, and Gayle.

A remarkable group of women on a road trip: Bandhu, Sor'a, and Gayle.

Mouse over the pins in the map to see a thumbnail of the photo. Click on the Everytrail link to see a slide show, linked to the location where the photo was taken. The slide show contains many more photos than are in the post above.

Chaco: Pueblo Alto Loop at EveryTrail

21 thoughts on “Chaco: Pueblo Alto Loop

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  19. Hi Andy,
    It was great sharing Chaco Canyon adventures with you. Travel is such wonder, never knowing what delights are in store … whether that is beautiful sites such Hungo Pavi (a personal favorite of mine), a pure darkness from which to see billions of stars and the depth of the milky way, or the joy of meeting a dear new friend. Thank you for enriching our trip.

    • Gayle, I too had a great time at Chaco, and a big reason was meeting and making friends with you, Sor’a, and Bandhu. I appreciate new friendships and the different perspective that they bring. Best wishes on the next phase of your life journey.

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