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

Chaco Great Houses

(Click on any image to enlarge)

Pueblo Bonito is the oldest of the Chacoan Great Houses, and also the one first excavated. About 60 rooms were destroyed when a portion of the cliff collapsed. The boulders in the foreground are from that disaster.

This is a smaller version of 'threatening rock' that fell on Pueblo Bonito.

The day starts before sunrise with a coyote serenade. The tent is beginning to lighten, so I get up and discover that it is still night; the brightness is caused by the half full moon.  There is a faint glow on the horizon, an omen of sunrise to arrive in an hour.  The campground is quiet at 5:30 so after taking care of necessities I go back to bed.

Elissa led the tour at Pueblo Bonito. Note the core-and-veneer construction of the wall behind her.

The doorways at Pueblo Bonito, as at all the Great Houses, are small by today's standards.

(A  coyote just walked through my campsite as I am typing this, passing not 10 feet from me!)

Ranger Lauren led the tour of Chetro Ketl.

The Great Houses contain hundereds of rooms, all built to a plan. While construction methods changed over time, rooms were not haphazardly added on.

While cooking breakfast – oatmeal with raisins – I discover that my meal plan is a day short!  The decision to come out Monday instead of Tuesday was made at the last minute, and the meal plan had not been updated.  Fortunately an extra loaf of bread had been thrown in along with a box of Triscuits.  I should be able to survive this trip!

At first this building in Chetro Ketl was thought to be a multi-story 'tower kiva'. Excavation showed it to be many kivas built over each other

Common to nearly all the Great Houses is a Great Kiva. Note the round stones in the upper center. These were foundations for the four Ponderosa pillars that held up the roof.

The plan is to bike out to Pueblo Bonito for the 10:00 ranger tour, perhaps tour another of the great houses, and return to camp for lunch.  Only two bottles of water are deemed necessary, but two extra liters and some trail mix are thrown into the panniers “just in case”.  It’s a good thing, too, as events transpire.  The tour at Pueblo Bonito was led by Elissa, an intern from the Student Conservation Association.  Actually she has a BA in Anthropology but can’t find a job and was fortunate to land this internship.  She is very knowledgeable on the topic.  After the tour I strike up a conversation with a couple going through the Great House.  They said that a new ranger-led tour of Chetro Ketl has been added , so of course I go on that tour.  Ranger Lauren was very knowledgeable and provided an instructive and pleasant tour.

This small human-constructed cave in the cliff behind Chetro Ketl is one of the few places where representations of human faces have been found. From these the appearance of the Chacoans can be deduced.

The sandstone cliff face behind Chetro Ketl is an ideal location for petroglyphs. (Click to enlarge to see them better.)

It’s now after 2:00.  I’ve used 3 of my 4 bottles of water and some trail mix, and I’m starting back to camp.  The Chaco Loop Road is one way, so I can’t come back the way I came.  Fortunately Pueblo Bonita is at the far end of the loop, so the return trip is no farther than the distance to get to Pueblo Bonita.  Along the way is Pueblo Arroyo and Casa Rinconada.  Of course I have to tour those two Great Houses.  Without a tour guide, this takes much less time to accomplish.  Casa Rinconada is where the Autmn Equinox event will take place.

Pueblo Arroyo is not as excavated as other Great Houses.

Over the hundreds of years that Chaco was occupied, the Chacoans often rebuilt structures on the same site. This kiva at Casa Rinconada was rebuilt multiple times.

The last water bottle is empty, and I am on my way back to camp, with only one stop to view the Chaco Staircase.  It isn’t obvious, but I did eventually locate it.  I’m looking at Fajada Butte and remembering some conversation about being able to see the Sun Dagger location, so I pull off at the Visitor Center to ask.  Sure enough, at the Fajada Butte Overlook there is a telescope set up to allow viewing of the site.  You can see the three rocks, but not inside where the spiral is located.  The sun dagger is an ingenious way to track the motion of the sun and moon.  That’s the last sight before arriving at camp.

This staircase is located at the top of a cliff. Probably earthen ramps and ladders led up to where the staircase starts.

At the top of Fajada Butte is the Sun Dagger. It is located inside a cave marked by the leaning rocks at the base of the large formation.

All the ice has melted in the cooler, but the watermelon is still cold.  I eat several pieces and share some with a couple who has hiked to Peñasco Blanco.  This is a hike I am considering for tomorrow.

Pictographs done in red paint adorn the cliff near the Wijiji Great House.

There are still three hours before the Night Sky program, so I decide to ride out to Wijiji.  The big draw here is some pictographs on the canyon wall.  I did not know about them and only found one by following a sign.  Only one pictograph is visible to my naked eye, but after scanning the area with binoculars I found several more.  I take several photos at max resolution in the hope that these additional pictographs would be visible after some digital enhancement.  The camera has less maginification than the binoculars so I did not see these additional pictographs through the lens, but with RAW resolution I should be able to blow up the image quite a bit.

The Chaco area abounds in natural beauty. Here artists are sketchnig Fajada Butte at sunset.

The Night Sky program is on Archeoastronomy and once again very informational.  Telescopes were available for viewing celestial objects, but I was so tired after a full day that I could barely keep my eyes open.  In fact I am constantly yawning as I type this blog entry.  I’ve found that I need to record a day’s events immediately or they may never be recorded.  Time to hit the sack.

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.

Chaco Canyon: Great Houses at EveryTrail