Chaco: Autumn Equinox

For the first time, there is no coyote serenade during the night.  My alarm goes off at 5:20 – I snooze it a couple times before getting up.  One advantage of not having showers available is that it takes less time to get up in the morning. <LOL>

People are waiting in line for the photo of the sun lined up in the doorways of the Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada.

By 5:55 I am at the girls’ camp.  John has already left, so we pile into the car and head out to the park, where we are directed into the parking lot at Pueblo Bonito.  A shuttle is waiting to take us to Casa Rinconada.  Once there we walk up the hill to the great kiva, where Ranger GB is waiting on the east side.  As GB leads the group to the west side, I understand why some people got up at 4:00 in order to be part of the first 16 cars – the only ones allowed to park at Casa Rinconada.  There is a line of people aligned with the doors through which the sun will shine at sunrise.  My place is at the end of that line.

Rather than taking a chance on getting a photo in the crowd, several of us made our own alignment. The sun will rise in the notch formed by the cliff in the background and the wall in the foreground.

GB is telling people to get their photo, then move aside so the people behind can can theirs. I am skeptical that this will work.  I notice some people standing at the side and ask GB what can be seen from that vantage.  “You can see the sun rise at the corner of the butte and the horizon, it just won’t be through the doors of the kiva.”  I make a strategic decision to leave the kiva line and create my own alignment.  I am not the only one to do this.

The western horizon is higher than the east, so the sun will hit the top of this ridge before rising in the east.

Sunlight on the ridge means the sun will soon peek over the eastern horizon.

As the sun rises, the hill to the west is illuminated first.  The golden band moves down the sandstone toward the still-shadowed group of photographers waiting for the sun to peek over the eastern horizon.  The eastern sky gradually lightens until … yes! the brilliant orb appears just to the left of the butte.

Sor'a is waiting for the sun to rise.

The sun rises in perfect alignment with the marker.

People greet the sunrise at the Autumn Equinox.

I get my photos from my ad hoc alignment.  I think my photos are more dramatic than those from the official alignment through the doors.  Also, I get to take many shots since my line is basically three people.  This is a good thing, as taking photos directly into the sun wreaks havoc with the auto focus and auto exposure programs of the camera.

Facing west, people watch the shadows of the two kiva doors align.

Meanwhile, on the east side of the kiva, people are watching the shadows of the two kiva doors move into alignment.  I manage to find a spot and get some images as the outline of the eastern door lines up with the opening of the western door.  Finally I walk back around to the west and snap a photo of the sun lined up through the doorways.

As Ranger GB said the night before, this was not a representation of the Equinox.  Everyone on the hill experienced the real thing.  This is different from reading about it or seeing pictures of it.

Chaco had one last gift for us as we drove back to camp.  A magnificent elk buck with a huge rack stood in the field, proudly posing for photographs.  A fitting end to a memorable week.

The top of Fajada Butte, where the Sun Dagger is located.

One last visit to the Visitor Center to buy a souvenir tee shirt.


The goat is still where he was five days ago.

Chaco: Peñasco Blanco

I look forward to the coyote serenade each night.  It adds to that special feeling of being at Chaco.  I am disappointed by the moon, though.  It is waning, and no longer bright enough to be confused with sunrise.  I begin to appreciate why the Chacoans developed an interest in astronomy.  Compared to city life, the sun, moon, and stars are so much more a part of life here.

Breakfast is scrambled tofu with a red bell pepper.  I find I forgot to bring an onion and also any oil.  But I have butter for oil and the onion is not missed.  Of course tofu is nothing without spices, which I brought premixed.  This is a very pretty dish with the red peppers against the yellow tofu, and as I write this I wish I had taken a picture.

One other thing I forgot to bring is a long-sleeved shirt.  Being out in the sun all day Wednesday, I have picked up a touch of sunburn, and I am afraid the bright sun will make me uncomfortable on this long hike.  However, nothing can be done for it at this time.

This is going to be a long hike, nearly 8 miles, so I decide to leave the Pentax in camp, and rely on rely on the new Panasonic point-and-shoot for any photos.  This allows me to carry my water and lunch in a Camel-back instead of water bottles stuffed in pants packets, and I can also carry a pair of binoculars.

I throw a couple extra water bottles into the panniers and ride my bike to the trail-head.  On the way I stop at the Visitor Center to see if they have any long-sleeve shirts. They don’t.  At the trail-head I fill out the back-country permit and bike the one mile to Casa Chiquita.  The trail has been realigned and the round trip to Peñasco Blanco is now 7.8 miles instead of 7.2.  No bikes are allowed past Casa Chiquita.  Casa Chiquita is unexcavated, and to my untrained eye it looks like any other unexcavated Great House, so I skip it and start walking. I can see my destination, the Great House Peñasco Blanco, up on the western horizon.

I take the Petroglyph Trail, a spur that travels at the base of the sandstone cliff.  From here I see six identified panels of rock writing.  Many of the petroglyphs are of Puebloan origin, and many others are Navajo.  The art styles are distinct, even to the method of marking the rock.  Puebloan glyphs tend to be pecked into the stone, while Navajo symbols tend to be scribed.

I follow the trail across the canyon floor to the Chaco Wash.  Ranger GB showed pictures at the Night Sky show of the wash as it was overflowing its banks just last week.  It hasn’t rained since then, and the wash is now down to a small muddy stream, but the trail is still officially closed, as it would be easy to slip and fall on the muddy bank.  A few yards upstream someone has placed a large rock in the middle of the stream and this has become the unofficial crossing.  I cross with no problem, and am walking through a thicket of greenery, so different from the brown landscape almost everywhere else.

5000 years ago a large star exploded in the constellation Taurus, and in 1054 the light of the supernova reached earth.  Chacoans were great astronomical observers, and they certainly noticed a new star that lit the night for a month, and was visible during the day.  The supernova event was during the height of the Chaco construction time period and it would make sense that they recorded the event.

I climb up out of the wash and approach the base of the cliff.  There underneath a ledge are three dark red pictographs: a hand, a crescent moon, and a star.  Taken together, these symbols can be interpreted as instructions for locating the Crab Nebula, which is the remains of the 1054 supernova.  Below the Supernova Pictograph is a fainter figure: three concentric circles.  This is interpreted by some as a depiction of Halley’s Comet, which made an appearance in 1066, only a few years after the supernova event.

So far the the trail has been fairly flat, with only a slight climb to the Supernova Pictograph.  Now I start the last 0.8 mile leg of the hike, up to the top of the West Mesa, to the Great House of Peñasco Blanco.  I pass a couple who had started early and are returning from the city.  Peñasco Blanco is where several Chacoan roads coming from the West converge; Pueblo Alto stands at the convergence of roads from the North; Pueblo Bonito is at the center.  From Peñasco Blanco I can see both of these Great Houses, even without the aid of field glasses.

It is now noon, the sun is overhead, and I am feeling yesterday’s sunburn.  I find a shady spot beside an ancient wall and have a sandwich and some trail mix for lunch.  After eating and a few minutes rest, I am ready for the 3 mile hike back to my bike.  Down by the Supernova, I meet three girls enthusing over the rock art.  Across the wash, on the way back to the Petroglyphs, I pass two men in succession, getting a late start on the hike.  By the time I reach the Petroglyph Trail, my arms and neck are prickling and my feet are dragging so I skip the spur and continue on to Casa Chiquita.

Bicycling uses a different set of muscles than walking does, so I feel better as I bike back to the trail-head.  There I find a couple having their lunch.  They speak what sounds like German among themselves, and we exchange only a couple of words.  I suck on my camel-back but nothing comes out.  Oh no!  I have drunk all my water, and I still have the bike back to the camp, in the heat of the day!  Then I remember the two bottles in the pannier.  Saved!  I shall survive this day after all!

Though it has a lower resolution than the Pentax DSLR, the Panasonic P&S camera has a more powerful telephoto lens, so I stop at the Staircase for some pictures.  I also stop at the Fajada Butte Overlook for the same reason.  Eventually I make it back to camp.  On the way a yellow VW camper van passes me.

Surprisingly, I am not especially tired upon my return, so I make a tour of the campground.  There is a Casita RV trailer parked at the far end; I want to meet the owners and ask them about the RV.  On the way I am hailed by a woman who says, “We passed you.”  She was in that yellow camper van.  We end up having an extended conversation on topics ranging from archeology, to economics, to health, to education, and more that I can’t now remember.  Christiana and her husband develop curricula for sixth graders that introduce them to soil, plants, and gardening.  They live in Albuquerque, where they do a lot of gardening.

I notice the girls are back from their tour of Pueblo Bonito so I walk over to their camp and we have ourselves a good “chin wag”.  The conversation is interrupted by their neighbor John pulling up in his truck camper.  He reverses a couple times so I walk over to see if he needs help.  He doesn’t, but offers a tour of the camper.  He’s very happy with the camper and explains lots of features he put in the truck to handle the camper safely.

Gayle and Bandhu go off to photograph Fajada Butte at ground level while Sor’a and I go to the top of the cliff to watch the sunset.  The trail closes at sunset and the Ranger yells up at us to be  “down here!” by sunset.  That admonition causes us to turn back earlier than we would have, so the photo of Fajada Butte from atop the cliff is partially obstructed by a closer cliff.

We are off the trail just at sunset, and join Gayle, Bandhu, and John (as well as everyone else camping that night – it is crowded) in the campfire circle to hear details about the next morning’s events.  First the head ranger (the one that yelled at us) explains the traffic arrangements, then Ranger GB explains the astronomical event that will occur.  GB throws in a lot of “informed speculation” about how the Chacoans may have utilized the astronomical alignments that are being found throughout Chaco.  GB emphasizes that only two facts about Chaco Canyon are known and agreed by everyone:

  1. A thousand years ago there were people here.
  2. They built large buildings.

Ranger GB is answering many questions about ancient astronomical alignments, but I have heard most of the answers at the Night Sky program on archeoastronomy.  We call it a night.  Gates to the park open at 5:45; we agree to carpool at 6:00.


Chaco: Penasco Blanco at EveryTrail
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Chaco: Pueblo Alto Loop

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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

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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

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

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The main point of this adventure is to see the Autumn Equinox at the Chaco Culture National Monument.  I had tried to see it last year, but instead had a mishap on the way.  Also, I found that the campground was full and I would not have been able to stay there in any case.  So this year I am going earlier to assure of a spot in the campground.  It has been many years since I have been tent camping, so I expect this to be a learning experience.  I just hope I did not forget to bring something important.

The last portion of the road to Chaco is gravel. Recent rains have damaged some parts of the road.

I don't know if this is a domesticated or wild animal. Probably domesticated, as he was still in the general area five days later.

As usual, it takes longer to get going than expected.  Once started, the trip is uneventful.  The campground is reached by 4:30, and even by that time the choice tent sites were taken.  There are few empty spots by evening.  I’m glad I came Monday for the Equinox which is on Friday morning.

It had rained last week, but already the wash is dry. When I was here last year, water was flowing.

The recent rain has turned the vegetation in the wash from brown to green.

Setting up the tent is a small struggle.  I have a little scare when I can not find the tent poles at first, but they showed up.  I am setting up the stove when I find I had forgotten to bring the 20-gallon propane tank.  All is not lost, because I had bought two small propane bottles just this morning.  It was a spur of the moment purchase.  I did not think I needed these bottles because the stove and lantern could both be run off the large tank.  Now I’m happy I made that impulsive purchase.  I won’t have to eat cold food all week.

There were not many campsites free, but this one nestled against the rock became mine.

The campground host is giving a talk on ravens.

Several coyotes like this one crossed my path during the week at Chaco.

About sunset I wander to the campfire circle.  The camp host gives a campfire talk on the subject of ravens. Did you know that ravens have the largest range of vocalization, second only to humans?  A coyote wanders by during the talk, probably attracted by the recorded raven calls the speaker was playing.  The whole audience stands to try to see the beast.   A bat flutters overhead.  All this against a most beautiful sunset behind Fajada Butte.