Monday, February 20, 2017

Pueblo Alto

Pueblo Bonito viewed from above
5.5 miles loop, 350 feet elevation gain
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
Unlike many of the other great houses at Chaco where it's possible to walk into the site, at Kin Kletso it was only possible to view the great house from the outside. Kin Kletso is notably built with McElmo phase masonry, a late Chaco style from the last period of construction in the canyon that used larger stones and lacked the finesse of some of the earlier masonry; it is similar in style to the masonry at Mesa Verde.

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
The trail emerged on a sandstone bench, up an initial set of cliffs from the canyon floor but still a level down from the top of the canyon. There were good views of the canyon bathed in morning light from the rim and an especially good view of Kin Kletso's layout. From here, I could make out the rectangular shape of Kin Kletso and see into its elevated kivas in a way that I was unable to from the canyon floor.

Kin Kletso's elevated kivas viewed from above
From here on, the trail was marked by cairns as it followed the canyon's north rim, making it occasionally difficult to follow. The trail generally followed the canyon rim but often made detours around box canyons of varying sizes. The hike was mostly over exposed sandstone and areas of loose sand and soil. As the trail headed eastward, Pueblo del Arroyo came into view: this great house is situated right next to the Pueblo Alto trailhead and is one of the more impressive and thoroughly-excavated great houses after Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. From the rim here, I could see through South Gap, a cut between the South and West Mesas, to see all the way across the barren New Mexico desert to Hosta Butte, far to the south. The landscape was overwhelming quiet, the silence broken only by my own footsteeps and the howl of coyotes.

Pueblo del Arroyo and South Gap
Signs along the trail pointed out some of the interesting features along the trail: one sign atop a rock indicated that the rock below had shrimp burrows, trace fossils that date to the time of the sandstone's formation, when what is today New Mexico was once a shallow sea. This sedimentary geological history has also this part of New Mexico with layers of coal and pockets of oil and gas. Oil and gas development is steadily encroaching on the park and the narrative of the Chaco landscape: just days before my visit, the Bureau of Land Management greenlighted a $3 million oil and gas lease on land near the park.

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
Returning to the junction, I decided to hike the trail counterclockwise, following the trail in the direction of the Chetro Ketl overlook. The trail went around a small box canyon and then stayed set back on a bench away from the canyon's ledge, with no views down into the canyon. The trail was at times hard to follow here, with chains of footprints often leading away from cairns. It's important to stay on trail; but at one point, while paying more attentions to the footprints before me rather than cairns, I found myself a few meters off trail at the edge of a cliff with a view down into Pueblo Bonito, where I was able to look down directly into the pueblo's many kivas.

Kivas and rooms of Pueblo Bonito
The next 0.6 miles of trail continued following the top of the bench, with few views down into the canyon. When the trail finally returned to the canyon rim, Chetro Ketl was visible below. This angle showcased the north wall of Chetro Ketl; I found a better angle after circling around a box canyon, from which I could see both the great kiva of Chetro Ketl and its interior tower kiva. The trail followed part of an ancient Chaco road while on the rim above Chetro Ketl, though it's not obvious to the untrained eye (me) how it was possible to tell the old road apart from the surrounding landscape. More easily noticeable were the remnants of a rock ramp that once led from the foot to the top of the canyon. The top and bottom of the ramp still remained at the head of the box canyon, but the middle of the ramp had collapsed in a pile of boulders at the base of the cliff.

Chetro Ketl viewed from above
A little further down the trail, the path made a sharp turn to the east and then climbed to the top of the mesa. Numerous spots here required a bit of scrambling, including a section where the trail passed through a narrow crack between two rocks. This part of the trail isn't for everyone, though most hikers who made it up through the crevice near Kin Kletso in the first place will probably be able to make it through here as well.

Scrambling route to the top of the mesa
Once atop the mesa, the trail made its way steadily northeast, generally following close to the rim of a box canyon. The views along this part of the trail were among some of the nicer views in Chaco Canyon.

Rincon along the trail
Once I reached the head of the rincon (box canyon), the trail made a turn and began to follow the western rim of the same canyon. From here, a sign marked a viewpoint where I looked across the rincon and saw a staircase made by the Chaco people. The Ancestral Pueblo built an extensive road network radiating out from Chaco; their roads were notably straight and often simply ran over obstacles rather than around them. In this particular case, the road out of this canyon led out by a staircase cut directly into the rock. These staircases are found at multiple locations throughout the canyon and can be seen from the main park road near Casa Rinconada, but the Pueblo Alto Trail is one of the better spots to see a staircase up close. The tendency of Chaco roads to run over obstacles suggested some ceremonial significance in the paths chosen: some of the paths line up exactly with cardinal directions. Use of these roads, typically constructed to widths of over 20 feet, remained practical as the Ancestral Pueblo did not transport items by wheeled vehicles or travel through the burden of domesticated animals.

Chacoan stairway
As the trail continued past the box canyon, it began a gentle climb towards the top of the flat grasslands. Looking back, I caught nice views down Chaco Canyon towards Fajada Gap and lonely Fajada Butte, home to Chaco's famous Sun Dagger Petroglyph, a spiral carved into the rock that serves as a marker for the summer and winter solstices and evidence of the advanced scientific knowledge of the Ancestral Puebloans.

Fajada Butte and Chaco Canyon
Reaching the top of the grasslands, I spotted the walls of New Alto rising off in the distance. For the next half mile, I walked through the flat high desert towards New Alto and Pueblo Alto, catching views along the way of the snowy Chuksa Mountains to the west and Hosta Butte and South Gap to the south.

New Alto, Chuksa Mountains in the distance
While New Alto's walls rose clearly above the surrounding landscape, the walls of the largely unexcavated Pueblo Alto were not immediately recognizable as a great house from a distance. Thus, I did not noticed Pueblo Alto until I was more or less right beside the site and could see some masonry sticking out of the ground. I followed the path through and around the Pueblo Alto site, which is for the most part unexcavated. Pueblo Alto is a fairly large great house with a large plaza on its south side. Compared to many of the other great houses, there's not too much to see here, although the pueblo is certainly still significant in Chaco. Pueblo Alto lies on a single meridian line with Pueblo Bonito and Tsin Kletsin on South Mesa, meaning that the three houses form a north-south line. Pueblo Alto was once a single-story great house with a small resident population that served some important ceremonial function: archaeologists have found very few hearths in the large structure, suggesting few permanent residents, but they have uncovered a remarkable amount of broken pottery in the midden (earthen pile) just east of the great house. This broken pottery is potentially from rituals involving breaking pots, mirroring customs still practiced by the modern Pueblo.

Pueblo Alto
Pueblo Alto formed the branch point for the road network heading north from Chaco. The Great North Road, a wide roadway built due north from Pueblo Alto, once stretched across the high desert for at least 40 miles and potentially reached as far as Salmon and Aztec near Farmington and Chimney Rock in Colorado. Over 400 miles of Chaco roads have been mapped; as many of these roads have more or less disappeared into the landscape, identifying them takes an extremely discerning eye. One method of identifying the roads is in changes in vegetation- soil differences between the roads and the rest of the desert leave straight lines of altered vegetation. Another is simply to identify the road traces from air: while satellites perform that job today, early attempts to map these roads included aerial surveillance by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

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
Leaving Pueblo Alto, I came to a trail junction where the left fork continued the loop, leading back towards the Pueblo Bonito overlook, and the right fork headed towards New Alto. I visited New Alto to see this small great house with relatively intact walls. New Alto was built at a relatively late stage in Chaco history, around 1100; the canyon was abandoned not too long after the house was completed. New Alto showcases McElmo masonry with its large sandstone blocks in its walls. There are a number of windows and doors at New Alto that have not yet collapsed as well as a small kiva that is largely unexcavated. While New Alto may not have been as significant of a site as Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, or Pueblo Alto, the good state of preservation of its walls makes the site enjoyable to explore.

Unexcavated kiva at New Alto
Walls of New Alto
Leaving New Alto, I returned to the main trail, which turned and headed directly south for the next half mile, descending back down into an intermediate level of the canyon and passing more remnants of Chaco roads along the way. The trail completed the loop at the Pueblo Bonito Overlook; from there, I retraced my steps from that moring and returned to the parking area.

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. 

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