Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Penasco Blanco

Penasco Blanco rises above Chaco Canyon
8 miles round trip, 250 feet elevation gain
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
After doing a walkthrough of Pueblo del Arroyo, I returned to the parking area and started down the wide road trail towards Kin Kletso. In a third of a mile, I came to Kin Kletso and did a quick walk around the structure. It's not possible to enter the great house of Kin Kletso, but some of the walls and elevated kivas remain in decent shape and can be seen from the boundary of the site. Additionally, the large sandstone blocks used in this McElmo masonry style building can be appreciated without a close-up approach. The name of the house means "yellow house" in the Navajo language.

Kin Kletso
At Kin Kletso, there is a fork between the Pueblo Alto and Penasco Blanco trails. I took the left fork that led along the valley floor towards Casa Chiquita and Penasco Blanco.The trail followed the base of the cliffs along the north side of the canyon, dipping briefly into an arroyo as it crossed a small wash, and passed a precariously balanced hoodoo on the north wall of the canyon.

Hoodoo along the trail
Just beyond the hoodoo, at the point where the trail left the side canyon and reentered the main canyon, I came to Casa Chiquita, about a mile from the trailhead. This small great house was largely unexcavated and didn't have many remaining features to explore. Like Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita was built late during the period of Ancestral Pueblo habitation at Chaco: it was built during one of the most phases of construction at Chaco, which ended not too long before the canyon's great houses were abandoned altogether. It's likely that the great houses were built along the north side of the canyon to maximize the amount of solar energy received; Casa Chiquita is built rather precariously at the very foot of the cliffs along the north wall.

Casa Chiquita
Leaving Casa Chiquita, the trail dipped into another small arroyo before returning to the main canyon. From this part of the trail, I was able to see the walls of Penasco Blanco, the destination of the hike, rising on the rim of the south side of the canyon.

Penasco Blanco viewed from floor of Chaco Canyon
The path past Casa Chiquita followed a Navajo wagon road later improved by Richard Wetherill, an amateur archaeologist who spent his later years in Chaco Canyon excavating the ruins here after earlier discovering Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Wetherill's tendency to sell artifacts that he collected to collectors rather than preserving them for future scientific study was a contributing factor to Congress's decision to pass the 1906 Antiquites Act, which gave the president broad powers to immediately protect landscapes of historical or scientific significance through a national monument designation. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt declared Chaco Canyon a national monument, giving a measure of federal protection to a critical piece of American heritage.

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
Most of the deeply-etched petroglyphs were left by the Ancestral Puebloans, who built the great houses of Chaco Canyon. However, there were also plenty of rock art left by later inhabitants and visitors. A few Navajo petroglyphs depicting battles on horseback were lightly etched into the stone with thin lines, contrasting with the more clearly imprinted Puebloan designs. One section of wall appeared to have been appropriated by European settlers as a visitor's log: here, names have been carved on the wall in English, with dates attributing them to visitors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some Navajo petroglyphs carved more recently show the influence of European expansion into the Southwest: one petroglyph appears to show train tracks.

Ancestral Puebloan Petroglyphs
The Petroglyph Trail rejoined the Penasco Blanco Trail half a mile after it started. I continued forward towards Penasco Blanco, crossing through another small arroyo. From here, the trail left its position hugging the north wall of the canyon, venturing out into the center of the canyon. About three miles from the trailhead, the trail made a turn to the left and dropped down into the Chaco Wash. Here, the trail crossed the wash itself: your ability to continue on the hike will depend entirely on the conditions of the wash itself. The Chaco Wash flows only occasionally: it's usually dry, but summer thunderstorms or winter snowmelt can cause create temporary flow. As a National Park Service sign warns here, crossing the Chaco Wash when it is flowing can be very dangerous: if there's any water flowing, you should turn back. If you're unsure prior to your hike whether the wash will be flowing, you can check from any of the bridges across the wash on the loop road. Even if you're used to fording river elsewhere, it's important to understand that the principal danger of fording Chaco Wash comes from the sticky mud and the possibility of sinking into and becoming stuck in the mud.

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.

Supernova Pictograph
After passing the Supernova Pictograph, the trail began to head east along the south wall of the canyon and started climbing up the the multitiered sandstone benches. Networks of tiny caves and crevices had been eroded into the canyon's sandstone walls here, making for a landscape filled with interesting shapes.

Caves along the trail to Penasco Blanco
The trail made a sharp switchback and then became less defined than before, following cairns across the rocky benches and ledges on the south side of the canyon. After circling around a small box canyon, I finally climbed up to the flat grasslands atop West Mesa. Looking forward, I could see the many walls of Penasco Blanco; looking back, I had a view deep back through Chaco Canyon; I could spot Pueblo del Arroyo and Pueblo Bonito in the distance and the walls of New Alto rising on the north side of the canyon.

Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo visible
Ahead lay the walls of Penasco Blanco, the westernmost of the great houses of Chaco Canyon. Although Penasco Blanco is largely unexcavated, there's much more to see here than at similarly unexcavated great houses such as Pueblo Alto or Tsin Kletsin: the unique round structure of Penasco Blanco was discernable as I walked around the site. Many parts of its walls remained standing and a section of standing wall included a fairly well-preserved door. As with Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito, the construction of Penasco Blanco spanned hundreds of years: work on the great house began in the tenth century and did not end until the zenith of Ancestral Puebloan civilization in the early tweflth century. This great house shares the beautiful, finely-pieced together masonry of Pueblo Bonito rather than the coarser, large-block McElmo masonry of Casa Chiquita and Kin Kletso. Penasco Blanco also lies on a straight line with both Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito: while Bonito is the largest and grandest of the great houses in Chaco Canyon, Una Vida and Penasco Blanco form bookends at either end of the canyon.

Penasco Blanco
I wandered around the site, checking out the wide circular plaza and the masonry at the doors and windows. I caught a first quarter moon rising above the walls on the west side of the house while walking the loop around the area.

Moonrise over Penasco Blanco
From the west side of Penasco Blanco, there was a sweeping view to the west of the Chaco Wash joining the Escavada Wash with the Chuksa Mountains far in the distance delineating the worlds of Chaco Canyon and Arizona's Canyon de Chelly.

View from Penasco Blanco
After surveying the landscape and studying the beautiful Penasco Blanco, I retraced my steps to the trailhead.

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